September 30, 2023

LJ Virtual Tech Summit Explores How Libraries Use Tech To Connect with Patrons


Library Journal's Tech Summit: Power to the PatronLJ’s Virtual Tech Summit on December 8, “Power to the Patron: From Systems to Services,” brought together sharp minds from across the country, addressing a range of cutting-edge technologies in the library world—from mobile apps to print-on-demand to patron-driven ebook acquisition to the future of data access. But with all the wide-ranging discussion, the focus remained on patrons, and how libraries can best use tech to provide them with the best services. [The summit archives are now available online for registrants.] Platinum sponsors for the event were SirsiDynix and Comprise Technologies.

The future of digital storytelling
Keynoting the day-long event was by Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, who took a wide view on technology trends and how technology affects interactions with patrons.

Alexander is a member of the advisory board for the New Media Consortium’s and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative’s Horizon Report, the annual report on technology trends in higher education. He touched on trends highlighted in the most recent report. Among these are augmented-reality software applications (by tying “digital data to the surface of the earth” using location services like Google Maps, he said, such apps can create “a new way of reinterpreting and re-experiencing the world”) and game-based learning (as motion-control game interfaces, for example, are “already beginning to shake up everything we do”), both of which he said will likely become more mainstream within the next few years. He also noted the rise of ebooks, and particularly mobile apps and social networking, which he said have made many people “storytellers.”

But where do libraries fit into such future technological trends? In the post-keynote Q&A moderated by Lisa Carlucci Thomas, director of library consultancy design think do and Virtual Tech Summit project lead, Alexander noted that librarians are the professionals “best equipped to help us with a lot of the challenges around [digital] storytelling,” such as questions regarding copyright issues. He also said that technologies that most people don’t already have, such as large display screens, might make inroads in library spaces.

Talking mobile
The first panel of the day, “Mobile Apps: What Do Users Need?,” moderated by web architect and user experience analyst Cody Hanson at the University of Minnesota Libraries, continued the service focus. The panel explored different ways that libraries are making use of mobile technologies to provide a range of services—from practical library services, such as self-check, to walking tours.

Nate Hill, web librarian at San José Public Library (SJPL), CA (see LJ’s recent Q&A), briefly highlighted the library’s Scan Jose project, a mobile website (funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services) that provides a historical walking tour of San Jose, making use of images from SJPL and Sourisseau Academy historical archive. A 3-D version of the site is viewable using the Layar augmented-reality browser. He said that he was excited to bring this kind of service to patrons, as “they don’t expect the library to be in this space.”

Rebecca Ranallo, internet and media services manager for Cuyahoga County Public Library, OH, talked about her library’s experiences with the Boopsie app. The library had spearheaded new Boopsie app features, including BookCheck, a mobile self-check feature, back in April. Ranallo said that a prime goal of the library is to be “the most convenient public library in the nation,” and that is reflected in its Boopsie app, which provides a range of services, such as catalog search, the aforementioned self-check, digital media such as OverDrive content, and other services. But the third-party aspect of the app was also a key element, as the library had no in-house staff available to maintain an app. In a follow-up Q&A, she also said that the app’s availability gave the library “credibility with our techier customers.”

Michael Whitchurch, chair of the Learning Commons Department at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library, Provo, UT (see LJ’s recent Q&A), concentrated on his library’s strategy in using QR codes, saying that he is constantly asked when, where, and why a library should use them. His advice: only use them where they have the added value of simplifying complex tasks, “not because they are ‘cool’ or ‘trendy.’” He said that BYU has found them to be especially useful for facilitating group study room reservations for students, by both scheduling the time and providing the student with calendar reminders on his or her mobile device. He said that QR codes are also useful for lecture announcements and audio tours.

Dan DeSanto, from the Information and Instruction Service Department at the University of Vermont Libraries, talked about its Center for Digital Initiatives’ app in development, which will provide an augmented reality tour of the oldest long-distance hiking trail in the United States, Vermont’s Long Trail, making use of historical photos and geophysical location, similar to how North Carolina State University Libraries’ WolfWalk app works.

During the Q&A, the desirability of creating apps in-house was discussed, but more than one panelist said that staff and budget concerns make that difficult. “With our largely digital future in libraries, it seems like it would be important to invest more resources in departments like that, and be able to do more in-house,” said Hill. It’s therefore important to foster working relationship with tech services staff at institutions and spell out the libraries’ goals. At BYU, Whitchurch said, tech staff was initially “reticent to start a project like this where they didn’t know where it was going.”

Do it yourself
The second panel, “Self-Service: Balancing Efficiency & Personal Touch,” moderated by Lisa Carlucci Thomas, was the most eclectic of the day, bringing together print-on-demand, patron-driven acquisition, managing an online library, and using a third-party system for patron online payments under the self-service banner.

As LJ previously reported, Darien Library, CT, recently launched a new Espresso Book Machine from On Demand Books, which, as the company name implies, allows patrons to print books on demand, including self-published works, for a fee. Gretchen Caserotti, assistant director for public services at the library and a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker (see LJ’s recent Q&A) described the library’s recent experiences with the new technology, saying that it is working with On Demand Books on search and commerce features, but that she welcomed outside ideas for the equipment. “We have no reason to believe that we won’t learn from our patrons,” she said.

