Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Are librarians choosing to disappear from the information & knowledge delivery process?


As librarians, we frequently strive to connect users to information as seamlessly as possible.  A group of librarians said to me recently: “As librarian intermediation becomes less visible to our users/members, it seems less likely it is that our work will be recognized.  How do we keep from becoming victims of our own success?”  

This is certainly not an uncommon question or concern.  As our library collections have become virtual and as we increasingly stop housing the collections we offer, there is a tendency to see us as intermediaries serving as little more than pipelines to our members.  We have to think about where we’re adding value to that information so that when delivered to the user/member that value is recognized.  Then we need to make that value part of our brand.  Otherwise, as stated by this concern, librarians become invisible and that seems to be an almost assured way to make sure our funding does the same. As evidenced by this recently updated chart on the Association of Research Libraries website, this seems to be the track we are on currently:

What is our value-add (the high level view)?

Understanding where we add value to information is important. To express that, we should start with a high-level description of that value and then add detail to it.  I maintain, that our primary value-add is this: 

We help people create new knowledge by helping them find existing knowledge that is authoritative, authenticated and appropriate to their needs. We put that knowledge in context and provide it without bias.  This becomes the foundation upon which they create new knowledge.

That’s our focus, that’s what we do; we help people to create new knowledge using the best knowledge that is available.   Ok, admittedly, that’s a short, easy sentence but one that is packed with a lot of hard value. Think about what that means and how hard it is for systems, as sophisticated as they are, like Google, Bing or Yahoo to provide those things. 

On top of that core value statement, we build other services that extend the value to meet the needs of the organization we’re affiliated with, be it a community, a college or a university.  However, even while doing that we must focus and be sure we’re moving towards the overall mission and vision of librarianship.  This is critically important.

Before going further, it should also be realized this isn’t anything new. Maybe we’ve temporarily forgotten or lost it, but it isn’t new. For instance, back in 1962, Wheeler and Goldhor, in their book the “Practical Administration of Public Libraries”  told us (and I’ve updated it only by substituting the word “information” for “books” and the emphasis is mine as well): 
“The library’s functions and programs derive from the conviction that [information] is a powerful, indispensible agent for bringing enlightenment, new knowledge, encouragement and inspiration to every member of the community. … The quickest and easiest access to the world’s best thought is through the library.”  
It’s also fascinating to flip through this book and scan some of the sub-section headers in various chapters.  If you do, you’ll find things like:
“A relentless drive to dispel ignorance…” “Objective:  To serve individuals” “The Library’s Prime Educational Function” “Serve the whole community” “Understand one’s community” “The Influence of Non-Users of the Library” “PR and Publicity; An Essential Part of Administration” “PR outside the library.” “Knowledge of Community Interests”
Those could be right off any modern day library list of management issues.  My point here being that over the last 50 years our focus has apparently become blurred, if not obscured and now it is time to refocus so that members of our libraries clearly see and understand our value in helping them create knowledge.   Delivering information, in and of itself, is simply not enough.  People have access to plenty of information (and misinformation) and most of those sources used are far easier to access and use than most libraries.  So we’ve got to move to a higher level of valued services, and I submit that what I described above (and in the past) gives us a place to hang our hats.

What is our value-add (the ground level view)?

Ok, for the sake of discussions let’s agree that’s the high-level view.  The logical follow-on question becomes: How do you translate that value add statement into what we actually need to be doing in our jobs today?

The first thing to do is to step back from all the activities you do in your job and ask:  Are these activities showing, in ways that can be measured, support of that high-level view?  To quote a colleague of mine: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”   It’s a firm reminder that some people do a lot of activities only because they’ve always have been done, or to support some out-of-date need.  If those activities don’t directly tie to value statement, they’ve got to be put on a list to cease doing at the first logical opportunity.    We’ve got to boil down the internal activities of the library to just those activities that support our professional and organizational goals.  This will help us deal with reduced funding by allowing us to take the resources, money, staff and time that were being devoted to those activities where we don’t add value and reallocate them to where we DO provide value.  It will allow us to do those core activities, as well as new ones we should be doing, but didn’t think we could afford, and do them better than anyone else. Our end goal should always be to become the best at providing those particular services for our library members.  Now, what are some of those possibilities?

