Anticipatory and contextual discovery, open hardware, one-click server installs, mobile-first design, institutional digital assets management, and even biohackerspaces were some of the topics discussed this year at the Library and Information Technology Association’s (LITA) Top Tech Trends panel, held June 29 at the American Library Association (ALA) 2014 Annual Conference.
Moderated by Nadaleen F. Tempelman-Kluit, head of user experience at New York University’s Bobst Library, the panel included Jason Griffey, former associate professor and librarian at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga; Ranti Junus, systems librarian for electronic resources at Michigan State University Libraries; Bohyun Kim, associate director for library applications and knowledge systems at University of Maryland’s Health Sciences and Human Services Library in Baltimore; David Lee King, digital services director at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL); Roger Schonfeld, program director for libraries, users, and scholarly practices at Ithaka S+R; Ken Varnum, web systems manager at the University of Michigan Library; and Mita Williams, user experience librarian at the Leddy Library at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.
Varnum kicked off the program with a discussion on how discovery has evolved, and how librarians might adapt. Electronic resources and the Internet offer patrons access to an ever-vaster collection of content every year. But, the end result is “oceans of information” that many patrons don’t know how to navigate.
“From the naïve user perspective—and I think a lot of our users fall into that category—[discovery systems] all feel the same, they all look the same. And they don’t see the difference between using your wonderful special resource, library discovery system, or Google, or whatever they happen to find that day while looking around the Internet.”
Librarians can play a role in helping patrons create more focused subsets of these “oceans” of information, Varnum added, particularly as discovery solutions offer increasingly sophisticated ways to tailor searches.
“I think what’s going to be happening is that discovery systems are going to become much more locally tuned, that the interfaces that we use to say who can search what and how to find things in this ocean…. We as librarians will be able to twiddle the knobs and say ‘I want the [information] stream that’s right for undergraduate students in, say, psychology, a different one for undergraduates from [a different major], and one for well-experienced, knowledgeable researchers in another area’…. With a little work on the librarians’ side, we’ll be able to pool the resources and actually focus what we search on very specific subsets of the giant ocean.”
On a related note, Schonfeld discussed the growth of anticipatory and contextual discovery tools, such as Google Now, an Android app which has the capacity to note that a user has an upcoming flight scheduled, automatically check current traffic and public transportation conditions, and suggest the best time to leave their current location using the optimal route to the airport. Once a user is at his or her destination, the app might suggest local restaurants or attractions, based on the user’s habits.
“It’s discovery that’s driven not by what I might search for, but what I might care about, which is a really, really different paradigm,” Schonfeld said. “And it’s also [information] delivered when it’s useful to me, and not just when it’s new.”
These types of tools work by collecting and retaining a lot of personal information on users, so there are privacy tradeoffs, Schonfeld acknowledged. But, librarians should be cognizant of this trend in the commercial sphere, and consider how libraries could better anticipate the needs of users.
“If we could think about what is already being developed in anticipatory and contextual search…and think about how that might be applied in terms of the kinds of current awareness services that library user want and need, I think we could come up with some really interesting service models,” he said.
For example, researchers want to keep up with new scholarship in their field, and one way of doing so is by subscribing to email alerts from journals, newsletters, and other relevant sources. Yet many oversubscribe to these alerts. Overwhelmed, they start tuning them out. Librarians might consider ways in which they could help filter this information and provide faculty with what they need, when they need it.
“There’s clearly a way in which the system is fragmented, it’s not the right level of granularity,” he said, later adding that “the question that I want to raise is whether libraries—perhaps collaboratively, perhaps working with vendors, perhaps individually—should be engaging more deeply with helping users keep up with the literature in their fields.”
Junus also discussed ways in which librarians could offer direct assistance to faculty, describing the management of faculty research data and other faculty-produced content as her trend to watch. Intellectual output assumes a variety of formats, including datasets, filesets, and multimedia. Building the infrastructure for an institutional repository and establishing the collection development policies for digital assets generated by an institution’s faculty is a job for which academic libraries are well suited. And, tools such as figshare have been launched recently to help facilitate this type of work, Junus noted.
When building a repository, however, libraries should keep in mind that preserving these research outputs is not the only goal.
“This is…from my perspective, more about the collection, and providing it back to the universities,” she said. Too often, databases are created for individual projects, and the content becomes siloed and undiscoverable as part of a library’s larger digital assets collection.
