Learning something new

I’ve been working at a library now for over a month, a big one too, no messing around with the local publics, this one’s national, it’s got plans and ideas that are big. So now that it’s been a month, maybe I should engage with it here for a bit.

The quick story is I’m a product manager in a newly-formed digital library; where it’s gets interesting for me is that I’m new to libraries as I’ve worked since the mid-nineties in publishing. A lot of that was in digital, online encyclopedia mainly, of long and short varieties, notably groveart and grovemusic and general reference. So I know a bit about the digital world, and the similarities between my old and new employers are certainly there to find, but so is the dissonance, and it’s the latter that really intrigues me.

A couple of good examples sprang up today.

The library had a curiously brief moment of glory when Russell Brown’s post carried links to some of our digital heritage materials. Unfortunately the link produced a failed search page. The stems from the library’s use of library cataloguing systems for publishing, a scenario that is as backward as it is inefficient. This is what he had to say about the broken link:

Oh, and I’ve fixed the links in the post… The URL for the results page doesn’t bring up the search results — you have to grab the search URL before it outputs. What a bad way of doing it …

Couldn’t agree more, and there’s a simple lesson that libraries could learn from publishers: you don’t create and manage content in the same system as you publish and distribute it. The processes are different and are best done by different systems. (For digital publishers the irony of the broken link will not be lost: librarians as purchasers would rightly criticise any digital subscription product that didn’t use readable, easy-to-use URLs for functions like search, just as they’d expect permanent, stable URLs for content pages. The latter is another thing library-run websites regularly fail to provide.)

In a further comment (most comments discussed copyright and creative commons, but as someone with 12 years in publishing I’m not quite up to considering copyright), Russell Brown noted that…

Archives and libraries spend forever debating what to digitise. No one seems to grasp the fact that not every decision has to be top-down, and that part of what is digitised (and, ideally, made freely available thereafter) should be things that members of the public have a use for.

It’s that last bit that’s really interesting as it points to the need for libraries to engage with this unruly mob called the public and find out what they, as users of information, want to see in a digital library. Where publishers succeed in this is that they have paying customers that demand engagement; if there’s something a customer is prepared to pay for then you can bet that a publisher somewhere is going to cotton on and come up with that something.

It’d be glib to say that that’s the market and the market knows best. Sure, the market knows what it’ll buy and the market and publishers are smart enough to know to talk to each other. But two groups talking has been known to happen without money driving the conversation. It’s that conversation – between libraries and their public – that needs to happen, and happen quick if we’re to fully engage and satisfy our users.