To answer that question with just a specific list of products would be to miss the point. Going forward, we should be focusing on more fine-grained service goals and objectives and then selecting technology that supports those goals/objectives.  For instance, in today’s (2012) environment, I think we should be focusing on providing products that support these types of services:

  1. Access to the library collections and services from any device, at anytime from anywhere. (Mobile products)
  2. Massive aggregates of information that have been selected for inclusion because of their quality by either: a) librarians, or b) filtered by communities of users through ranking systems and ultimately reviewed and signed-off by librarians for final inclusion in those aggregates. (Cloud computing products are the foundation technology here)
  3. Discovery workbenches or platforms that allow the library membership to discover existing knowledge and build new knowledge in highly personalized manners. (Discovery products serve as the foundation, but they don't yet have the necessary extensions)
  4. Easy access and integration of the full range of library services into other products they use frequently, such as course or learning management systems, social networking, discussion forums, etc.  (Products that offer rich API’s, extensive support of Apps and standards to support all types of other extensions)
  5. Contextual support, i.e. the ability for librarianship to help members understand the environment in which a particular piece of work was generated (for instance, Mark Twain’s writings, or scientific research—is this a peer reviewed publication? Who funded it and what are their biases?) is an essential value-add we provide.  Some of this is conveyed by the fact that the item is in collections we provide access to, but other aspects of this will require new products we’ve yet to see.
  6. Unbiased information. I've written about this in another post and I strongly believe we aren’t conveying the distinction we offer our members by providing access to knowledge that is not biased by constructs based on data unknown and inaccessible to them.   This is a huge differentiator and we must promote and ensure is understood.  If we do decide to use filtering technologies, and there are strong arguments this is necessary to meet the need of providing “appropriate” knowledge, then we should provide members with the ability to see and/or modify the data driving that filtering.  I’ve yet to see the necessary technology or products that provides good answers here.  
  7. Pro-active services (Analytics).  David Lankes makes the point in many of his presentations (here is one) that library services need to be far more pro-active.  He and I couldn’t agree more.   We need go get out there in front of our member needs.  Someone is up for tenure?  Let’s go to their office.  Find out what they need and get it to them.  (Analytic tools, coupled with massive aggregates of data are going to enable us to do this and a lot more.)

If we can get this list done, our value-add to information will be well underway and will become increasingly obvious to our library membership.  However, that will take a long time to permeate everywhere we need it to be understood.    So that alone won’t be enough to stop us from disappearing in our members’ eyes.  We’ll have to accompany that foundational work with some promotion and marketing so they know what we’re doing for them and where to find it.   An excellent work to examine for ideas is: “Marketing today’s academic library” by Brian Mathews.


If we do the above, we will choose to differentiate our services from those of other information providers and we’ll be seen as THE place too go to create new knowledge by helping them find the existing knowledge that is authoritative, authenticated and appropriate to their needs. They’ll understand that we put that knowledge in context and provide it to our members without bias. That’s value that our members will easily understand and fund and that will prevent us from  disappearing in the information and knowledge delivery process. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Turning discovery systems into knowledge workbenches

(c) iStockphoto
I’ve been advocating for some time now, that the existing discovery systems being used in libraries, while good, are entirely too focused on discovering knowledge and information that already exists.   What I want is a discovery workbench that helps me to discover and develop new knowledge by providing me seamless integration with all the tools I need to use in that creation process. 

What reminded me of this was a post today on Digital Book World blog, entitled “Steal this Idea” which contains a kernel of what I’ve been advocating which is a way to publish a book, as a community process ( a process that was used in part in the writing of the book “We are smarter than Me.”  It’s a interesting book and this latest blog post certainly contains an interesting idea by author, Nate Hill of the San Jose Public Library, has put on the table.

So what are some of the elements of a discovery workbench that would help us create new knowledge?  I think it would contain things like:  a) seamless integration of word processing software, so that you can quickly move between reading the digital text and then quoting it or citing it, b) the automatic generation (or one button) generation of bibliography and footnote citations, c) access to the data sets behind the research and, at the same time, access to a suite of tools to allow you to work with copies of those same data sets for your own research, d) integration with CMS and LMS systems so I can potentially interact with instructors as I work, e) support of open access and peer reviewed publication process steps and of course, e) integration with social media tools so that you can discuss/debate ideas in those forums as you’re developing your them (should you want to do that, obviously if it’s cutting edge research, you might not want to tell anyone else!).  

