Sunday 1 May 2011

The library network - from book archiving to knowledge facilitator

The amount of knowledge had doubled every 10 to 15 years for the last two centuries (Price, 1953); well at least the annually number of published articles does. The number of books is also increasing rapidly. In Newton’s times it was hard to get the right books, nowadays it is hard to select the right books. This changes the role of the scientific library. At the same time, information technology - powerful databases and the internet - open up new opportunities to find relevant information.

This document describes three ideas that will hopefully make the university book collections much more valuable. These ideas are can be linked to the fundamental thoughts behind the success of Amazon, Napster and Google.

Judging documents – Bookshelves & Amazon

The large amounts of books make it important to select carefully which books to read. Unfortunately, the large number of books also made most libraries put their book in efficient archives instead of open bookshelves. Just a short glance at a book is sufficient to make a make a first selection between books whose titles would all look promising on a computer screen. This entices one to review a larger variety of titles. Amazon understands that it is difficult for someone to judge a book by its title and author. Thus a substitute for the bookshelves, Amazon provides a picture of the book cover (from which you can see if it a popular scientific book or a rigorous one) and sometimes even a few scanned pages.

More importantly, Amazon supplies its customers with book reviews by the publisher and, even more central, is has reviews and valuations by the readers. Thus, while I am browsing the library catalogue, I often have the screen of Amazon next to it, to help me in the selection.

The catalogue of the university library could link to Amazon (and similar bookstores) and put up themselves a system of reviews by scientists. This system would be extra valuable if many university libraries would cooperate in this matter, to gain more mass.

At the Amazon homepage, you can see that many readers love to share their judgement of books with others. You could enhance the amount of contributions by making a yearly top contributions list and awarding people with many contributions with a gift certificate from a bookstore.

Networking people – Napster

In the times of Napster, I discovered much more new music and bought more CDs than ever before or nowadays. This was not only because if was easy to find music and listen to it in peace, but also because you could see all music files which other people were offering. Thus by searching for a band you would like, you would also find other people who liked that band, and the music they like. If someone has a lot of music you like, it is worthwhile to listen to the other music they like. If you do not have a mainstream music taste, this is a much better way to find good music, than listening to the radio.

Scientists are normally interested in very specialized topics, far from mainstream. Occasionally I have to return a nice book to the library because someone else had reserved it. This makes me curious who else at my university was interested in this topic. Finally a like-minded soul? Unfortunately, I will never know in the current system.

It would be great, if you could see who else borrowed a book before, which other books these people borrowed, and preferably their contact data. This would not only facilitate finding great books, it would also help scientists to find other people thinking on similar problems. Scientists that would normally never find each other as they work in other groups could start doing great science together.

Concerns over privacy, could be overcome by letting people choose if they want the books they borrow to be on their list automatically or not, and by including the option to exclude or include a certain book. On the other side, it should be possible to include books you like into your list yourself without borrowing them so that other people can find you more easily.

Intelligent network searching - Google

Once we have the above system linking books and people together, we can also use this to improve the search facility of the library database. Google sorts the possible solutions it find based on link popularity, and puts the likely most relevant solutions at the top. In our system, we do not need to limit ourselves to generally popular (much-borrowed) books. We can also use the lists of borrowed books (and their valuations), to find the most relevant books for a certain person. Thus, a book that was read by scientists who have borrowed many of the same books as the searcher, is put above a book that fits the search just as well, but is read by another cluster of scientists.

To avoid thinking in the same direction as all the other, one should of course be able to disable this search method as well. Where the previous two ideas could be implemented independently, this idea would need at least one of the previous ones. However, for this search method, it would be no problem if the list of borrowed books would be confidential.


Price, D. J. The exponential curve of science, Discovery 17, pp. 240-243, 1956.

This post was first published on my homepage on December 2004.

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