On-shelf and online

Thanks to a recent post on web4lib, I came across this blog post by Karen Coyle:


I find myself in a dilemma when I go to the library, because I am cut off from my “place of work.” I go into the stacks, perhaps with a scribbled note containing a call number, and I stand in front of shelves with fewer capabilities than I have in my own home office. If I don’t find the book I want I can’t check to see if I wrote the call number correctly; I can’t look to see if there’s a “second best” book that I’d like; I can’t determine if there’s another area of the stacks where I might find something else I’d like to read; and I can’t search within the text of the bound volumes in front of me, even if digitized versions do happen to be available on-line. I stand there wishing I could go on-line.

Essentially, going into the library means leaving behind my ability to find. Yes, there are a few computers in the stacks, but they are too far away to make it possible to be usefully on-line and at the shelf at the same time.

Libraries made a great effort to get on-line and to reach out to users beyond their walls. What we haven’t done, however, is to combine the on-shelf and on-line resources in a useful way.

Very interesting points, I think. Especially when combined with the recent news that Apple is partnering with Starbucks to launch a wireless iTunes store. Basically, if you have a new wireless iPod, iPhone, or Apple laptop with wireless and iTunes, they’ll sniff out the wireless network at any nearby Starbucks. They’ll then tell you what music is playing in the Starbucks, and what the last 10 songs were, among other things. Listeners’ advisory service, over wireless, at point of need. Simple and beautiful (and likely to be profitable.)

What could libraries do to offer a similar service? Well, we could RFID our books (or chip them somehow so a wireless device could sniff them. This would make lost book searches a lot simpler–in fact, it could make stacks maps unnecessary for anyone with a wireless device, since they could just plug in which book they want, and the sniffer could lead them there. Okay, that’s way out there.) With basic RFID or some other electronic identification of print books on the shelf, the library user could then stand in the stacks and see right away:

  • where the book is (misshelved two shelves up? on a sorting cart an aisle over?)
  • reviews of the book (links to web or licensed library content, via Amazon or Lexis-Nexis or whoever)
  • suggestions for related books (classification numbers, subject headings, keywords–possibly assigned by other users)
  • cover art (so s/he can spot the book on the shelf, or appreciate the beautiful dust jacket that was removed for library processing)
  • IM with the librarians, in case the research topic has changed somewhere between the OPAC and the shelf

And probably a lot more.

There are a lot of ways we could be squeezing our stacks and computers closer together, without detriment to the books. Of course, we’d need to set up some infrastructure first–RFID or another identification system for books, strong wireless, an information standard that would talk to students’ phones, iPods, Kindles (!), and PDAs…not to mention a user-oriented website and catalog that allows comments and tagging…

I’ve created a new category for posts like this, called “blue-sky.” 🙂


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