I think if we want to make our libraries and librarianship more central in members’ lives, we should see our discovery systems as knowledge workbenches, not just discovery tools. 

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Analyzing analytics and their role in the future of librarianship

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The word “analytics” is increasingly appearing in library literature, library product and marketing brochures and in library conference topics.   A quick search for the term in Google might result in you thinking analytics is solely about websites and something invented by Google since their Analytics product is one of the most frequently cited.   (This is because it is free to use and countless websites do use it to determine the success of the website in reaching end-users and how much time they spend their and countless other details).   

However, analytics is actually a much bigger field than that would imply and is truly an important field for librarians to understand.  Why?  Because in a time when libraries are being economically squeezed, asked to show value and to do things more efficiently and effectively, analytics are a very powerful tool for achieving those goals.  (For a quick overview of the basics of analytics, this article in SASCOM Magazine, 1st Qtr. 2010, gives a good quick summary of some of the major components).  

Analytics will allow us to both understand where we are currently being efficient and effective with our services and for understanding how we can increase the demand for those services in order to increase our efficiency and effectiveness.  Furthermore, using analytics will allow us to build a relationship with the members of our libraries and to modify their habits to result in the library and librarianship being seen as the primary place to go for high quality information and knowledge related services. 

Real Life Possibilities

This past Sunday’s (Februrary 16, 20122) New York Times contained a very interesting article entitled: How Companies Learn Your Secrets. The article covers the use of analytics and how they’re being used to influence our purchasing habits.    While the article is very enlightening purely from that point of view, what it brought to the forefront of my thinking was the importance of analytics for librarianship and the future of our profession.  For instance, if you read that article and just substitute “library” for the word “Target” and various information services for the products sold by Target, you find some amazing parallels.  For instance, I quote the following paragraph where I’ve substituted library terms [in brackets] for the original article shopping terms, and when you do, you get:  
“Most [members] don’t [get] everything they need at one [location]. Instead, they [get information from Facebook or Google] and [advice from friends], and they visit [libraries] only when they need certain items they associate with [libraries] — [books], say, or [videos] or a [magazine]. But [libraries offer] everything from [datasets] to [articles] to [analysis] to [counter-viewpoints], so one of the [library’s] primary goals is convincing [members] that the only [location] they need is [the Library]. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once [members’] habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.”
You can do this in large part, with the entire article.  Which applies, not only to the descriptions of the problem analytics are trying to solve, but the way they’re being used to solve the problems.   Again, let’s borrow the wording from the article and substitute some words to demonstrate this point:
“We knew that if we could identify them [as children], there’s a good chance we could capture them for years, as soon as we get them [using information resources] from us, they’re going to start [using] everything else too.”
“[Libraries or library organizations] can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.”
“Almost every [library could have] a “predictive analytics” department devoted to understanding not just [members’ usage] habits but also their personal habits, so as to more efficiently [offer services to] them. We’re living through a golden age of behavioral research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now.”
“When some [members] were going through a major life event, like [entering or] graduating from college or getting a new job or moving to a new town, their [information usage] habits became flexible in ways that were both predictable and potential [opportunity for librarians]. The study found that when someone [enters college], he or she is more likely to start [needing authoritative information].[Members] going through major life events often don’t notice, or care, that their [information needs] have shifted, but [librarians can] notice, and they [should] care quite a bit. At those unique moments, customers are “vulnerable to intervention by [information] marketers.” In other words, a precisely timed [suggestion about an information source], can change someone’s [information usage] patterns for years.” 
“We’ve developed a number of research tools that allow us to gain insights into trends and preferences within different demographic segments of our [member] population.”
What I think this exercise and argument suggests is that if we were to perform the same kind of analysis that companies are doing to anticipate our purchasing needs and behaviors, and then applied our findings to our library member needs for information, we could provide a new level of pro-active services to those library members that would help ensure the value of librarianship in their minds. 

