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.
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.
[This blog post by Jenica Rogers](http://www.attemptingelegance.com/?p=1453 “Stop blaming the user at Attempting Elegance”) is a perfect example of the way more libraries ought to be thinking.
Money quote (emphasis mine):
> The user is not broken in that **our job is to fulfill the user’s needs**, and the user’s needs are, while not always well-defined, possible to meet, or understood by either side, valid — so accusing the user of Doing It Wrong is counterproductive to our goals and needs, and should be avoided. This applies to space usage, reference inquiries, customer service, and use of our online tools.
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Libraries need to pay a lot more attention to how our patrons behave and start adapting our systems to [the way our patrons *expect* search to behave](http://bitsandbooks.com/2009/11/the-smart-firehose/ “The Smart Firehose: a blog post at Bits and Books”). Our seemingly in-built desire to force patrons to search for things our way is counterproductive and ultimately damaging to our credibility and our profession.
If there’s one point that I’d like to add to hers, it’s that a big part of the problem is that very few libraries actually take real responsibility for the software that’s used to build their site. By [relying on external vendors](http://bitsandbooks.com/2011/11/libraries-need-coders/ “Libraries Need More Coders: a blog post at Bits and Books”) and not having *in-house* coders who can improve the system, many libraries pretend that any deficiencies in it are minor and/or not their responsibility. But *everything* that happens under your logo — whether it’s on your website, at the Reference Desk or how you organize your stacks — is ultimately *your* responsibility. That means that, like it or not, it’s your job to make things as easy and intuitive for your patrons as you can. As Jenica so wonderfully puts it:
> We can sit back, all of us, in libraries and outside of them, and with smug self-satisfaction explain why our tools, websites, spaces, and services are just brilliantly perfect… or we can thoughtfully observe our environment, acknowledge that the user has needs and is showing us what they are, and adapt.
The University of Chicago is about to open their newest library, [the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library][mansueto], which stores all of its items in a fully-automated underground vault. Library users can request a book online and the system will automatically fetch the appropriate container, from which library staff can retrieve it.
It’s all very cool, but I find myself wondering about the implications of a library where users can’t browse the collection. At [my own library][Woodson], we have a [research collection][Harsh] whose stacks are closed to the public. While this means that material can be preserved – there are some extremely rare, valuable and fragile works in the collection – the opportunity cost of such a setup means that patrons can’t browse the collection and discover things they didn’t know they wanted.
For the last several months, I’ve been doing patron service for [Chicago Public Library] on [Twitter]. I’m [@stray] (CPL has an official account, [@chipublib], but that one is run by our wonderful Director of Marketing).
[Chicago Public Library]: http://chipublib.org/
[@stray]: http://twitter.com/stray “Rob Dumas on Twitter”
[@chipublib]: http://twitter.com/chipublib “Chicago Public Library on Twitter”
A couple of months ago, I bought a domain, **cpl.to**, and set it up as a [bitly Pro] account, because I like the idea of having a special “shortlink” domain that I can use for tweets about CPL. However, I haven’t shared them anywhere but on Twitter and you might find these interesting or useful, so here are a bunch of useful links I’ve created so far.