Bits and Books: Libraries, the Internet and Meeting the Needs of Twenty-first Century Patrons

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Hello! I'm Rob, an innovative, patron-focused, high-tech librarian living in Chicago.

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NYPL Labs has launched a website, Direct Me NYC 1940, which allows people to look up a person in the 1940 New York telephone directory and then to find that person in the National Archives’ recently-released 1940 Census. It’s a great idea and a wonderful example of how libraries can integrate existing resources to provide valuable information complete with context.

Screenshot of Direct Me NYC 1940 website

Even better: since they developed it themselves, this information didn’t cost NYPL a penny. If they had asked a vendor to build a tool like this, it would likely have involved thousands of dollars in licensing fees, months of meetings and an expensive support contract. By building and releasing it quickly and by themselves, though, New York Public Library has created a tool that gives people a fascinating look into our past and saved money, too.

Hopefully, this will encourage more public libraries to take a chance on building useful tools themselves instead of just relying on vendors for everything.


PC Sweeney has a great post on his blog wherein he questions the trend of “branding” libraries, which you should really read. However, although he’s got several great reasons why branding may not be the solution to your library’s problems, he’s come to a much more practical basis for branding:

But here is where I think Branding is right. If a library system serves a small enough or similar enough community of users that they typically want or need the same services and programs etc… that there is a large enough crossover of patrons between the library system’s branches who are not also using a number of other libraries in the area or that the use of those libraries would not dilute the brand they are trying to create. And of course, that the cost of trying to rebrand every library is far lower than the benefits. I’ve only seen 2 public library systems where I would argue that this occurs.

I agree that “branding” has become a fad — both in library schools and in libraries — but I also think that eventually, the true value of branding will become apparent and libraries will deploy it when it can have a geniunely positive impact and not just because something is novel. However, the only way to reach that level is to understand what branding is and what it does.

A brand is a means, not an end.

Right now, digital media centers such as CPL’s YouMedia are heavily branded because they seem novel… but they’re really not. They’re actually quite a natural stage in the evolution of the library. To your average teen, a digital media center in the library is as obvious a feature as including a steering wheel in a car.

Look at the PC market: Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer, Samsung, Alienware… all of them have a “personality” to their brand, but they’re all effectively the same. It’s one of the reasons so many people have little brand loyalty in the PC market: despite the intense marketing efforts of those companies, the average consumer sees them all as virtually identical. When you’re just another copycat doing all the same things as everyone else, your brand doesn’t carry any real weight with your patrons.1

In short, your brand is a tool for highlighting your differentiation from “the rest”, not your similarity to them. When a person sees Apple’s brand, they think of devices that are well-designed and work together (and are more expensive). Apple’s “think different” philosophy infuses not just their ads, but their whole product line. This, in turn, creates in the minds of its customers psychological connections that the company reinforces through its brand.

As digital media centers proliferate in libraries across the country, the novelty of branding them will wear off and eventually, we’ll be left with a generic term for them (hopefully, something more succinct and catchy than “digital media center”).2 And thus should it become clear that your brand was only ever a means to an end: namely, providing the services your patrons need.


  1. Don’t forget that your branding effort can backfire if the thing you’ve branded is crap, leaving people with a negative impression of it… and of you. (Two words: Ford Pinto.) 

  2. You know, given all the branding being thrown at digital media centers these days, it’s possible that we could end up with several terms in different regions of the country, similar to the way that “sub”, “grinder” and “hoagie” are all different regional terms for the same kind of sandwich. 


Don’t know how I missed this piece when it came out a couple of months back. Instagram is a pretty simple app — take picture, apply filter, share it — but this post on their engineering blog describes how they use tools like Amazon Web Services, Ubuntu Linux, Django and PostgreSQL to make their app work simply and reliably. There’s a lot of work that goes into making something like Instagram seem so simple and work so well.



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