After a long period of development, testing and some delays, BiblioCommons appears poised to move forward as a contender in the arena of discovery interfaces. Developed by a Toronto-based company of the same name, BiblioCommons offers a new approach to the discovery interface that fully embraces social networking as a fundamental component in the way that patrons find and select resources from library collections.
BiblioCommons has been available at the Oakville Public Library in Ontario for public use since July 2008. Other deployments were in the works to follow on the heels of this implementation, but were delayed while the company resolved some issues with scaling and performance. In recent months these issues have been resolved and a number of installations are slated to take place by the end of 2009.
The basic premise of BiblioCommons centers on using social networking to enhance the ways in which patrons gain access to library collections. It brings social features into the very fabric of the online catalog.
The trajectory of user interaction initially begins with the discovery of resources, but expands as patrons interact with each other and take advantage of socially created data. The potential for interaction goes beyond those associated with their own library, as users can interact with the larger body of all libraries participating in BiblioCommons. The opportunities for resource discovery expand as recommendations, reviews, ratings and other social activities spark interest in other items from the library's collection. BiblioCommons aims to increase the use of the library's collection through social networking.
It's able to move beyond positioning of a few of the most popular items to guiding patrons to discover materials throughout a much broader spectrum through socially created information and interactions.
Architecture and Technology
Like the majority of existing discovery interface products, BiblioCommons operates separately from the underlying integrated library system. Like the generic discovery interface model, data are harvested from the ILS and used to populate a separate search and retrieval environment. Products like Primo, Encore and AquaBrowser each harvest the metadata from the ILS and other local collections into an instance of the software specific to the implementation of a library or consortium. BiblioCommons takes a fairly radical departure in that data from the ILS of each participating library loads into a centralized site. From the perspective of the patron, the library may scope the search to a given library or region, but the fundamental concept of BiblioCommons involves broadly shared data. In addition to harvesting basic bibliographic records, BiblioCommons harvests holdings and item-level data as well as authority records. Even though BiblioCommons relies on a shared bibliographic database, it preserves and indexes any locally created cataloging.
One of the key issues with discovery interfaces is the way that they overlap and interact with the underlying ILS. BiblioCommons shares the concept of harvesting and synchronizing data describing the collection from the ILS, but into a collective service rather than library-specific implementations.
Some of the discovery interfaces tap into the online catalog features of the ILS for item-specific displays and services, such as placing a hold. BiblioCommons completely replaces the online catalog of the ILS, managing all aspects of the way that the patron interacts with the collection. Its emphasis on the patron and social interactions require a much more sophisticated approach than a simple hand off to the patron services functionality built into the online catalog module of the ILS.
BiblioCommons involves extensive use of patron data. It does not harvest the patron records from the ILS, but as patrons register on BiblioCommons, they are validated against their patron record in the ILS. All social features of BiblioCommons can be invoked only after the patron authenticates with the library-assigned username and pin. This requirement for authentication engenders a more trusted social environment.
The interactions between the ILS and BiblioCommons take place through a Web services layer which supports synchronization of the collection data as well as real-time interaction needs for current item status and patron requests.
Like many of its competitors, BiblioCommons relies on Apache Lucene and SOLR as its core search engine technology. Other components include PostgreSQL. Most of the server internals have been implemented in Java, including the data integration and service layer. The Web application layer was developed with Ruby on Rails, a very flexible programming environment that has recently seen widespread use in the open source community. BiblioCommons implements a service-oriented architecture, with an API made available through Web services. All communication between the BiblioCommons' own Web application and the internal server applications operate through the REST (representational state transfer) API, which is also available to the library for any custom applications it may choose to implement.
Communication between the ILS and BiblioCommons takes place through a software application that resides within the library's technical infrastructure. This connector manages the transfer and synchronization of bibliographic, item-level, and authority data between the ILS and BiblioCommons. This application monitors the ILS for any changes so that data can be synchronized in as close to real time as possible. The connector also handles the interactions with the circulation module and patron data needed as users make requests through BiblioCommons that involve the local ILS. The connectors involve programming specific to each ILS product, taking advantage of any API's that might be available as well as standard library protocols. BiblioCommons has been designed to operate with any ILS, though initially the connectors have been completed for SirsiDynix Horizon and Symphony; development of connectors for Innovative's Millennium, the open source Evergreen ILS and other ILS products are underway.
A Rich Interface
BiblioCommons incorporates the features that have become standard in this new genre of discovery interfaces. It offers simple and advanced search options, relevancy- ranked search results and the use of book jacket images for enhanced visual appeal and faceted navigation. The interface includes a checkbox labeled "available now" that limits results to items not currently checked out. When viewing an item, BiblioCommons includes a feature that allows the user to graphically browse the shelf, emulating the experience of the physical library.
BiblioCommons blends the Web site and the online catalog into a unified user experience. The library's main page draws from both from local content and from the services provided through BiblioCommons.