The Challenges

Do we face some of the challenges in doing this?  Absolutely.  Here are several major ones that quickly come to mind:

  1. Privacy.  The cartoon character Pogo reminded us, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”  Anytime you start down the path of building detailed profiles of users, as librarians, we tend to dive behind the shield of being the super-protectionists of privacy.  Yet, as the article shows and the rephrasing above suggests, that information is readily available and is for sale to be used by organizations of all types.  Why not libraries?  Furthermore, our users provide information to companies like Amazon in return for convenience.  I’ve argued in a previous post that privacy is not a yes/no decision, it is a series of informed choices and I still believe that is the case.  We’re crippling our ability to give service because we don’t want to ask the members if they’re willing to give up some of their privacy in return for convenience (or easier, faster answers to some of their reference queries).  Yet in many, if not most cases, that’s a deal most members would willingly make (and already have with many organizations far less trustworthy than a library service organization).
  2. Data aggregation.  For analytics to work well, one requirement is that a truly massive body of data needs to be accumulated upon which the analytic tools can mine while looking for relationships upon which predictions can be made.  Cloud computing is going to facilitate this massively, as it inherently brings data together into a commons settings where it can be easily shared.   When you stop and think about it, we already have some fairly large collections of data hosted in the cloud with organizations like OCLC.   Furthermore, as their WorldShare system spins up, they will be in an even better position to use analytics to show some truly innovative ideas.  Other organizations like Ex Libris with their Alma system, and Serials Solutions with their Intota system will do the same.   Of course, the question is: Will libraries strongly support moving into the cloud and letting their data be used in this manner? Even if some libraries resist, other – often larger and busier research libraries – may start arraying data to make it easier to reclaim and use for individual organizational purpose. However, given the economic pressures of our times and the need to show value, my guess is that this will be an assured result, even if it takes some time to happen.  We need to remember that collaboration is something libraries have long done well and they will see that extending collaboration into this sphere will make a lot of sense.  Plus collaboration can often be very informal.  As new cloud data options occur, we should see many libraries adopt more formal collaboration on data rules of engagement.
  3. The Cost of Analytic Engineers/Statisticians.  As the NY Times article referenced above points out: “It’s like an arms race to hire statisticians nowadays. Mathematicians are suddenly sexy.” Furthermore, “As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist”.   Another article earlier this month in the NY Times, also talked about this new job area and the demand for people, in even greater detail.   We all know that most libraries struggle to pay existing IT staff enough money to retain them.   How in the world are they going to do that with a hot new profession that is in demand all over the country?!?  So, what are libraries to do here?  Again, I believe this is a place where collaboration is the answer.  This is the perfect place for libraries to work together, either in consortia or through other collaborative organizations (again OCLC would seem a very logical choice) in order to generate the financial wherewithal to fund the hiring of this kind of talent and to create a distribution system for readily sharing the results. 

If you’re not yet familiar with Analytics, starting with Google’s Analytic product is an excellent idea.   It’s free, lots of materials have been written about how to use and interpret the data and it provides a solid basis for understanding the capabilities of this kind of technology, at least at an introductory level.  Just remember however, that what is possible, given the emerging cloud computing solutions and accompanying data aggregations, is a far more complex and powerful set of possibilities and it will require people who’ve got both the training and understanding of data as well as the associated tools in order to exploit the possibilities more fully.   

Analytics are here to stay and they are already being fully embraced by businesses in their day-to-day operations.  As librarians, I don’t think this is a trend where we should be laggardly in our response. The aggregated data we need to drive the analytics will come as a result of the increasing move to cloud computing solutions.   We will need to get over our privacy concerns and give our library members choices in this area.  Plus we need to avail ourselves of the already existing resources that can be utilized or purchased in order to tailor member services (while always giving the member ultimate control over how the data is used).  We need to work through our collaborative organizations to find ways to hire the analytical engineers needed to help us push forward in building new innovative services; services that are pro-active and clearly establish that librarianship has meaning and value for our members by providing information that is authenticated, authoritative, appropriate, with context and without bias.   Analytics will ultimately give us the possibility of building new data-oriented relationships with individuals and groups of new members to benefit them, your library and you as a professional librarian.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Academic Librarians – I need your help!

I’m a member of the newly reconstituted LITA Technology and Industry Interest group being Co-Chaired by Marshall Breeding (Vanderbilt University) and Matt Goldner (OCLC).  We’re developing a white paper on best practices or suggested guidelines for librarians when implementing cloud computing solutions.  As part of this, we’re trying to build a list of products by type and name that your institution would expect a cloud computing library management product to interface with via API’s, Web Services or through other standardized interfaces.   Please post a comment, or send me an email message telling me all the types of systems your library is using and, if you don’t mind, the product and vendor names.  For instance list the ERM, digital repository, administrative, distance education, course management, learning management, authentication, authorization, etc. systems used on your campus.  

