Add Serendipity To The Stacks To Attract A More Diverse Userbase

Screenshot from A Library of Colors
Screenshot from A Library of Colors

We hear a lot about “user-centric” approaches to information organization and retrieval, and mostly that refers to how the information is being accessed. But what about who is accessing it?

Digitizing collections that the public may not otherwise have access to — whether because the materials are fragile or otherwise precious, or too numerous to keep anywhere but in deep storage, or their location is not convenient for the user to visit — is an excellent step in creating more equitable access to information. But it’s only one step. As Vannevar Bush said: “A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.”

In thinking about how we might expand the user base that engages with the incredible amount of recently digitized information, and while looking for something library-related to occupy my time while I walk from subway stops to distant destinations, I began listening to the podcast Artist in the Archive from Jer Thorp. With a background in art, science, and education, he brings a data-centric approach to his position as Innovator-in-Residence at the Library of Congress, a role he began in September 2017, and which was renewed in July 2018. During episode one of the podcast, he interviews Kate Zwaard, Chief of National Digital Initiatives at LOC, where she explains a bit about their current philosophy of access to collections, both digital and physical, which inspired the Innovator-in-Residence position:

I think of one of the core constituencies of the library as the informed and curious. I think we do a great job serving researchers and people who have very specific research needs, so documentary filmmakers, or scholars, but I want us to be more welcoming to people who are just wanting to poke around and learn things.

Thorp is certainly exploring ways to encourage more generalized poking. In describing the projects he’s done so far at LOC, he often uses the word “serendipity” in regards to searching the collections, and, in a post on Medium and in episode 4 of the podcast, he goes into detail about how the science behind chaos might be used to influence “the messy, wet, real world process of discovery.” Essentially, he’s interested in applying the concept of “surfing,” which we once enjoyed in the early days of the web, to how we encounter information within a collection.

Some examples of that in digital collections at LOC already exist, of course — click on an image in the photo collection, for instance, and scroll to the bottom of the page, and you’ll see related suggestions in a variety of formats. But that still might assume some amount of intent: Perhaps you searched for the photo in the first place because you were researching that time and place, in which case, the related records may add to your research needs. Even if you stumbled upon (remember that website?) the image somehow, the suggestions of other items are related — which could be, but generally isn’t, particularly serendipitous.

The experiments Thorp has conducted to play with these ideas are philosophically guided by a reverse attitude to previous data projects he’d done, where he says he would always use data as the starting point. In an introduction to his approach to the Innovator-in-Residence position, he wrote, “I’d make my project at the library people first instead of data first, starting with conversations and interviews before I turned to algorithms and machine learning systems.” He has also, over time, found a connection to the objects in the collection as well, noting in conversation with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in the podcast’s fifth episode that: “…one of the things I’ve learned is that this library holds a lot of objects that I sort feel a great deal of empathy for because they’re sort of stranded because nobody’s found them or understood their importance.”

An example of how he has attempted to both create serendipity (which could help attract a greater number and more diverse audience of users) while simultaneously showcasing items that may not be encountered much is the interactive tool called A Library of Colors, a screenshot of which is pictured above, where he extracted colors from the titles of works within the LOC catalog, creating a way to search the collection in a nonlinear manner.

The tool succeeds in a few ways: To start, it’s cool to look at, and fun to interact with, so it’s easy to imagine a user getting lost in clicking through the colors to see the source items. But in a wider scope, the code for this tool (and everything he’s developed as part of his residency) is open and available for others to play with in their own projects. When considering how innovative work like this can be implemented at other institutions, especially those that don’t have nearly the resources of LOC, openly available code is a great place to start.

But that is a big consideration that we’re left with when examining Thorp’s work as Innovator-in-Residence. How can an institution do more to encourage engagement by a wider, more diverse audience if it isn’t fortunate enough to host a residency like that? Perhaps there are ways the LOC work can trickle down and be a jumping-off point? For instance, many libraries already run coding programs for kids; what if they worked with Thorp’s tools, but modified them to work with their home catalogs?

Another big question: Do projects like this achieve the goal of reaching more people who don’t normally use these resources already? There’s an argument that could be made for increased exposure, that the social sharing and media coverage of cool projects extends the potential audience for a collection. But if those new users don’t end up engaging with it, as Bush noted so many years ago, is it really useful? For me, if the user’s imagination is sparked in some way, that’s a “use” we should be more than happy with.

Originally written for INFO-654: Information Technologies, Pratt School of Information, Fall 2018.

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