From user to participant

The digital revolution currently taking place in the Open Library and in other digital public library projects is entirely based on the analysis of user needs. For a long time a library was synonymous with its physical location, a building. Admittedly, a building encompassing a universe within its walls; nevertheless, a placewhich people would occasionally visit and where the social context is limited to the people who happen to be there at the same time. With the advent of the digital library all this has changed.

The library building still exists, yet by using a computer, a cell phone or an ereader; you can physically visit the library but also at any time use the library digitally and share your reading experiences with other digital users from all over the country. The library is evolving towards a digital book club where the sharing of knowledge, book tips and reviews can flow both between users and between digital librarians and users. The flow can also be appliedfor services, such as sending a purchase suggestion when a particular book cannot be found in a collection, or make a search request to a librarian who is working an online shift.

The Open Library provides a common database in which digital informationsuch as book reviews and ratings are created by many individual libraryusers and librarians across the countryand appear in other digital libraries than those they were initially createdat. If a visitor to Mölndal, on the Swedish west coast logs on to the digital library searching information about a particular book, a book review writtenby a librarian from say, Stockholm might be displayed next to its cataloguerecord, and perhaps a number of reviews and ratings from other readers who are library users from all over thecountry. The user from Mölndal may want to write a review after having borrowed and read the book, which isthen added to other user- generated material that is stored about this title.

The development of the Open Library came about as a consequence when the website called The Library at the Stockholm Public Library was created in 2005. The web project had a strong focus on increased user influence and cocreativity; it became known as Web 2.0, which led to the explosive development of social features such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.

For the Stockholm Public Library, it was about involving staff in making the site a vibrant meeting place and not just a showcase for its collections of media. By writing about books and other media, it was felt that librarians could display their skills towards theusers on the website, to invite users to participate in a dialogue. The user could also log on and use an alias towrite reviews or give ratings. It opened up a flood of information from sources other than the library’s own. For instance, by using comparative price information sites for library books it would give the user the choice of possibly getting in line to borrow a book or to buy it and have it sent home. An idea not entirely uncont- roversial in the library community, but which received an enormous response among library users and contributed to the feeling of an open flow involving literature, media and knowledge.

When plans for the new website were completed, questions were asked by other libraries from the smaller municipalitieswith smaller budgets about the possibility to do the same. In the region of Umeå the local politicians came to a unique decision to cooperate across municipal boundaries enabling a similar venture to that in Stockholm to be realized. They are now offering the website ‘My Libraries’ shared by six municipalities, providing its residents with the opportunity to digitally locate and communicate among library collections across municipal boundaries. As for the rest of the country the Open Library became a way for all of Sweden’s public libraries (and university libraries) to retrieve and display content that was produced by others than their own employees and registered users.

The premise is a technical infrastructure that can receive, store and distribute content related to a particular title, author or other keywords, and a so-called creative commons license for free usage of the material under certain conditions. In addition to the technological platform at the Open Library it is also necessary that librarians and users may enter information using templates, interfaces on library websites or using alternative digital channels.

This is where a collaborative venture with another development project: Boktips.net in the region of Västra Götaland, resulted in staff at nearly 140 public libraries throughout Sweden being given the opportunity to further their skills in the art of writing for the web and given access to basic templates in which to place their self-produced content.

The Open Library has grown to include nearly 5,000 book reviews, and beyond that a large quantity of ratings and reviews from users. The basic idea was to focus on the library’s large selection of books and other media presenting the library’s cultural events, services and librarian knowledge related to them. Moreover, this was to create an open community without hierarchies where users have the same opportunities to share their knowledge as do librarians, and by creating ‘tags’ to tag their books according to their own keywords and categories, instead of being coerced to use libraries’ subject headings. The digital library has thus moved the library from a physical entity where librarians determine a meeting place without walls, open 24/7, where all users possess the same tools to find, collect and share knowledge and reading experiences. Here you can see a clear development of the library’s role in taking the leap into the digital world, in some ways a revolution of sorts by stealth. Library users have evolved from merely borrowing books to actually participating.