Note that we’re also looking for more librarians to become involved in this group as our membership is currently a bit vendor heavy.   Check out the URL’s below and if you’re interested, please let me, Marshall Breeding or Matt Goldner know by sending one of us a message.

IG Web site: https://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/lita/involve/igs/industry/lit-igven.cfm
E-Mail List: http://lists.ala.org/sympa/info/lita-industryig

Also, a note for regular readers of this blog.   It came to my attention that the RSS and Email notifications of this blog were pointing to the old location, which of course is no longer valid.  So, I've corrected this, but if you like to receive RSS or Email notifications it will mean you need to sign up for them again.  Sorry for the inconvenience.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The “L Word"

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As part of my consulting work, I recently had a wonderful experience where I got to meet with the “Vision Group” of a forward looking academic library.  Their Director had charged them to come up with some ideas about where the future of librarianship, and therefore the library, should take them.   In meeting with me, they’d prepared a number of well thought out questions, some of which I’ll make use of in later posts.  Today I want to take on their question about the “L Word”, which of course refers to their concern about the appropriateness and the desirability of continuing the use of the word “library” in describing who they are and what they do.

I’ll admit that over the years, I’ve swung back and forth in this debate like the pendulum on a clock.  However, with years of experience in both librarianship and marketing/promotion now behind me, I’m firmly in the corner of continued usage –- provided, we redefine what it means.   Here is my thinking:
  1. Using words like “information” or “knowledge” in the description of our profession will quickly result in us being lumped into a stew of job descriptions and understanding where it will be hard to distinguish the unique ingredients that are our value-add.  Just think about all the variations of job titles we hear with regard to “Information Technology” jobs or “Knowledge Management” jobs.  No, “library” still has strong and unique identification, even if it is currently problematic for us.  Let’s examine that problem next.

  2. “Library” has, in all too many minds, become identified with “books” and that's a problem.   OCLC’s Perceptions 2010 report verified this when it stated: “Americans… believe -- overwhelmingly – that libraries equal books.” Furthermore, they stated it was an even stronger brand identification in 2010 than it was in 2005.  The report concludes that librarians should “Embrace the brand. Extend the experience.  Connect the dots.”  Perhaps.  However, I fear that means we’ll move away from it all together too slowly.  In my mind, and certainly in the minds of our users, books are but ONE vehicle out of many, that we use to communicate our vast warehouses of information and knowledge to our members.  As librarians, we’re coming from way behind in brand identification and embracing books is to continue to embrace the past.   We should be actively working to help people understand that:

    • Libraries represent the best information and knowledge available (Unbiased information/knowledge that is authoritative, appropriate, authenticated and given with context).  That library represents, just like an Olympic pole-vaulter, information that has cleared a high bar in order to be included in the information we provide access to.  This is a unique value for our members.
    • Librarians endeavor to provide information/knowledge in a variety of packages (visual, textual, auditory and tactile), which we do in order to facilitate the members’ ability to consume and use it in a way that is most useful for them. 
    • With member support of their libraries, librarianship is hard at work to ensure the above is provided to them anytime, anyplace on any device of their choosing.
    • Librarianship, by definition, implies some level of subject knowledge across all of human knowledge.  We can help our members to find alternative viewpoints, other places where knowledge intersects and has unknown, but potentially high, value and where informed and intelligent discussions can be found, held and encouraged to broaden the knowledge.
    • Finally, librarianship is about helping create new knowledge, using existing knowledge and information as the springboard.  We provide access to that high quality information and increasingly we should be providing access to tools to facilitate members creating new knowledge for themselves and others. 

So, yes – we should continue to use the term “librarian” proudly.   What we should not do is to continue the past trends of letting the “L words” languish.   Look at your physical building; look at your virtual presence; look at how you and your team interact with the members of the library.  

