Libraries, books and network level services

Lorcan 3 min read

The growth in variety and volume of sites for personal collection management is fascinating to watch, especially those where addtiional value is created by pooling choices and preferences across users. Sites for music and books especially. Typically these sites display network effects, they improve as more people connect and share interests. I was interested to see this reference to a couple of these sites and libraries. Noting the resemblance between Shelfari (backed by Amazon) and LibraryThing (part owned by Abebooks) David Rothman notes:

Question: So what’s the role of public libraries if private companies expand even more deeply into interactivity—having already, as in Google’s case, broken into such areas as scanning and search? [TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home » Book-lovers’ hubs: Shelfari vs. Library Thing]

And then, I saw Bookswim, which positions itself as a Netflix for books: it is due to launch this month. You will read this on its home page, underneath the label What about Libraries?:

We love the library and have NO INTENTION of replacing your local public library system. In fact, we’d like to help out libraries by extending our books to library patrons, effectively supplementing limited inventory resources.

And I came across this in an interview with the founder, George Burke:

GB: It stinks when readers have to return a library book that they’ve fallen in love with, so we’ve added the ability to purchase any rental at a discounted price. Currently users can also hook up with readers of similar literary taste and get book ideas from each others’ rental queues. In the future we also aim to provide users with a golden recommendation system, along with a way for members to discuss the books they’ve read. [Joe Wikert’s Publishing 2020 Blog: BookSwim Interview with George Burke]

We have yet to see what sort of discovery experience or reader involvement Bookswim offers. It seems to promise the type of integrated discovery to delivery experience we associate with web presences. They aim not just to let you find things, but to help you get things done. Find and buy the book, and have it delivered, in a few simple steps, for example. It will be interesting to see how well this service does, whether it does indeed sink or swim.
As I say, there is much to ponder here for libraries and library services as these types of services develop.
Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to hear me say that they also highlight a structural issue for libraries, how to provide services at the network level. These new services are network level services. They are aimed at the general user, not an audience circumscribed by region, or funding or institution. And, additionally, they provide an integrated service, moving the user quickly through whatever steps are needed to complete a task.
Library services are aimed at a particular constituency and this fragmentation means that it may be difficult to generate the scale or network effects which are an intrinsic part of many successful network services. They are also often internally fragmented: the steps between discovery and fulfillment may be intermittent imposing some burden on the user who has to piece together a supply chain for themselves.
Tagging provides a good example of the first issue here. One factor in the usefulness of any tagging services is the size and diversity of the population contributing tags. Scale matters. Network effects come into play. The special or idiosyncratic can be smoothed with volume. This means that it would be good to do tagging higher up in the network than at the individual library level, and/or to have mechanisms for sharing tags across libraries.
In coming years, libraries will increasingly turn to cooperative activity or to third party services to provide access to scale and network effects on the one hand, and greater integration of the supply chain on the other. Whether for inventory management, integrated discovery to delivery across groups of libraries, collaborative social services or other activities. And of course, one interesting aspect of this is the role of union catalogs and the organizations which support them, including OCLC.
Reference to Bookswim via Merrilee Proffitt.
Note: My remark on tags is prompted by the discussion on ngc4lib following Tim Spalding’s interesting post.
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