Panlibus Blog

When community and technology combine

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Tim Spalding over at LibraryThing provides a nice write-up of Richard Wallis’ LibraryThingThing extension to the Firefox web browser. A number of interesting points get raised in his post, and in the comments shared by members of LibraryThing’s community, and I thought it might be useful to offer a few thoughts in response.

Firstly, Tim writes;

“This is an exceedingly cool mashup, and a very good demonstration of all the components. To my mind, it would be more useful if it did less, telling you only if the book was in your library.”

With straightforward access to a raft of Platform APIs and a solid body of data on library holdings, it becomes feasible to slice and dice the results in whatever way makes most sense to the users themselves, rather than insisting upon any ‘one size fits all’ solution. I can, personally, think of a whole host of reasons why you might wish to view holdings from a user-selected set of libraries, and the real technology lying behind Richard’s simple browser extension is certainly capable of supporting these use cases.

I, for example, live in one place and work in another, 150 miles away. I’d like to see the library local to my home and the library local to my office. I have no interest (no offence intended!) in the libraries of North Lincolnshire, South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and wherever else lies along my route.

Or what about the university student who wishes to see their own university library, the public library of their university’s city, the public library in the town where their parents live, and the public and university libraries in the city where their boy/girlfriend is studying?

We are also seeing a welcome (and long overdue) growth in interest around the notion of collaborative access arrangements between neighbouring libraries, which is ultimately to the benefit of all library users. Rather than conducting painfully slow and eye-wateringly expensive procurements for yet another monolithic dinosaur of a system (believe me, I’ve read some of the procurement documents!), technologies such as those behind Richard’s tool might usefully and easily be aligned with existing library systems, in order that a borrower is able to see holdings data from all the institutions participating in a particular scheme. Indeed, if nothing fancier were required, Richard’s existing code could easily be modified for deployment on top of an existing OPAC. Imagine looking for a book in the library of the university at which you are studying, finding that the book is on loan, and having a browser extension very similar to LibraryThingThing let you know that there’s a copy in the local public library…?

LibraryThingThing is a rapidly produced (one afternoon, essentially) illustration of a number of possibilities. A tool deployed to best advantage in day to day use would doubtless concentrate upon fulfilling a smaller set of purposes with greater focus. Given the open nature of the APIs behind LibraryThingThing, there’s nothing to stop any of you experimenting and producing the tool that does what you want it to. If you like the idea of wrapping the tool up for delivery as a Greasemonkey plugin or Firefox browser extension as Richard did, the source of the Greasemonkey plugin is also available for you to modify.

Tim goes on to add;

“How should LibraryThing tie into libraries. As always, your thoughts are much appreciated.

We were, actually, planning on doing something like this, and even started the code. When we bring something live it will be a lot less technically elegant—good old server-side programming—but also not browser- and extension-dependent.”

Excellent! We’d (obviously) be keen to see LibraryThing extend in this way with the help of the underlying Platform technologies that made Richard’s browser extension so easy to produce. The Platform and its APIs are neither browser nor extension-dependent; Firefox and Greasemonkey simply provided an easy way for Richard to bring LibraryThing and some of our Platform components together without needing to get inside LibraryThing’s codeline. Tim would be able to use the same Platform components, but in a way that integrated them far more closely with LibraryThing without the need for particular browsers or extensions. That sounds like a win-win to me, and one we’d of course be happy to lend assistance to…

Now to the comments…

James Darlack writes;

“Perhaps rather than having LTThing look up only a specific library, it would be helpful if it could look libraries within a preset distance of a zip code, similar to the way Open WorldCat works.”

Absolutely. Behind the scenes, one of the places that LibraryThingThing looks for data is to the Talis Directory. This can hold various details about libraries, including their postal address and their latitude and longitude. The Directory is an open repository of information about a growing body of libraries, and if your local library isn’t listed you are free (indeed hereby encouraged!) to add it. The information you contribute is governed by a flexible and permissive licence, and a growing body of Platform APIs ensure that the data can be consumed by a range of third party applications to provide the sort of capability that you would like to see. The open nature of the APIs ensures that you actually have a far greater degree of flexibility than Open WorldCat achieves by drawing you back to an Open WorldCat-controlled web page every time you use it, meaning that you could do all sorts of quite clever things with the location data if you had the will and the ability. Libraries within a preset distance of a zip code, but on a bus route? Libraries within a preset distance of a zip code, but close to a Starbucks? Libraries within a preset distance of a zip code, with convenient parking and a copy of the book on the shelf? These applications aren’t necessarily for Talis to build. We simply provide the tools to enable the community to do so.

Jonathan Cohen adds;

“When I click on the LTThing link, the only libraries it finds are British ones. Is Talis a British-only service, or is there some other reason?”

The Talis Platform, and the open and inclusive model that it represents, is a relatively recent activity for Talis and it will take time to work with the community on increasing the (already large) number of libraries represented. The holdings data visible to the Talis Platform today are predominantly those contributed to the Platform as part of library participation in a UK service we also run, called Talis Source.

The Platform itself is not restricted to the UK, and nor are the tools and applications built on top of it. If your local library is interested in contributing holdings data to the Platform (free of charge) so that it can be visible in LibraryThingThing and a growing number of other contexts, you should certainly encourage them to get in touch.

In investing in the Talis Platform, we at Talis are demonstrating our commitment to the continued development of libraries. We are also showing, quite explicitly, that library data has a value far beyond the walls of the library. Sites such as LibraryThing, complete with their significant (53,940 when I checked) communities of passionate bibliophiles offer one obvious place in which it makes sense to bring as many library-sourced resources as possible. Why make it hard for LibraryThing’s members to take the logical step into a convenient library? Why require those libraries to join some expensive club, just to make their holdings (or their very existence) visible?

Free participation. Easy contribution. Open APIs and a permissive license. It really does make sense, and every day it becomes harder to justify the monolithic technologies, closed clubs and exorbitant charges of the past with which libraries and their users continue to grapple today. There really is a better way. Come and see, then help build it.

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