Are all those things/activities conveying, underscoring and driving home the value-add to information that librarianship represents?  If not, it is time to fix it.  I’m seriously hoping that the next OCLC Perceptions Report will show we’ve succeeded in this task.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Interesting to note a new ILS is arriving in North America…

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Most people would think the North American market is well saturated when it comes to integrated library systems.  I would tend to agree.  So when someone announces they are going through the expense and work of bringing a new ILS to this market, and that customers are already signing up for it, that's cause for curiosity.

Today’s press release announces that Soutron Global led by CEO, Tony Sadat, and Soutron Limited, led by Founder and Managing Director, Graham Beastall, have formed an alliance to bring the suite of Soutron products to special libraries, information centers and law libraries in North America.  

When the press release arrived, I’ll admit I looked at the headline and felt some strong skepticism because it promises things like “transformation” and “game changing.”   After reading the press release one time through, I was still trying to find what it was that deserved such accolades.  After re-reading it a second time, it occurred to me that perhaps they have some basis for their claim after all.   

What this press release might be showing an understanding of, is that most existing ILS products today are truly at commodity status.  They all work well and with reasonable due diligence on the part of the buyer, there are enough viable alternatives that a solution that will meet the buyer’s specific needs can be found, installed and will work.   Yet, despite that, Marshall Breeding’s recent Perceptions 2011 report shows the market is not beyond considering alternatives and out of the 2,432 surveyed for that report, some 566 libraries  (23% of the respondents) indicated they were considering migrating to a different system.

So maybe today’s library marketplace is beginning to show greater understanding and appreciation for the fact that it matters who the people are behind the company and product.   Indeed, here is where Soutron seems to be hanging their hats because they talk about "inspirational leadership that listens to their customers" and that "puts customer service at the heart of what they do."   That can be a huge differentiator in a market where solutions are seen as commodities and while  many library solution providers are steadily reducing headcount. Often, seemingly without fully understanding the importance to the customers of the deep relationships and service that were supported by those very same people.  

Despite the flowery headlines, if Soutron’s team can live up to the reputation they have earned in previous positions, then perhaps there is room for another ILS in this market, one that might even grow rapidly.  Simply through differentiating themselves by primarily focusing on customer needs and their team.  I personally believe this has strong potential to be a long-term, winning strategy.  

Monday, February 6, 2012

A key librarianship differentiator: Finding information without bias

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Yesterday’s New York Times contained another chilling article entitled: “Facebook is using you” that tells us how we, as individuals, are having our lives shaped by massive data aggregations that describe us and over which we have little, if any, control.  In the article are examples of how profiles derived from these aggregations are shaping hiring decisions, credit limits and of particular interest to librarians, the information we’re seeing when we search online. 

We’re all painfully aware that as librarians, the volume of information that we need to process, sort and select from in order to provide meaningful search results to our users is rapidly exceeding our ability to do so.   At the last Charleston Conference, Cliff Lynch, Executive Director of CNI pointed out “a scientific paper is published every 1 or 2 minutes.”  Eric Schmidt is on record as saying: “If you recorded all human knowledge from the dawn of time to 2003, it’d take up about 5 billion gigabytes of storage space.  Now we’re creating that much data every two days.”   Anyway you look at it, as librarians grappling with all that information, we need to find new ways, using new technology to sort through all of this in order to best serve the needs of our library membership.

One piece of new technology that is increasingly being used is that of personalized searches.  Google first introduced the phrase “personalized search” in 2004.  Then in 2009, Google announced the availability of personalized Search. Google’s technology was that it would use dozens upon dozens of “signals” to personalize search results for individuals.  It sounded like a promising idea. However, as I always encourage librarians to remember, the primary need for Google is to sell ads and that is VERY different from that of librarians whose primary need is to help their membership to build knowledge.

If you haven’t yet had the chance to read the book called “The Filter Bubble; What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, I strongly encourage you to do so. It is truly an eye-opening revelation on the dangers of personalized searching if used without knowledge and forethought on the part of both the information supplier and the information consumer.  (If you’re an audio/visual person, there is a 10 minute talk on the same topic by the author over on the TED site.

Pariser’s book lays out the problem within the first few pages:  Personalized search, as used by Google, means the same search, by two different individuals, could display radically different results as shaped by the criteria that Google (not the individual) has determined makes up their description of you.  The book goes on to explore the sources of some of those signals and how they will be utilized in shaping that “description” of you.  Then it examines the consequences of this type of searching on learning, politics, individuals, etc.

