Wednesday, June 15, 2005

A Long Tail Service

Registration for the OCLC Symposium at ALA was 239 this morning. I have been working with our four speakers, and I am really looking forward to their presentations. You can get some foreshadowing of Chris Anderson's remarks from this May 5th article from The Economist (thanks to my next-door-cubby-neighbour, Arthur Smith for the link).

If you have read Chris's original article, you'll know that one of his main points about The Long Tail is that providing access to all content (or goods) in a tail--not just popular material--shifts demand by consumers from that popular material further down the tail, to "niche content."

The Economist
article asks: "But how can people find content they want when it is buried far down the tail? Already, a number of mechanisms have emerged, based on user recommendations. Perhaps the best known is 'collaborative filtering', in which purchase histories are analysed to work out what else is likely to interest the buyer of a particular product ('Customers who bought this item also bought...' as Amazon puts it). This approach allows users to navigate from hits that they know they like to more obscure titles further down the tail."

I now mount one of my favourite soapboxes: why, oh why, have librarians not been busy building recommender systems for their collections? Can't some clever people build one that sits on top of the silo known as the OPAC? Wouldn't it be a very good thing to suggest other, less popular, books to all those Da Vinci Code readers that may provide them with other views? Wouldn't this drive library users further down The Long Tails of libraries' extremely valuable but underused collections?

And why wasn't it one of our bookish tribe who came up with this?

"There can be few things more gratifying in life than finding a kindred spirit; someone who sees the world as we do, who enjoys the same intellectual challenges, who smiles at the same funny side of life. It’s something we all yearn for and yet, as we tunnel between work and family commitments, it’s often difficult to meet people beyond our immediate circle, let alone someone with whom we can have a meaningful conversation.

The days of such intellectual isolation may be over thanks to ConnectViaBooks, a brand new Web site which allows people to meet kindred spirits in the safe and culturally neutral setting of cyberspace. As the name implies, these encounters are forged through a shared love of books."

This came to my attention thanks to Ivan Chew, The Rambling Librarian, who has posted a lengthy review today. Ivan signed up so he has information about the process and what the service does. Not so very surprisingly, Amazon appears to be providing the book information. And ConnectViaBooks is a division of Onalytica Ltd, a UK company offering services in "Social Network Analysis, and Stakeholder mapping and analysis."

OCLC will be venturing into recommendation later this summer when we introduce a pilot project that will add Wiki features to Open Worldcat. We want to capture user input in structured ways and so people will be able to enter reviews, comments, and recommendations. About time!


Ivan Chew said...

Hi Alane,
Thanks for leaving a comment in my blog.

why, oh why, have librarians not been busy building recommender systems for their collections?
Maybe it's because we're still busy trying to lobby the idea? Or we're reeling from budget cuts that the very idea of proposing a system like that... ok, that was a low blow :)

I'll keep a lookout for updates re: your pilot project.

David said...

One good reason is the librarians' basic concern about patron confidentiality. It might be possible to build a recommendation system while preserving patron confidentiality, but the simplest way to do that would eliminate any association between distinct circulation transactions.

That is, books I check out today and books I check out two weeks hence will not be associated with each other the way that Amazon can keep track of everything I've ever bought. This means that the recommendation database would be built MUCH more slowly, based only on the books that I check out together in a single transaction.

Alane said...

David, librarians are concerned about patron confidentiality but I am unaware of any library that actually asked its patrons how much confidentiality they may be willing to cede in order to have an Amazon-like recommender system. Research shows that people are willing to give up a bit of provacy for convenience. And so, why are librarians making privacy decisions without the input of the people on whose behalf they make those decisions? Seems a tad presumptuous to me.

Jeff said...

Lorcan Dempsey sometimes quotes Timothy Burke's provocative post "Burn the Catalog" in which Burke says 'Amazon as a catalog or research tool is easier to use and significantly more productive than conventional academic library catalogs. I can see the table of contents of books most of the time, and a range of associated materials--and now even parts of the book itself are searchable. More significantly by far, I can follow the actual patterns of use and association among readers through the “People who ordered this book also ordered…” links.'

Regarding Burke's wish list, catalog records increasingly show tables of contents, publisher descriptions, and reviews. I can't envision an affordable way for libraries to ask patrons for permission to use circulation data and the data-by-permission model seems hampered by its limited scope (should many patrons refuse).
Maybe user-supplied tags would show "patterns of use and association among readers" without compromising patron privacy. John Tropea seems to be thinking along these lines.

Jeff at LC writing for himself not in any official capacity

Rush said...

The current issue of the newsletter has an article on what it calls a "twinsumer" which mentions several other examples of recommender sites. See

Anonymous said...

I typically don't use the other people purchased very often, but look in the reviews for people saying things about other books.

Such a system would be easy to implement if you've got any type of bookclub - and is a good way to get patrons involved, and excited about turning someone on to their obscure reads.

-- Ender, Duke_of_URL