After a few months off, I have decided that its time to come back to the blog. It was easy to sit around and rant in February while the world outside was cold and dreary, but when spring sprung I found myself out in the park with a book or a frisbee or a beer at the times when I would have written. I hope I still have a reader or two.
Where to begin?
I’m going to start by humbly eating some of my words. Kind of. I got really irked by a presentation a while back at the PLA conference called “Why we Borrow”, an adaptation of Envirosell/Paco Underhill’s “Why we Buy” book about tracking customer patterns in the retail environment. The results of their study were undoubtedly pretty cool and totally useful (download the powerpoint here), but my gripe was that librarians really ought to be doing things like this themselves rather than hiring outside consultants. Having begun to take a shot at such a thing myself, I believe I now understand why we depend on consultants for services like this. First, it is difficult and time consuming and most libraries are understaffed. Second, many public library systems are structured in such a manner that all of IT functions as a support service, completely divorced from the programmatic/public service side of the house. Without departments devoted to user experience, digital services, or digital initiatives, public libraries will not really be able to build a staff that is empowered and expected to create tools and studies akin to Envirosell’s. UNLESS: through collaboration we can all help eachother.
A couple of months ago, colleagues and I started scheming out a plan to do a building usage study for the Central Library at Brooklyn Public Library. The general idea is to borrow a lot of the methodology used for website usability studies and apply it to the physical architecture and overall service ecology of this particular library building. By tracking library patrons’ paths and decisions through space and time, we figure we can establish metrics describing weaknesses and strengths in our various service interfaces. If you ask 100 people in a study to locate “The Catcher in the Rye” and they all make similar mistakes or struggled next to the same sign, kiosk, library employee, or screen, then you can draw certain conclusions and make corrections based on them. As of now the plan is to use Google SketchUp Pro to extrude a 3d model of the building from a CAD file and then to actually graph people’s “journeys” as they perform these tasks (I hope this is not overambitious). The whole thing is really no different than the Envirosell project, the only real difference is that it takes advantage of free software. My suggestion is to sort of “open-source” the project development through a wiki so that other libraries and librarians can modify and improve the methodology. No, there’s nothing really that groundbreaking about that approach but at least it helps to empower a larger group of librarians as tool builders.
Now for the fun stuff…
In the meantime, while I’ve been trying to determine what I wanted to measure at the library and while discussing how to actually accomplish any of these goals, a few interesting and undoubtedly expensive services appeared in the news. I look at these as potential upgrades or improvements upon the Envirosell videocamera heavy approach (they shot 350 hours of video in the San Jose libraries). First is Path Intelligence and their product “FootPath, the only automated measurement technology that can continuously monitor the path that your shoppers or passengers take”. These Orwellian guys monitor cellphone signals to do this same journey-tracking work in retail environments, and you have to figure they do it with incredible accuracy. Then, fairly recently, I became aware of CitySense, a mobile app for the BlackBerry. THIS RULES. “Citysense shows the overall activity level of the city, top activity hotspots, and places with unexpectedly high activity, all in real-time. Then it links to Yelp and Google to show what venues are operating at those locations.” CitySense is similar to Stamen’s streaming visualization project “Cabspotting” which tracks the volume of cabs in San Francisco in real time, only it is far more powerful because it is available on a mobile device. What if CitySense could be implemented on a smaller level, just in one public building? What if a teen is able to activate “LibrarySense” on his or her mobile phone and use it to determine where in the building other people with similar interests are congregating? Wouldn’t this effectively turn every other patron in the building into a blip that you opt to have displayed on your mobile based on preferences and settings? This would mean you can skip traditional “social networking” practices and infer characteristics of blips by observing their actual behaviors. Think about that- that’s deep! All of your Facebook and Myspace crap really is just a transition into a much richer social/digital/virtual world environment soon to come.
If any readers are actually interested in taking a crack at this building usage methodology, drop a comment and I’ll create a wiki for us to collaborate on. I’m winging this, but I think there’s potential to do something here. Thanks for reading, its good to be back, I’m gonna go watch some fireworks.