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Day 12 of blog every day in June 2012

Sharr medal presentation – Enhancing Access to Digital Collections
Molly Tebo, Sharr Medallist 2011

This is the talk I presented at my interview for the Sharr Medal and reprised at the award ceremony. The prezi to accompany the talk can be found here:

The world is going online. Increasingly people are turning to the internet to seek information and answer their questions. This trend includes parts of our collections, here is a digitised manuscript from the National Library that has been given greater reach by being made available online.

But what about browsing? Historically one of the reasons people were drawn to libraries was the serendipity of looking through the shelves to find something of interest. This is more difficult on an iPad.

The quote “The opacity of digital collections is frustrating” is something most Librarians would agree with. What I find noteworthy about this quote is that it is from a paper published in 1997 and arguably not much has changed. Some of the current methods we give people for finding online material aren’t very intuitive for users. If you were looking for an Indian cookbook on a library catalogue, you probably wouldn’t think to look under the subject heading: Cooking, Indic.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom though, Libraries are increasingly finding new ways to connect people to ideas through multiple points of access. My first example of this is the State Library of NSW website which features a large and obvious block on the right hand side promoting their online collections. Next up is Trove, a fantastic interface that helps people search across the contents of Australian Libraries. It highlights different types of items and gives visual results.

New York Public Library (NYPL) have very cleverly created virtual shelves to give clients the browsing experience without having to visit a physical branch. Curtin University Library are showing excellence in professional service (one of ALIA’s core values) with the app that they created for smartphones. I’ve used this app as a student at Curtin and found it very useful to get information and do catalogue searches.

I was impressed to find ALIA leading the way on Pinterest, a fairly new social media service that involves pinning pictures to virtual pinboards. I also found Yarra Plenty Library on there and was interested to see that they labelled their boards in Dewey order. This is very cute, but it might be more useful to clients if they also add titles to them.

One example that I’m thrilled by is the library game created by NYPL. They invited 500 young people to stay the night in their main branch and explore their collections with the help of a specially created app. Groups competed to find clues and unlock more information, it sounded amazing. The app is still available for people to use to explore the Library in an interactive way.

So these examples are very encouraging, but what else can we do to make our online collections more accessible? One method is geotagging; this involves adding geographic information to photos, maps, archives or just about anything. This can help clients find information local to them or specific to a particular area using a map interface. The example here shows photos from the NLA collection from Bondi beach, geotagged using Flickr an online photo sharing website.

Next up is timelines. This example is from the World Digital Library and shows collection items organised in chronological order. This is interesting for people to explore and can help add context. For fiction collections, genre maps can be a useful tool. This method can help people gently step away from their reading comfort zone and also helps respect the diversity of interests of clients. It can be helpful for readers who aren’t sure how to go about selecting a novel to read.

The next example is a frivolous one from Star Wars that shows influence mapping. This indicates how items or events inspire or are inspired by others. It could equally be done with composers, authors, etc. Another way of helping clients to find things is to allow user tagging of collection items. When done well, this can add rich levels of additional data to items and greatly increase their usefulness to specific communities. The Powerhouse museum is having a lot of success with this approach.

The point I’m trying to make with most of these examples is that information wants to be free. The more different means we can give our users to interact with our collections and create their own notes and pathways, the more useful and well used it becomes. One of the key ways of doing this is to provide an API or application program interface. An API is a way of letting other websites or computer programs make use of information from yours. Websites such as Flickr and Twitter provide APIs to allow others to create mobile phone apps and other innovative platforms to give users new ways of utilising their service. If Libraries provide APIs, our clients will have the means of using our data in interesting and innovative ways that probably haven’t even occurred to us! As you can see from the graph, use of APIs is growing greatly in recent years.

Well it all sounds like a great deal of work doesn’t it? That’s where Library partnerships can come in. Very few Libraries will have the resources to make many of these things happen on their own but they may well have the interest and expertise to manage one or two. Between us, we can achieve more than you might think. Strategically it is a good time to look at these sorts of digital access questions. Western Australia is looking at implementing a statewide Library Management System for all public Libraries. What better time to consider the additional services it could offer clients?

I’ll end with a picture of Ali Sharr. He was very forward thinking in his time and oversaw the rollout of Libraries across WA. I think if he was here today, he would be excited by the possibilities and would be urging us to get on with it.

Thank you.

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