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Toronto startup drags NY libraries into the future Add to ...

Remember when you went to a library, browsed, signed out a book and left? Before the dot-com explosion, the library was a knowledge warehouse. But times have changed, and libraries are struggling to adapt.

BiblioCommons, an 18-employee company from Toronto, is trying to bodycheck the library industry into the information age in such places as New York, Chicago and Ottawa. Taking the lead from social media, BiblioCommons, which launched in 2006 with funding from Knowledge Ontario, private investors and subscriptions, brings book readers, movie watchers and music listeners together.

Using BiblioCommons catalogue software, library patrons can search for items like books or DVDs or other material, then rate and review it, create best-of lists, follow other reviewers, view recommendations, and post likes and recommendations to social media sites.

"There's nothing radical about BiblioCommons whatsoever," says co-founder Beth Jefferson. "This is really about taking and packaging things that are completely standard in the rest of the Web and integrating them into the search-and-discovery environments of libraries."

Spread the word

Radical or not, the BiblioCommons formula is catching on through word-of-mouth in Canada, the U.S. and the world. What started as a pilot project in Toronto aimed at helping kids find books through knowing what other kids were reading is now a library-based software service in more than 100 libraries, including Ottawa, Cleveland, Chicago and Christchurch, New Zealand.

This, despite having only a spindly one-page website and no sales force other than Ms. Jefferson herself.

A few years ago, Peter Schoenberg, director of eServices for Edmonton Public Library, was at a library conference when he first learned about BiblioCommons. Social media aspects aside, he says its true power is the searchable catalogue.

"Right away I thought they had hit on a new model. They had done more than put lipstick on a pig," he says, referring to how library cataloguing companies once simply added bells and whistles to old legacy software. Instead, BiblioCommons was in the unique position of starting from scratch. The result? A better way to search.

For instance, using Edmonton's old catalogue software, a library user could type in "up" and find themselves face-to-face with a scattershot list of books, CDs, movies, authors' and even publishers' names. Since launching BiblioCommons in 2009, however, users searching for "up" are more likely to get the recent Pixar movie, Up, an REM CD and anything else relevant and highly targeted.

"You can't interact, rate or enjoy something you can't find. 'Findability' is a huge thing that BiblioCommons brought," says Mr. Schoenberg.

The choice to choose

Until BiblioCommons entered the scene, it was no secret that many book lovers were hitting sites like Amazon or Chapters/Indigo to read customer reviews and browse ratings. Then with titles in hand they would head to their own library's site and put the items on hold.

Not a bad idea, but it was hardly a seamless process. Plus, the library missed out on an opportunity to provide its core service: help readers find good books.

"If you're just providing the title for free, but you're not part of the discovery process, then you also lose control. You're not valuable to publishers," says Ms. Jefferson.

Instead, by turning a public library's website into a one-stop shop where a book reader can, say, read a glowing customer review, search for that book, put it on hold and then eventually walk out the door with it, the library becomes an online destination.

Those all-important customer reviews serve not only as a way to steer readers, viewers and listeners to new material - they're also a filter, keeping people looking for popular items free of being overwhelmed by too much choice.

About five years ago BiblioCommons researched how patrons chose what they went home with. It turned out that library visitors were likely to find their reading material by checking out the return cart or flipping through items left on desks. It was one way to avoid the aisles of unwanted books and find the stuff other people obviously felt was interesting.

Armed with the survey results, programmers developed an area on library sites that shows the most recently reviewed and rated items.

"What people most value is not access to 10 more sources, but filtering," says Ms. Jefferson. "What are the three titles I should start with? People want some way of limiting this big collection to something manageable."

Get used to it

More manageable and more fun: In one month, Mr. Schoenberg says he sees more than 10,000 ratings pop up on the site; and library customers write about 1,000 reviews and create about 1,000 lists. (A favourite that shot around Twitter for a while: "What would Charlie Sheen be reading?")

Even formerly skeptical library users, such as Marty Miller, from Hamilton, Ont., have come out in favour of the new system. Nearly 60, Mr. Miller admits he wasn't a fan of change when the city launched the new system. He even shot off an e-mail voicing his concerns. The library's response: He'd get use to it.

"I did," he writes in an e-mail. "They were right and now I wonder what I was upset about. A lesson was learned through this: Embrace change or grow old worrying about it."

Mr. Schoenberg says he hears stories like Mr. Miller's at his library's own branches. Some frequent library users had never rated or reviewed anything online before. In fact, for some, when BiblioCommons came along, it was the first time they'd ever created a username.

"It has an intriguing library-as-gateway-to-the-digital-world element," he says. "Eventually age stereotypes just fall away."

 

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