Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Engaged Library

Tonight in class, our discussion was on search (hardly surprising in a class on Search & Discovery), but the last few minutes of the class really got me thinking about the ways libraries engage users by learning about them. We all know that companies use cookies and other tracking technology to learn more about our browsing/shopping/searching habits. Some of them are quite good at it, and some miss the boat entirely by focusing one message only by targeting the location of the IP address but not targeting their message ("Iowa City mom finds $5 trick to whiten teeth" folks, I'm talking to you). I tend to find a lot of advertising annoying at best and intrusive at worst, but obviously it's effective or people wouldn't be taking the time to design ads and pay to drop them all over the web. Our instructor, Cliff Missen (of Widernet Project fame) summed it up perfectly: "Advertisers, Google, etc. know users so well, but we don't see that going on in libraries."

The question it raises for me is, why? Obviously libraries are generally going to be more wary of invading privacy through tracking, and too many 'suggested readings' could easily overwhelm the user and diminish their experience (and their view of the library), but knowing about users can be a good thing too. Cliff mentioned the example of a biology library that used software to track search terms being used in the library, and what time of day those searches were occurring. The ID of the users was anonymized so that individuals weren't being tracked, but general trends in search habits were. I didn't catch if this was a real or hypothetical example (that's what I get for sitting in the back of the room today), but the potential benefits of the results seemed obvious. Librarians would be able to tell what was most in demand, and what was being searched for that might bring better results by employing a different approach (Boolean searching, standardized language, etc).
Other examples were bounced around: what about a YA/children's librarian who wanted to find a new way to engage younger patrons in reading books? If the patron searches for a certain book, and similar results are returned in another part of the page. If the library has a strong social networking presence, the same user might receive book suggestions on their Facebook account or as mentions on Twitter. The same could be done for adult users. Issues surrounding privacy and the role of the library abound, and I'd be interesting to hear ideas in the comments!
My thought is that a lot of the potentially problematic discussions surrounding the invasion of privacy by the library (especially for minors) might be at least partially alleviated by using an 'opt in' rather than 'opt out.' People who find suggestions helpful or who want to feel connected with their library in that way have a means to do so, but users who are happy with their library experience the way it is would not feel pressure to sign up. Libraries are institutions people feel like they can trust to protect their privacy (or at least I think of them that way), so a huge challenge wuold be to balance protecting and respecting patrons' privacy with offering this experience to interested users.
Another student's suggestion made me think of other shortcomings. When Cliff mentioned a library technology that would provide lists of suggested materials based on a user's search habits, she asked if we risked narrowing user's information seeking habits by only providing materials like those that had been asked for previously. She also made an *awesome* point that this technology would run the risk of excluding results that would be most important to the user. Her excellent example was a user who searched on the term 'Latino.' Because the catalog had been structured using the word 'Hispanic' it returned a result asking "did you mean Hispanic?" For some materials, this difference may be minimal, but both terms have vastly different political and social meanings. The use of one over the other will return different materials, and if the system forces the user to choose the term they do not want, we run the risk of that user not finding information and of making any 'suggested readings' less relevant. Huge thanks is due to my classmates (and instructor) for this discussion within the classroom. Some very valuable points were made, even though I feel like a lot of us are still stumbling through understanding the workings of these technologies.
Librarians, information professionals, LIS students, and patrons--what are your thoughts? Does targeted interaction from the library amount to nothing more than advertising and an invasion of privacy? Or is there something to this that is worth exploring? If there is, what are some good ways we can begin having those discussions and developing tools to better serve our patrons? Cliff suggested one approach might be to develop a technology (such as the anonymized search tracking software) that can then be adopted by institutions without the budget or staff to develop these resources on their own. Other ideas?


  1. Tracking library patrons is an interesting idea with many useful implications. I'm inclined to say maybe it would work for a big library, like the New York Public Library or our university's libraries. I'm thinking that even with an anonymous opt in it would be easy in a small library to know who's searching for what. Every library has its consistent users and at the same time of day even. If the library was very small then anonymous tracking of searches might not be so anonymous. Does tracking our patrons' searches tell us what they are looking for? Looking at search terms I think you could only guess. You would also have to assume that the page they clicked on and read actually contained the information they wanted in the first place. Great post. It was nice to hear about what's going on in S&D.

  2. It's all in how the data is handled. There are laws regarding patron privacy, but there are steps that can be taken to eliminate that issue.

    If you want a new (old) take on patrons volunteering their information in exchange for additional services, read this Library Garden post:

  3. Chelle--Thanks! those are great points, I agree that smaller libraries would have privacy issues. It was something we mentioned in regards to ILL too, since the librarian would be much more likely to know every patron making requests.
    Andy--thanks so much for sharing that link! The author sums up that idea well, that people are willing to give up some amount of privacy for a desired experience. Good stuff!

  4. Some of what you say is already being done either automated or manually.

    Lots of libraries have embedded Google analytics (or just study server logs) into their websites or catalogues that allow them to track every aspect of user behavior, searching trends etc.

    A university library I've read, tracks what students in each course is reading and aggregates most commonly borrowed books/journal volumes

    I've seen librarians try to buy google adwords to target students searching for information within a certain radius of the library etc

    Some of these are libraries outside america so laws and cultures differ of course.

  5. I didn't know about this--those seem like great ways to learn more about patrons! I wonder what libraries are doing this in the US--something to look into this week!