Small Steps

The Carnegie libraries defined our public information architecture of the 20th century: open stacks in an identifiably public building that welcomed all to come in and learn. This proposal seeks to define public information architecture for the 21st century by building systems that are open, remixable, and social.

Scriblio’s role in this began with the news that WPopac (as it was known then) was selected to receive a Mellon Award. As a comprehensive regional university with a rural campus and a focus on education, Plymouth State University was very interested in using the award to address some of the needs we found in communities of northern New Hampshire (and of the 60% of libraries nationwide that serve communities with fewer than 10,000 people).

This was the plan as we described it to the Mellon Foundation in fall 2006:

Plymouth State University is committed to continuing the development of WPopac and releasing it publicly as an easy-to-use, open source, online catalog available to all libraries. We believe the best way to ensure its sustainability is to keep it small, nimble, and simple, and maintain alignment with WordPress and other projects that are larger than the library community. In doing so, we will be able to focus on solving and excelling at the questions unique to our field.

The biggest challenge to a broader use of WPopac comes not from the cost of the software or hardware, but from a lack of bibliographic data to drive it. Relatively few libraries have online catalogs, let alone a set of bibliographic records representing their collection. License restrictions or difficulty in extracting data from those systems may prevent them from re-using their data in WPopac. The majority of libraries, however, have no online catalog — no records — and are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of those records.

Plymouth State University proposes that the award be used to establish an open record repository to serve the needs of libraries in implementing open source online catalogs at very low cost. The repository would take the form of a large WPopac installation, offering libraries the ability to freely download records directly into a library’s local WPopac installation and connecting users to local libraries holding the works they’re interested in.

The records would be licensed under either a GNU Free Documentation License (the same terms Wikipedia uses) or a Creative Commons attribution share alike license, and the initial backfile would be acquired by purchase from the Library of Congress’ collection of over 11 million available bibliographic records.

But it was clear that to achieve the real promise of what we were suggesting we needed a dance partner, and that’s what had me especially excited about the conversation I had with the Internet Archive’s Brewster Kahle during the Mellon Award presentation in Washington DC in early December. The conversation continued, and in March PSU/Scriblio and IA, in conjunction with BLC developed a grant proposal to build what we really needed: software that extended the network effects made possible by the internet to libraries. ALERT: that proposal was not funded.

The proposal included two major, interconnected components:

  • the development of into a feature-rich global catalog linking users to materials in Open Content Alliance‘s book scanning project and including information about all other published books[1] with distributed editing tools
  • development of a multi-user version of Scriblio based on WordPress MU, delivering faceted searching and browsing of all a libraries web-accessible content including the catalog and website

Scrib+IA: collaborative development Scrib+IA: user interation

By developing these as an integrated pair (based on open protocols that would allow either component to be replaced), we can finally overcome the limitations of our stand-alone catalogs, leverage the network to develop shared resources, and allow libraries to focus on delivering locally unique resources.

One example that shows some of the possibilities here is Cook Memorial Library in Tamworth New Hampshire. Before implementing Scriblio as our public library development partner, the library, which serves a community of about 2,500, had no online catalog. Now they have a rich web presence that patrons check regularly for news about new programs and acquisitions.

Now the library is looking at exposing their local history collection — all their photos, town records, and other materials — online, a feat unheard of for a library of this size. Beyond Brown Paper demonstrates how this might work.

That effort will only be possible if the library can shift costs from systems that handle books (and other media where their cataloging and management expenses are needlessly duplicated in libraries everywhere) to the local works that can be found nowhere else.

The suggestion here isn’t to diminish the role of books in our libraries but to lower the costs of the systems we use to manage those books so that libraries can afford to deliver more of their services and value online, a proposition that becomes easier to understand once we see our users exploring community history, discussing sustainability, and explaining what a digester is.

The suggestion here is to build the public information architecture of the 21st century.

scriblio, plan, libraries, internet archive, network, lib20, library 2.0, public information architecture

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