Sometimes the Internet is just not big enough for me

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A few weeks ago the OCLC Innovation Lab cosponsored, with Library Journal, an online symposium on the topic of "The Future is Mobile" (recording, tweet stream).  As an intro to the symposium, I presented some high-level demographics about the most frequent visitors to library catalog sites.  Depending on the measurement service, library catalogs attract primarily those over 45 or 55 years old. From my discussions with library leaders over the years, my feeling is that most of us think we're designing systems for a much broader (and younger) audience.  I am not suggesting this work is in vain. An online catalog presence remains the foundational service of the library to their users.   However, a well designed online catalog by itself is just not enough to reach the broad range of users in a convenient way.  We need a holistic program of services leveraging the investment we have made to connect with the communities we serve.  

Mobile applications for end-users was the first target for the Innovation Lab  and remains a high priority ongoing.  Mobile data and Web services are relatively new and fairly mixed up for everyone, not just libraries: lots of platforms, devices and service strategies.  While testing mobile strategies, we are repeatedly reminded that for the younger audiences, mobile is primarily a social platform.  For many, even on traditional desktops, their primary access to the Internet is through a social window:  Facebook, Twitter, Buzz, Wave and a vast array of social services.  These kinds of services are holding the attention of the users who we would most like to attract to library offerings.

This social focus has lead to a new trial service from the OCLC Innovation Lab. For those who have friended or followed one of our team on Twitter, you may have noticed some strange looking posts in our social networks.   Some of you have even figured it out and tried it for yourself.   Well, here's what's been going on.

#Ask4Stuff is a new, Twitter-based service that returns a WorldCat search when you send a tweet with the tag #Ask4Stuff.  So if you send the following tweet:

#Ask4Stuff lake erie shipwreck
You'll get a tweet back that says something like:

@YOURNAME A few things about lake erie shipwreck in #Ask4Stuff, check out http://is.gd/cY7gi
Where the link then takes you to the WorldCat.org search result for "lake erie shipwreck."
You can even localize the result to a WorldCat Local instance by including the Local library name as another hash tag.  

Example:

#Ask4Stuff #OSU lake erie shipwreck
Why would you want to generate a Twitter-based search of library materials through WorldCat?  Keep in mind that this first implementation is more suggestive than an end in itself.  We thought that as it stands, it could be useful in its current form.   Many people use Twitter for reminders or just simple notes to their peers. You may want to share a search with your social network and mark it with another hash tag. Or you might want to store the results in your tweet stream just like bookmarks. You might want save a thought for later work through a mobile device. The point is, people are using Twitter for all kinds of reasons. If libraries can get their data and services into that space, it will bring more users to the library.

We think it is important to get your feedback and ideas on this now while we are in the infancy of ideation.   We see some possibilities for linguistic analysis, understanding the context of a question vs. a resource request, for example.  We also could place this agent in nearly any social stream that has an available API.  We would be happy to get your suggestions...   Send suggestions to our project feedback email at OCLCiLab@gmail.com

Back to the title of this post, "Sometimes the Internet is just not big enough for me."  I asked my son, a recent high school grad, if he would use something like this. His response started with that phrase!  His view was clearly that libraries made the Internet "bigger" and when doing academic work he needed "bigger."  Let's go libraries! Let's make the Internet bigger for the incoming students this fall!

PS: My thanks to the team that got us to this point. Willie Neumann, a local entrepreneur working with the OCLC Innovation Lab started with an idea of a social agent working on behalf of libraries.  Tip House, a respected OCLC architect ran with the idea. Our product staff in End User jumped on board... Jeff Penka and Bob Robertson-Boyd with testing and advice.  Andy Havens from Marketing jumped in with some name selection help. We wrote some new stuff, pulled together some external services and used our own services. We tried some stuff that failed immediately and found some things that just might work. This is exactly how we envision innovation happening... A little messy, fast, small steps and a wide range of expertise. 

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