Frontier

Biblio Tech

The public library takes browsing back from Chapters

From the October 2009 magazine

At the Oakville public library’s White Oaks branch, where the faint clatter of fingers on keyboards is superimposed on a familiar carpeted hush, user DavidB logs on to BiblioCommons, the library’s experimental social media hub. He soon sees that gailygirl, a user whose taste he has come to trust, has high praise for The Heroines, a “quirky and interesting read” in which literary characters like Anna Karenina and Franny Glass visit an Illinois B&B. He checks out the book, reads it, and, intrigued by the collection of strong but undervalued female leads, compiles a list of the books in which these heroines have appeared. Which is how, he explains a few weeks later when I meet him on his way out of White Oaks, he comes to have a newly borrowed copy of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey tucked under his arm.

It’s also the exact sequence of events Beth Jefferson was aiming for when she dreamed up BiblioCommons while working with kids at Toronto’s Rose Avenue Public School in 2004. “I’m a big believer in the right book, at the right time, for the right reader,” says Jefferson, who initially volunteered at Rose Avenue for a change of pace after selling her venture-backed Internet start-up. But finding the right book hasn’t gotten any easier in the age of information overload, and that’s where BiblioCommons comes in: leveraging the massive and underappreciated reach of public libraries—“more cardholders than Visa, more items than FedEx, more outlets than Tim Hortons and McDonald’s,” as the CEO of Ottawa’s public libraries notes in her email signature—to create communities of users who can help one another find the right book. The system launched in Oakville in July 2008; Edmonton and Ottawa go live this fall; locations across Ontario and British Columbia, and as far away as California and Australia, will follow.

On Libraries and Their Users

From Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel”

Illustration by Mark Saunders
Mark Saunders

The Library exists ab aeterno. This truth, whose immediate corollary is the future eternity of the world, cannot be placed in doubt by any reasonable mind. Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi; the universe, with its elegant endowment of shelves, of enigmatical volumes, of inexhaustible stairways for the traveler and latrines for the seated librarian, can only be the work of a god. To perceive the distance between the divine and the human, it is enough to compare these crude wavering symbols which my fallible hand scrawls on the cover of a book, with the organic letters inside: punctual, delicate, perfectly black, inimitably symmetrical.

Libraries might seem like the proverbial buggy whip makers, doomed to be swept away by changing technology and tastes, along with the outmoded paper books that fill their shelves. But that’s a misreading of their mission: “Libraries were in books because that’s where the information was,” says Kelly Moore, executive director of the Canadian Library Association. “Really, we’re about information.” Canadian libraries saw an immediate statistical spike when the recession hit, with usage up over 20 percent in cities like Ottawa. It wasn’t just that people rediscovered their love of free stuff; they also wanted help navigating and interpreting information on topics like job hunting and money management.

Instead of relying on librarians to act as gatekeepers for collections that are increasingly virtual and global in scope, BiblioCommons harnesses crowds of users to guide one another—a familiar Internet tactic. “Collaborative filtering” is a staple of such sites as Amazon and Chapters, where we’re constantly reminded that “customers who bought X also bought Y.” Libraries haven’t caught on, partly because few individual systems have sufficiently large user bases to make it work. Viewed as a collective, though, they’re a formidable force. Library websites are already about as “sticky” as sites like Amazon, with an average stay of almost ten minutes—and libraries that have experimented with enhanced online services have seen their average jump to over fifteen minutes, comparable with Facebook and eBay.

Getting people to participate in BiblioCommons will require seamless integration with existing library catalogues, so that input from other users—and the opportunity to contribute—arise naturally from the experiences of browsing the catalogue and renewing books. The greater technical challenge lies in integrating the patchwork of different systems across the continent. “Librarians care a lot about the details of their catalogues,” Jefferson says diplomatically. But libraries have one key advantage over commercial sites: “People really want to support their libraries,” she says. “There’s a goodwill that Amazon or Chapters simply don’t inspire.”

That’s certainly true for DavidB, a 29-year-old with close-cropped hair, rectangular glasses, and jeans folded neatly at the cuffs, who lives a short walk from White Oaks. He spends a couple of hours a day using the high-speed Internet at the library, keeping track of what others are reading, posting his thematic lists (“The Heroines of Fiction,” “Catch-22 Things”), and tagging books with his comments. His prodigious output recently earned him a free trip for two to any public library in Canada, offered by BiblioCommons to the most prolific user of its Oakville pilot. He turned it down in exchange for $1,000 worth of gift certificates for books, many of which he’ll donate to the library.

His real motivation in posting, though, is less about building the library’s collection than about sharing the joy of reading, which he rediscovered after high school when a cute bookstore clerk convinced him to pick up Harry Potter. Six years later, he’s at the vanguard of what Jefferson believes will be a cultural shift toward “object-centric” networking, centred on common interests, as the novelty of Facebook-style “egocentric” social networking, based on friends of friends, wanes. “It’s not about showing how smart or how witty you are. It’s that if enough people say a book is good, maybe people will read it,” he explains. “It really feels like holy work, talking about good books.”

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