In order to expand the service of materials available for children and adolescents, collaboration was initiated between the Open Library and the Children’s Library, which is a national web-site for children. Children grade books and collect their favorite books on their own page, play games, answer book queries and meet authors via filmed sequences. Some book reviews are available as talking books or by using sign language. Children may submit their own questions to an authorand receive advice about their own writing.

Both the Stockholm City Library and the Open Library have during the pastyear consciously worked with surveys and target group analysis to create a foundation for its future development which is wholly based on user needs. At first, the target group analysis was made for digital content, but recently it has been noted that target group analysis has spread into the development of the physical libraries as well.

The consultancy firm InUse that specializes in using a method called impact survey has by using in-depth interviews produced some different so-called ‘personas’, each symbolizing different user behavior at a library, both digitally and in physical space. The target groups are not demographic but should be viewed as a group of users with similar needs and usage patterns. A user can go in and out of different target groups depending on the need at the moment.

Among the target groups identified for the digital library’s visitors are of course the large group of book lovers, divided into subgroups, such as theTop List reader, the Niche reader and the Side track reader. Whereas the Top List reader wants to read whatever everyone else is reading at the moment and is willing to discuss his reading with likeminded, the side track reader may add a much- discussed title to his extensive digital book list but will certainly not read it while it is still being discussed. Using features such as metadata the side track reader may instead make use of serendipitous associations and thereby delve deeper into older parts of library holdings, as has been described in the book The Long Tail.

The Niche reader operates in a similar manner, but is more dependent on asystematic feature showing links between media and writers of the samegenre, while the Top list reader willhappily select an e-book if the most talked about title is on loan and uses features such as lists of suggested reading and book circles. Another target group is the Researcher who looks for facts rather than books themselves. The Researcher requires optimal search tools to quickly attain the information he or she seeks and would use the library to a greater extent if its content was developed and search options increased and presented digitally.

The physical library identified three kinds of users, the efficient one, the wanderer and the student. Of course, all these require a certain kind of reception and organizing of the physical space in order for their needs to be met. The efficient person can be transformed into a wanderer if he or she has a spare moment, and the wanderer can on a given day become a student with different needs.

What makes the effect mapping method with its target group analysis and personas so useful for library development is that you are removed from the, at times, very polarized debate about what a library is and is not, should be or should not be. Some believe a library should primarily be a social and cultural meeting place, whilst others believe that silence, knowledge and specialization is a library’s main role in a noisy, fragmented and superficial world.With a clearer basis in user needs, collected through interviews with real people, yet expressed in terms of roles, you will be removed from the general opinion and believe that you can support several different types of needs simultaneously, by using different functions. Digital channels can search through clear and easily access- ible e-media to support the needs of both the researcher and top-list reader. And the physical library, using increased opportunities for self-service and wireless networks, makes it worthwhile for both the efficient user and the student, while staff can immerse themselves in detailed queries from students. In addition, the digital channels can be lifted into the physical room so the wanderer, for instance, can be met by interesting book recommendations on digital screen displays between the shelves and the café. ´

The digital revolution currently taking place in the Open Library and in other digital public library projects is entirely based on the analysis of user needs. To some extent the ability of users to participate in the digital channels spreading to the physical premises where you begin to contemplate how best to expose the activities of various kinds of needs and adjust their responses in a more systematic manner than previously. For example, Stockholm Public Library has increasingly emphasized the concept of customer dialogue over the past year, where the dialogue should flow between digital and physical space. While it will require a strengthened emphasis on improved underlying support systems, a higher degree of national collaboration, and more focus on staff assigned to interact directly with users in the digital channels if user influence is to bring about the effect that is so sought after in the library community.

Maria Ekendahl
Freelance Journalist and Project Manager for
the Open Library

Freelance Journalist and Project Manager for the Open Library.