Wednesday, 4 July 2012

'Because it's there'

New technologies, eh. The LIBER conference, which has just finished in Tartu, focused quite a bit on QR codes, augmented reality, mobile platforms and other whizzy tools. Librarians seem to be taking the kind of interest in these technologies that we saw in relation to Web 2.0 a few years ago. But their approach seems to be much more strategic.

Librarian use of web 2.0 sometimes felt rather like George Mallory's approach to climbing Everest: ‘I’m going to do it because it’s there’. Now, this kind of attitude might be alright for mountains, which don’t tend to care whether they’re climbed or not. But we know from research that academics aren’t really engaging with social media for professional purposes, so one has to question the value of librarians picking up their crampons and ice axes and setting out for the Twitter base camp to climb a mountain that doesn’t actually exist. 

A lot of librarians also struggled to fully understand how social media works, and how best to engage with it on its own terms. A 2009 study, which looked at librarian use of Facebook, found that most librarians spend 0-20 minutes a week on their Facebook page: definitely not enough to keep up the steady stream of information and interaction that underpins a successful social media presence. 

But – at least from the small sample of presentations at the LIBER conference – the library approach to new technologies seems to be much more organised and strategic. And it thinks about how people use their smartphones and mobile devices, and links this into library services and content, to produce tools that will actually get used.

Let me mention a few examples, most of which come from Ellyssa Kroski’s excellent presentation. People use their smartphones to physically locate themselves, often in relation to something else that they can’t find. So it makes sense for a local library to provide maps and directions that respond to where their users are: it makes sense for a big university library to use QR codes on library shelves to direct users to the book they want. People use their smartphones to organise their various contact streams: emails addresses, phone numbers, social media. So it makes sense for librarians to display QR codes that directly transfer their contact details into a user’s mobile phone.

Other projects had thought about how to use mobile technologies to bring collections to life in a new way. People use their smartphones to take pictures of their local environment: why not overlay those pictures with augmented reality that links to library images, documents and multimedia? Or even recreate structures that no longer exist, using historic images from the library collection? The Bavarian State Library has done both these things in an incredibly successful app on King Ludwig II

There are still areas of gimmick which smack of ‘because we can’. The Ludwig II app, for example, allows users to scan their entry tickets to the king’s fairytale castles of Herrenchiemsee, Neuschwannstein and Linderhof in order to get a 3D visualisation of the attraction: something that feels a bit redundant considering that the users are probably standing right in front of the real thing!

But on the whole, these services are considered: they look at the possibilities offered by social media, and think about how these might interact with library collections to deliver relevant information in new ways. Which can only be a good thing.

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