Sunday, February 24, 2013

What does it mean to be a librarian? I am not sure.

Time for some navel-gazing!

Sarah Kennedy asks What does it mean to be a librarian?

You know what? Not sure what it says about me that after 5 years in this profession and writing hundreds of blog posts, I have not once come around close to even this topic.

Many of you who are regular readers of my blog probably know or can tell that it seems I love my job and I have even fallen into the trap of describing myself with the "P word". But now that I think about it, I am not sure if this is even accurate.

I enjoy the fact that I am always learning and trying new things, playing with ideas, and currently I am in a position where I have sufficient autonomy to push for change. Also having spent more hours than I want to think of, studying, researching and experimenting on librarianship, I have gone past "The Plain of Suckitude” for many aspects of what I do daily, so I enjoy a feeling of competence exercising my professional skill.

Still, none of this is specific to being a librarian. One of the most important aspects of been passionate is the belief you are doing something worthwhile, whether be it to change the world, or even just a single's person life.

I read inspiring stores from my colleagues (if I may call them that) in the public libraries all around the world, about how they helped the less fortunate people of our society with job hunting, the less IT literate connect with their children using technology etc and I feel somehow I have fallen short because I have few such stories to tell.

How about the fact that as a librarian, I am in one of the oldest and noblest professions and in the line of the "guardians of human knowledge"? Does that give me purpose?

Actually, such descriptions always make me giggle, making me think one has watched too much "The Librarian" (also another time someone asked about "Indiana Jones" type adventures librarians tend to get!).

Seriously, it is not everyday, someone gets to save the Timbuktu’s priceless manuscripts. Even day to day, due to my job scope and current position which has nothing to do with preservation and digitization,  I never felt as if I am one of the "guardians of human knowledge" whose role is to "Safeguard and preserve human knowledge so it can be safely passed down to the generations to come".

Though at times, when I page though old books, or see recording/writings by past librarians, I do get a sense of history ..... and hope that I am not messing things up too badly the works of my predecessors, particularly since my institution is the oldest academic library in Singapore with a 100 year history.

I guess it would be only a slight stretch it to say I have been trying to build services since I began my career , but sometimes I wonder, given the limited resources each library has, whether I am diverting resources and more importantly attention from collections for a short term gain. Would the future generations care whether our library had a chat service, had built a good community around social media, or even had a discovery service that was used for 5 years before it was replaced by yet another round of "superior" technology etc?

How about the role of librarians has activists to help make society better by making information available for all? Currently, if you ask me, in our profession, there is one big cause that has the potential to make the world a better place - Open Access. 

While there are many many librarians on the front-lines trying to push for open access such as Barbara Fister (whose writings always make me think), I have to admit to my shame, I barely noticed this aspect of librarianship until recently.

Though now that I have spent time learning and thinking about it, I think it is blindingly obvious the right thing to do so, not for ourselves as librarians but for the world. Yes, I just read that last sentence back and it felt so cliche.... I understand of course, the status quo which includes not just publishers but also librarians and academics themselves will make it hard to achieve and such change if achieved will have both winners and losers.

To be fair, librarians alone almost certainly can't push the academic world to open access, because ultimately the academics themselves will have to say they want it and there is legitimate concern among librarians that open access will make some aspects of librarianship obsolete and who knows we might even risk eliminating our own profession. So again I am not sure , and really I don't do  grandiose big causes..., though I have a certain smaller vision and goal I am working towards.

Truth is, I didn't come into this profession trying to change the world, or even in the belief that it would help people lead better lives. It isn't glamorous to say this, I didn't grow up wanting to be a librarian (I know a few librarians like this, they tend to be a different breed), like most librarians, I suspect, we stumbled upon this profession while looking for something to do and in my case at least found that I took to it like a duck to water and I enjoy the work, so why not?

I can't give you a big speech on why being a librarian is a noble profession (is it nobler than being a teacher, nurse etc?) , or why our work will change the world for the better, or even that I am definitely not in it for the money (though there are easier ways to earn money eg finance, if you manage to get to the senior management levels the pay is pretty comfortable with a lot less stress and competition than other professions).

I don't even have a well articulated statement on why I want to be a librarian, something I am told some LIS schools are teaching their students. (I am lucky, I got a job without it)

All I can say is I wake up every day because I have so many exciting things and ideas to do,  and I always try to improve and fix problems to make life a little easier for our community; I feel a absurd sense of pride when I see my colleagues using things I have been involved in introducing , and maybe that should be enough?