Pushing the Social Networking Concept to the Limit
While other discovery interfaces include some social networking features, BiblioCommons relies upon social data and interactions as a key part of its core functionality. Traditional online catalogs perform well in tasks involving locating items of a known author, title or subject. However, they do not do as good of a job with the more nebulous task of finding interesting material. Patrons benefit from services that highlight items within their sphere of interest that they may not have found through traditional online catalog searches. Posting lists of best sellers may expose some obvious items, but does not exploit the depth of material found in library collections. BiblioCommons exploits socially generated content to help users discover a wider range of materials within their topics of interest.
BiblioCommons offers a user account feature designed to engage library patrons. The designers of BiblioCommons consider the point at which a patron performs actions such as reviewing items currently charged or requesting a renewal as an ideal time to invoke social networking features. It's when the patron may be ready to return an item that provides the best opportunity to provide a rating or review and to consider new reading materials.
BiblioCommons allows users to create reading lists of materials that not only help them keep track of what they have read, but that can be shared with others. Once shared, these lists become resources that help connect users with similar interests to help find related material. Browsing a list of items created by another patron can lead to the discovery of material that might not have been revealed through the usual search model. Users can write also reviews of any item,add tags, make comments, post a favorite quotation, rate the item for an appropriate age group, or post a video that might be related. All of these socially contributed data are associated with the user, so that other users can make connections with other users who have related interests, or establish networks of trust. When reading a review, patrons can register whether they trust its writer, either generally or on a particular topic.
One of the key ideas behind BiblioCommons involves the sharing of socially contributed data, not just within the group of users associated with a given library, but in a broader community of all the libraries involved with BiblioCommons.
Targeting Public Libraries
BiblioCommons has been designed specifically for public libraries. Each type of library brings its own set of needs to a discovery interface. BiblioCommons did some work with Queens University in Kingston, Ontario to test and refine BiblioCommons for the academic environment. It was eventually determined that the needs of academic libraries were substantially different and that BiblioCommons would maintain its focus on public libraries.
Current and Expected Deployments
BiblioCommons, under development since 2006, saw its initial roll-out when it went live at the Oakville Public Library in July 2008. BiblioCommons is poised for deployment in a number of additional libraries. The Knowledge Ontario program purchased a master license, and has been actively involved in testing the product. Since the subscription cost has been absorbed at the provincial level, any library in Ontario can adopt BiblioCommons without cost for the next two years. Libraries in Ontario on track to implement BiblioCommons include the Ottawa Public Library, the Stratford Public Library, and Halton Hills. The Provincial Library Services Branch in British Columbia has also purchased a master license, but the specific libraries that will initially implement BiblioCommons have not yet been determined.
In Alberta, the Edmonton Public Library will operate BiblioCommons with their SirsiDynix Symphony platform. According to Peter Schoenberg, testing of the new environment by staff will commence in July, with a public preview in August. The library anticipates using BiblioCommons as their default interface in September 2009.
Outside of Canada, libraries that have made a commitment to implement BiblioCommons include the Daniel Boone Regional Library in Missouri. The Yarra Plenty Regional Library Service in Australia has also indicated that it will implement BiblioCommons. The California State Library provided funding for a two-year pilot project to test BiblioCommons. Califa Library Group will be the exclusive distributor for BiblioCommons to public libraries in California. Implementations are underway at the Santa Clara Public Library and the Oceanside Public Libraries in California. Palo Alto has also indicated an interest in testing the service.
BiblioCommons Company Background
BiblioCommons was founded in 2007 by Beth Jefferson, who now serves as the CEO. The company employs about 10 people and is based in Toronto, Ontario. The beginnings of BiblioCommons can be traced to May 2006 when collaboration began among the provinces of Alberta, Ontario, and British Columbia to investigate the use of social networking concepts in library catalogs. (See http://www.thealbertalibrary.ab.ca/archives/ archivedDocs/AR2006Contentv2.0.pdf).
BiblioCommons represents the culmination of a series of related projects initiated by Jefferson, who holds an MBA from Harvard. Prior to BiblioCommons, Jefferson was involved in The Perfink Project, an online teen literacy initiative created in partnership with the Toronto Public Library. In June 2004 Jefferson was awarded the Canadian IT Hero award from the Information Technology Association of Canada for her work on the BookTalk, a predecessor to the Perfink Project. These projects share a common theme with BiblioCommons of applying current online computing concepts to facilitating literacy and reading.
The funding behind BiblioCommons comes from contributions from library organizations and private investors. The BC Public Libraries Branch, The Alberta Library, and the Ontario Library Association each contributed $50,000 to support the development of the BiblioCommons prototype. British Columbia and Ontario purchased two-year province-wide site licenses. These subscription prepayments and private investments financed the build-out of the prototype into a production platform.
BiblioCommons has been brewing largely behind the scenes for quite some time. With only one site in production, a year-long delay for refactoring the design to improve performance, and a Web site devoid of content, it has been difficult to assess the prospects of the project. With a number of libraries now on track to go forward with BiblioCommons by the end of the year, BiblioCommons seems poised to join the ranks of the major contenders in the discovery interface arena.
Its unique approach to blending social networking into the discovery process lends it an interesting point of differentiation that many libraries may find attractive.