Monday, October 26, 2009

flatlands and failures of curation

As a counterpoint to my last post on the rise of the verticals, I've been thinking about the importance of horizontal library collections. On the one hand if a library wants to make a difference in the web environment, they should develop unique vertical collections that focus in on particular subject areas and are of interest globally.

But what of the notion that libraries, particularly college libraries like my own, should provide their users with a strong general collection in line with their institution's curriculum? In the long tail, hybrid print/digital environment of the early 21rst century, this idea of a broad and shallow local collection perhaps doesn't make as much sense. As we try to expand our patron's information universe with consortial borrowing and large aggregations of e content, not to mention awareness of what's out there on the web, the idea of a limited general book collection seems quaint, like your neighborhood book store.

Somehow, we still want our patrons to be able to be able to identify the most important works in a subject area without getting overloaded with choices. One might argue that Google's success is based on doing something like this for the web as a whole. Google is able to reliably pull up the most popular and trusted websites on a given topic.

Our discovery systems need to do a better job of giving some relief to the information landscape. Our users should be able to tell if some titles are more popular, more widely cited, etc. than others. If a text is a classic work of literature or a classic in the field, it should be obvious s in search results.

Ranking search results based partly on the number of holding libraries like does is a step in the right direction: the collective intelligence of collection development work, if you will. FRBRization is another one. Use of citation analysis could be another. Folksonomies and recommendation engines another. Human curation also has a role.

The commercial world is getting good at using these techniques. Libraries really have a chance to lead in the FRBRizaton arena, I think. This is something the commercial world hasn't figured out, as Mike Shatzkin points out out here:
Recommendation engines aside (”based on what you bought before, have we got a book for you!”), online book retailers have a long way to go to enable the customized curation that seems both possible and desireable in the digital age. Even as sophisticated a retailer at Barnes & Noble will present multiple duplicate entries of a public domain scan from Google to an ebook search for a Shakespeare play. And even as sophisticated a retailer as Amazon will sell you a Kindle ebook that is a self-published tome in a way that is indistinguishable from a book from a legitimate publisher. These are failures of curation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

the rise of the verticals

Mike Shatzkin, a commentator on the book publishing industry, makes the following observation:
Horizontal aggregation was more efficient in a world of physical delivery. Vertical aggregation makes more sense in a world of digital delivery. And enabling the customer or user to have some control over the curation is possible in the digital world but hardly is in the physical.
Shatzkin sees the future information ecosystem trending towards niches or 'verticals' with global audiences.

He is contrasting this model with traditional bookstores and trade publishers that cover a wide range of subjects. It also seems the opposite of the way that a traditional academic or public library is setup with books spanning a wide range of subjects and positioned to serve a local audience.

old=local and horizontal
new=global and vertical

I would argue that in the academic repository arena, we can already observe the difference between these two approaches.

Institutional repositories aggregate scholarship that crosses a wide range of subject areas only tied together by affiliation with a single academic institution. They might be described as local and horizontal.

Disciplinary repositories like the Social Science Research Network and concentrate content in certain academic disciplines. They might be described and global and vertical.

Which model is more successful, the disciplinary repositories or the institutional ones? If this ranking is right, it is the disciplinary repositories. They have the most momentum and interest behind them.

Generally, I think that digital initiatives in libraries will be most successful if they are able to build on a vertical community. Projects that are too wide in scope end up being about nothing.