Wednesday, 2 July 2008

The Meaning Wrapper

I was reading about the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section conference of the American Libraries Association this week, held in LA.

Apparently there was quite a spring in everyone's step as rare books are seen to be gaining in importance.

This echoes a presentation I gave at the Museum Computer Network conference in Chicago a few months back. I picked up on a presentation at RBMS by Karen Calhoun from OCLC where she mentions a really important fact about special collections. She labels it "metadata +outreach skills=strategic assets".

In Chicago I billed it slightly differently. In a competitive knowledge economy, when users can go to multiple potential sites for the same content, what sets your institution apart?

My answers are:
- the special collections you hold
- the wrapper of meaning (metadata, interpretation, outreach, education) you put around those assets
- the user experience (including the online UI, the physical site and the facilities).

If you are just putting online material that will also be held elsewhere, people will go to Google. As Karen also highlights, 89% of all information searches start with search engines, not library websites (OCLC report, echoed by BL/JISC Google Generation report January 2008).

But if you can provide unique material, with a compelling user experience and toolset, bringing to bear some of the scholarship that your institution has, then you have a case.

If you can't you'll end end up a warehouseman. Bizarrely both Karen and I used this shot to emphasise this point.

Her slides are here.