I’ll admit, some of those sources of Google’s signaling information were completely new to me and I found it deeply disturbing not only to see the extent of the information they’re using, but the ways they use it to shape the search results presented to me.

According to the book, one source of these “signals” that Google uses is a company called Acxiom.  Pariser tells us:
“Here’s what Acxiom knows about 96 percent of American households and half a billion people worldwide; the names of their family members, their current and past addresses, how often they pay their credit card bills, whether they own a dog or cat (and what breed it is), whether the are right-handed or left-handed, what kinds of medication they use (based pharmacy records)… the list of data points is about 1,500 items long.”  
Out of all this information that Acxiom has, Google apparently distills it down to some 56 items they’ll use to define you.  (You might also want to read this book to find out how other companies beyond Google, are using this information as well. That’s also a major eye-opener but it’s tangential to this post).

At a pure marketing level, we’re lead to believe this kind of searching has the potential to be good. The goal, according to the marketing, is to be able to quickly move, to the front of search results, those items, which appear are most likely of interest or import to you as an individual.  While that makes sense, we need to remember, it’s based on a description (made up of signals) of you that you do NOT control and apparently can only modify over long periods of time by behaving differently as you use the Web.

So what if you are someone who only has a high school diploma as an educational certificate?  Do you think someone of that intellectual caliber should only see materials calibrated to that level of achievement?  Or what if your income level is lower than that of the super-wealthy (an increasing concern for many in today’s society)?  Should you, or should you not, see the same results shown to those individuals?  Now you might say; Look they’ve got at least 1,500 data elements on you (in the case of Google, narrowed down to 56) and you don’t know what they are, nor do you know the algorithms by which they are correlated, compiled and/or utilized.  So it’s virtually impossible to say how these are controlling what you’ll see. You’d be absolutely right.  It also means that when you do a search on the Web, you don’t know what’s defining you.  Nor do you know how it is being used to decide what will be included and more specifically, what will be excluded in presenting results to your search.  The book does an excellent job of talking about all the ways this can be very problematic for people and the societies in which they live.  It’s a very compelling read.  But let’s narrow this conversation to libraries, librarians and our member communities and what the “Filter Bubble” means for Librarianship.

Librarians are, as we noted above dealing with the same information explosion. They have the task of distilling out of all the information available that which is the most authoritative, appropriate, authenticated and placed in context that will meet the library member needs.  So, librarians and their suppliers are also examining how to use information to personalize search results.

However, herein lies the difference, because this is a place where librarians can differentiate themselves and where they demonstrate their value.  Because now we need to amend the sentence above to say our job is to: Present without bias the information available which is the most authoritative, appropriate, authenticated and placed in context that will meet the library member needs. 

This is a real opportunity for librarianship.   We have the chance to clearly differentiate the service we provide as opposed to those of Google, Facebook and many others.   It has always been, and will continue to be, at the core of our mission to provide free and unfettered access to all information deemed worthy of being in a library’s domain without restriction based upon economics, race, class or gender. 

So in order to combine that mission with this new technology means using a different approach.   Pariser, in his TED video, says that those serving as gatekeepers to information must code into their algorithms not only that which is “relevant, but also that which is important, uncomfortable, challenging and represents other points of views.”  That’s not a bad list.  

As librarians, when we start using personalized searching we need to ensure that we provide easy-to-use switches that allow the user to turn-off specific or parameters.  Perhaps we should be looking at slider controls that allow the user to adjust the parameters to represent different ranges of personalized searching.  For instance, freshman to doctoral, liberal to conservative, rich to poor, “A” student to “F” student and so on.  Certainly the more challenging functions would be to have a slider bar that says this is Viewpoint A, now show me the 180-degree opposing viewpoint. 

If we do those things, we'll be providing the community, students, faculty and staff with that which we’ve largely provided them for years:  A unbiased supply of information that will challenge them to grow, learn, apply and create new knowledge.  Technology is a wonderful tool and in the face of our many challenges, we need to use it.  However, we also need to stay focused on our mission in order to ensure our continuing value.  

Personalized searching without control by the end-user is dangerous. Personalized searching with control by the end-user is powerful.  Make sure you understand the difference and make sure the technology you put in place gives you the capability to continue to support the core mission of librarianship.