Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Data Opens New Opportunities for Libraries

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Data Opens New Opportunities for Libraries

Article excerpt

We live in an era of abundant data. It seems that these warehouses of quantitative or qualitative information insert themselves into almost every aspect of our professional or personal life. Targeted advertising, personalized services, what coupons we receive in a store, and recommendations offered on ecommerce sites or even in library discovery services all depend on data collected across a vast array of online and in-person transactions. Organizations of all stripes--commercial, nonprofit, and governmental--are increasingly involved in accumulating vast quantities of data. Exploiting Big Data to measure operational performance and to discover inferences or relationships to improve services has become a major focus in the commercial realm--and increasingly in the educational and governmental sectors.

Data can be seen as a form of currency in the online economy. Every tiny bit of data describing personal preferences or nuances among competitive products, topics, or ideas can be aggregated and analyzed in ways that potentially add economic value.

Technology-based systems no longer have to be selective in what they record. The constantly declining costs of digital storage drive the prevailing mindset across almost all areas of business and society conducted via technology to collect as much information as possible. These bodies of data accumulated over time become valuable assets available to be exploited in many ways. The contents of these data range from innocuous to highly personal and private. Higher value is often seen in data that's capable of supporting narrowly targeted and personalized services.

The library community largely stands alone in its efforts to scrub the data it collects about the online activity of its clientele to remove personally identifying elements. It has become quite a challenge for libraries to develop personalized services that meet the expectations of our users often without the benefit of granular, individualized data. Libraries can gain enormous value by taking advantage of the vast amount of data at their disposal. But at the same time, they face challenges to harness it in ways consistent with the values of the profession.

Shaping User Experience With User Data

A classic example can be seen in the management of library websites. Many libraries take advantage of statistical tools or analytics services to guide refinements to the design and usability of their web-based resources. Tools such as Google Analytics provide a powerful and easy-to-use environment for monitoring and analyzing almost any aspect of a website and are based on a massive set of data, built through recording every page or resource delivered by the site. This dataset may be populated from the logs of the web server, or it may be sent to the analytics provider in real time. Google Analytics is based on embedded JavaScript that sends data regarding each page request to Google's servers. This data enables Google to provide analytics tools for website operators. The data accumulated from all the sites that participate in Google Analytics represents a massive resource that Google may be able to tap directly or indirectly for its other services.

The ability to make design decisions based on such a massive set of use data offers incredible benefits. It is informative to see how users traverse a site, to determine what resources are less visible, and to be able to detect usability issues in the interface or under-performing content. Based on the principal of actionable analytics, changes can be implemented and monitored to discern improvements. Designing or even just maintaining a website without use data and analytical tools seems akin to working in the dark.

Optimizing Collections

Collection development in libraries is increasingly informed by multiple data resources and analytics. The most basic process of selecting materials might consist of a subject specialist working through publisher catalogs or other lists of materials available in a given genre or field. …

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