It’s time for productivity not publicity

I’ve written here a time or two about apps developed by libraries to highlight unique collections. Three prominent examples:

All of these are well-designed and effectively promote their respective libraries to a readership that is increasingly online and mobile. As a first step to demonstrate, at least partly, what is possible in the mobile world, they are impressive.

Suddenly, however, I begin to have issues with these sorts of library products. Part of my misgiving about them is that they are demonstrations. They are tools for promoting the library collections but they are not the library collections themselves. They are surrogates and even billboards for tangible collections sitting on library shelves.

Obviously, a great deal of the digitizing that libraries have done to date has been focused on unique and valuable collections. Digitization has always been advertising for what was great and special about any particular library. It has been a means of creating online exhibits, as it were. But it is precisely that goal that makes library digitizing and app development of limited value to library users. Advertising and exhibits can be interesting, informative, and motivational, but, in the end, they do not take the place of actually using the library. They do not even especially aid or enhance use of the library in any immediate sense.

Part of what makes the Google Book project so interesting is that it has the audacity to digitize the entire library (many libraries, in fact). It is the library in a way that most library digital projects and products are not. Aside from lacking a collection scope that would serve more user needs, most library digital products are also short on functionality. They are not intended to enable users to do things with information. I think it is time that we start to build apps that will help users do things with information.

Some of what I envision has, up to now, been left to vendors and commercial interests to develop. Some may be beyond the financial means of libraries. Some is just plain hard to do. I think we shouldn’t let those things stand in the way of trying. Collectively, we ought to be able to push the envelope more than we have thus far.

Some of the things library mobile apps ought to enable:

  • Discovery of library collections across all kinds of formats
  • Authentication for and use of licensed digital collections
  • Annotation and note taking
  • Citation management
  • Sharing and conversation via social media
  • Remixing and mash-up of content

We can talk a lot about the digital library, the virtual library, but until the tools we offer to users actually enable use, we are only advertising for the physical library and hypothesizing about a digital future. It’s time to give users real productivity tools and make the digital library a reality.




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