Public librarians are well aware of the Maker space trend and the ways in which a growing number of libraries have begun facilitating do-it-yourself projects, crafts, 3D-printing, and hands-on technology experiments. They may be less familiar with the Bio Hackerspace movement, which Kim described as a growing trend to watch for public and academic libraries alike.
Biohacking has been around since as early as 2005, with networks such as DIYbio.org nurturing the amateur biologist movement since 2008. And the bio hackerspaces are exactly what the terminology would imply—essentially, Maker spaces with a selection of lab equipment for biology experiments and tests. Biohackers have also developed inexpensive, DIY hardware and engineering blueprints for equipment that is significantly less expensive than commercially produced versions.
Specifically describing the founding of Genspace, a community biology lab and Biohackerspace launched in New York City in 2010 by the molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen, Kim explained the goals of the movement.
“Everybody who wants to do science should be able to do it without having some sort of affiliation with a big institution,” Kim said. “Before we had Maker spaces, we weren’t able to manufacture things…unless we had access to certain hardware. Maker spaces made that possible. It democratized manufacturing, and the same thing is now happening in Biohackerspaces. Biology is being democratized.”
LibraryBox developer Jason Griffey discussed democratization of a different sort. Most librarians are familiar with open-source software, and many institutions now use open-source software such as WordPress and Drupal in their daily workflows. Griffey encouraged attendees to begin considering electronics and computer hardware in the same light.
“It took us decades to realize that the benefit of open software was that we could control it,” compared with proprietary, commercial software he said. “I think that there is some degree to which, over the next several years, we are going to start deciding that—at least at some level—open hardware is going to give us the ability to control certain aspects of the computing experience we put in front of people.”
One problem open hardware could potentially help address is privacy concerns related to data leakage, Griffey said. In corporate terms, leakage involves sensitive data getting into the wrong hands through accidents, poor security, or outright theft. But for individuals, leakage might simply involve the unwitting transmission of personal information to a business or other person. With closed commercial hardware, average users often have no way to understand what type of information they are sharing.
“The more data we leak, and the more that hardware is closed to us, to understand what data we are leaking, the more [this] slightly creepy use of our data I think is going to rise to the surface.”
Current open hardware products include Ethernut embedded Ethernet devices, the Arduino open microcontroller board, and hacker Bunnie Huang’s recently launched Novena Open Laptop project. Griffey’s LibraryBoxen use commercial hardware, but during installation, the portable router’s firmware is overwritten and replaced with Linux-based OpenWrt.
Setting up a personal server once required time, patience, and technical know-how. But lately, applications such as Minecraft Realms are enabling regular consumers to set up and get started with their own cloud-based servers in an instant, noted Mita Williams, describing one-click server installations as her trend to watch.
“I think it’s going to really lower the barriers of participation to all sorts of software, not just for individuals, but for libraries,” she said, pointing to the City University of New York’s (CUNY) DHbox project as an example. Founded by CUNY Hunter College reference librarian Stephen Zweibel, DHbox enables faculty or students within minutes to set up a cloud-based digital humanities lab with configurations of web-publishing platform Omeka, Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK), interactive computing command shell IPython, RStudio open-source enterprise software for the programming language R, and MALLET (MAchine Learning for LanguagE Toolkit).
With DHbox, “you don’t have to learn how to install all of that software,” Williams said. “They’re providing a service just to make it really easy for scholars…to just get their hands dirty and try the software itself.”
“What software like Chef and Puppet does is remember all of the little steps [required during conventional server setup], and when you want to make another server, you just press a button” and the software completes all of those steps for you, Williams explained. Many server “recipes” are available on open source software collaboration sites such as GitHub.
Globally, one in five people now own a smartphone, one in 17 have a tablet, and 99 percent of device owners use their tablet or smartphone every day, King said. At TSCPL, 32 percent of the library’s website traffic originates on smartphones or tablets, and a local news station has reported that 75 percent of its website visitors are using mobile devices to access their site. The rapid growth of mobile devices has become an established trend that libraries must address in a number of ways, King said.
“When you’re building a website, make sure it works on the mobile device first,” he said, even when a library also offers a mobile app for patrons. Using responsive design techniques or other means, a library should have its “whole website, all of your content, easily accessible on a smartphone, on a tablet, or on a desktop,” King said.
This mobile-first philosophy could also be applied to library interiors. For example, places where patrons regularly sit on the floor to charge their devices in nearby electrical outlets could be outfitted with charging stations, or at least a chair. Also, inform the local community about the availability of free WiFi in branch libraries as a simple marketing tactic.