The last 5 years have heralded a number of important changes to virtual libraries in academic and public settings. Despite this continual effort to improve library catalogs and websites, the fundamentals of these online spaces remain relatively unchanged. Digital collections are within reach of many libraries, yet they remain difficult to integrate. Social media is slowly making its way into online library spaces, but new opportunities to integrate with online communities remain limited. This article will examine factors that have influenced how the library's virtual space has evolved and suggest some avenues for future development and direction. Two initiatives from public and academic libraries will be used to illustrate how new technologies have made it possible for Yellowhead Regional Library (YRL) in Alberta, Canada, to develop a discovery platform for the iPad. The same technologies will help music students at Alberta's Grant MacEwan University, where I serve as music and performing arts librarian, to discover hard-to-find music materials.
Virtual Spaces--The Current Situation
Prior to the evolution of Web 2.0, the web was used primarily as a place to retrieve information or accomplish specific tasks. Over the past few years, websites have evolved from being basic information portals into virtual spaces that are places to hang out, to discover, and to socialize. Libraries have struggled to implement the characteristics of online spaces that we have become accustomed to through our interactions with Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These characteristics have become core elements of the online architecture that libraries want to incorporate into their virtual space.
One of the reasons that libraries are lagging behind in their virtual spaces is that librarians are not in control of these spaces in the same way that they are with their physical spaces. For example, librarians and staff are able to arrange floor plans, relocate collections, and update a building's aesthetics to best meet the needs of their customers. But when was the last time you moved your search box, added a link to share, or integrated social content into your catalog?
Several factors are at play here. For the most part, libraries have managed to maintain a web presence on their own, but tight budgets have generated a market for companies to create and manage library catalogs. These companies have responded by offering products that are far more advanced than most libraries could afford to develop on their own. They provide catalogs within a range of qualities and costs. Because libraries cannot afford to pay for custom catalogs, one or two solutions are provided for all customers. Homogenization occurs as a handful of industry leaders are privileged with the task of shaping the virtual spaces of libraries across the country.
So, libraries do not have a single virtual space that represents their collections and services--instead, they have linked multiple disparate spaces. With one virtual space for the library, another for the catalog, yet others for databases, ebooks, and readers' advisory services (just to name a few), the virtual library sends customers bouncing around from place to place. This approach is fundamentally disconnected from recent innovations that engage visitors in today's online world.
Is it then possible for the library to incorporate elements of modern online architecture that would encourage a greater sense of community when visiting the virtual library? Can libraries begin to shape their virtual spaces, amalgamate numerous online spaces, and create a unique virtual library space for their communities? At both MacEwan and YRL, there is a strong belief that overcoming these challenges is within our means. There is a willingness to take risks, and librarians are encouraged to experiment with new technologies that can make these things possible. …