Michael Levine-Clark, collections librarian at the University of Denver, spotlighted how the library is using demand-driven acquisition for ebooks (also called patron-driven acquisition, or PDA), which it has offered via Ebook Library (EBL) since May 2010. About 40 percent of the books the library buys go unread, he said, but using a PDA ebook system allows the library to only purchase ebooks that patrons actually read, thus saving money on unread materials. He said that the library spent about $73,000 on short-term ebook loans and purchases of ebooks using the EBL system over the course of a year, about one-tenth of what the library would have spent had it bought every book that a student had borrowed or browsed. (George Machovec of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries also addressed the University of Denver’s experience during a PDA panel at LJ’s recent virtual ebook summit.) In a post-panel Q&A, he pointed out that an easy experience for the patron is crucial, because if you need to train patrons in how to use PDA, “then you are doing it wrong.”

On a different tack, Estelle Pope, library resource coordinator at Coconino Community College, Flagstaff, AZ, talked about how she works to make the online-only library there visible and helpful for students. When the physical library at the institution was closed down last year, the library shifted to an online-only model. (Her institution was not alone, she said, highlighting a recent story on The Digital Shift on Johns Hopkins University’s decision to make a medical library online-only.) While challenging, the change has also led to more student use of online databases, she said, with the number of searches jumping from about 55,000 in 2010 to more than 222,000 this year. She added that the library has explored using iPads as library instruction tools.

Taking self-service from yet another angle, Gretchen Freeman, associate director for technology at Salt Lake County Library Services, UT, spoke about how her system, which has a 97 percent self-checkout rate, and wanted to implement a third-party hosted online payment service from Comprise Technologies to collect fines and fees online. As a result, she said, revenue from online payment of fines and fees has risen to a third of the library’s total fine collection revenue, without requiring any staff involvement. In a post-panel Q&A, she said that staff uses the additional time on other tasks. “We have an increasing workload and we don’t have increasing staff,” she said.

Mashups and platforms
The final panel, focusing on integrated library systems (ILSs) and moderated by Darien Library’s assistant director for innovation and user experience John Blyberg (a 2006 LJ Mover & Shaker), looked at how libraries can use application  programming interfaces (APIs) to enrich patron’s experience—and how new platforms could open further possibilities in the library world.

John Wohlers, library technology coordinator at Waubonsee Community College, Sugar Grove, IL, focused on some of the ways that his library has created “mashup” applications by drawing on APIs, pulling information from different places and combining it in useful ways. Among others, one app he spotlighted allows patrons to see, on a map of the library, the exact location of a book when it is on the shelf. This highly practical tool was created using APIs from SirsiDynix API & Web Services, Google Maps, and the URL-shortening service.

Panelist Monique Sendze, IT director for Douglas County Libraries, CO, highlighted the many ways that her institution has used flexible APIs to interact with various systems, including the SirsiDynix Horizon ILS, the library resource portal VuFind, and OverDrive, among others, to provide services. She also focused on the kinds of services a library can provide when patrons opt-in to allow the library to collect checkout histories—including customized recommendations based on reading history or holds lists—and about ways the library is working to integrate more e-content for patrons.

Finally, Jason Griffey, associate professor and head of library information technology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) and a 2009 LJ Mover & Shaker, moved in a more conceptual direction—talking about the need for a robust platform to allow libraries to effectively use their data in new ways. He referenced a set of rules that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos laid down in 2002 for his developers, requiring that all data and functionality in an interface be exposed—that is, fully accessible via service interfaces, such as APIs. “[Amazon’s] platform allows for the development of many, many interfaces and tools,” said Griffey. If libraries had an externalized platform with accessible data, he pointed out, developers would be able to shift their focus. “It frees you to develop services that really affect the patrons,” he said.

An example of a library platform in development, he said, is the OCLC WorldShare Platform, which was announced on December 5 (UTC was an early adopter of the OCLC’s cloud-based WorldShare Management Services ILS, initially called Web-scale Management Services). “The thing that I think is the most interesting, theoretically, about a platform is that we could all be different libraries but share the same web of data,” he said.

In a brief Q&A afterward, Blyberg asked Griffey what he thought libraries might do to get vendors to free up access to APIs and library data. “The traditional answer to that question is through financial pressure,” said Griffey. “The problem with libraries is that we lack the ability to have collective action in financial pressure… all libraries are unique funding snowflakes in their local area.” But the more libraries talk to each other, he said, closer it gets them to “the ability to speak with a single voice.”

The questions and comments continued after the summit at a “tweetup” moderated by Courtney Young, head librarian and associate professor of women’s studies at Penn State Greater Allegheny, and Tiffini Travis, director of information literacy and outreach services at California State University, Long Beach, using the Twitter hashtag #ljtechsmt.


David Rapp About David Rapp

Associate editor David Rapp previously covered technology for Library Journal.