I would guess (and here's the cynical part), the vast majority of librarians don't worry about such philosophical questions either and many go on to achieve great success in their careers whether in terms of professional advancement and/or accomplishing great things for the profession.

So what do you think? Do you have a well articulated statement of why you are a librarian? Or are you similar to me, enjoy the work without thinking too hard about the ideals of librarianship?

PS : For those who read this blog post for ideas and latest on tech and not personal rambling, do check out Qwiki , it's a free app that reminds me a lot of animato  that allows you to quickly make interesting slideshows with your pictures. Another nice app to look at is the Sunrise app, which is now my default calender app, while is my default task list and so far it looks like it is taking as my task app. 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

8 Library related book & article recommender systems I am aware of

In a recent LibraryThing blog post entitled Pew study: Library patrons want personalized recommendations, they noted that in the Pew study , 64% of patrons interested in a library service which suggested books, audiobooks and DVDs to them based on their own preferences.

Though I believe this report is about public library users, I suspect this applies also to academic library users to some extent.

This also reminded me of a panel I moderated at IATUL 2012 last year, the panel was designed to pick the brains of non-librarians and one of the panelists asked a room full of academic librarians why libraries did not have Amazon style recommendations.

The responses from the librarians in the room were interesting ranging from privacy issues due to the Patriot Act and lack of technology.

I think, by now most libraries or at least academic libraries have finishing implementing web scale discovery systems which is doing what Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC would call "aggregating supply". The next logical step is to "aggregate demand", using recommender systems.

While such recommender systems are not common yet to library or library related systems in both the public and academic libraries, they are not totally unknown, here are some I am aware of.

I start with recommender systems for books (mostly) and then move on to article level recommenders. I focus mostly on recommenders that make use of circulation data, or usage data of other users "People who borrow/read X also...", though matching based on other item characteristics might be included as well. Personalised recommenders that either ask for your explicit action to say rate books and make recommendations based on that or those that pull data from your past actions (e.g past borrowing, past action in reading articles, adding to lists) and match against other users are also included.

Ones that simply recommend based on themes or best selling lists are of less interest to me as they are not as personalised, so I left out apps like Gimme and the YALSA Teen Book Finder App (thanks @CarliSpina), and also non-library related recommenders - BookRx, WhatshouldIreadnext (I am less strict for the article recommenders)

1.  BookPsychic

As stated in the already mentioned blog post

"What is BookPsychic? Launched in August, BookPsychic is an easy and fun personal recommender system for library patrons—like Netflix or Amazon, but all about what’s in and what’s popular at your library. As you rate books and DVDs, BookPsychic learns more and more about your tastes, and comes up with recommendation lists. And everything shown or recommended is available at your library. Simple “bookstore” genres, like “Recent fiction” and “History,” help you zero in on the books you want."

You pick a library that is enrolled in Book Psychic, rate the book in the library system presented to you by Genre and you will see recommendations. Pretty simple and effective.

A nice touch is you can import ratings from other systems such as LibraryThing itself and Goodreads.

One thought does strike me, with so many "social reading" systems like Goodreads, which Lorcan Dempsey of OCLC would no doubt consider at the web scale level, a alternative strategy would involve libraries supporting these systems rather than building their own recommenders, and either providing those systems with holding data or at the very least provide a easy way to check/link if book is available.

This parallels the support of Google Scholar etc with OpenURL resolvers, except in the case of books this is even much similar with ISBN searches in Opacs.

2. Huddersfield Book Recommender system

Strictly speaking there are many types of recommenders and many ways to classify them, these range from those that are basically showing "similar books to X" on the item record of X and those that really track who you are or at least recommend based on your explicit ratings or loan records and adapt to your individual preferences (e.g Book Psychic above).  (There's perhaps a third type, where users explicitly give recommendations by manually adding "similar titles", or allowing others to follow what they loan out or rate.)

I suppose the "similar to x" type recommendations relating to each title are in a way in most opacs and discovery systems, since many allow a one click to items with same subject, author etc.

But "similar to x books" based on borrowing activities of people who borrowed X, is indeed an advancement.

That's what the Dave Pattern has done to create a homebrew recommender system for the University of Huddersfield Catalogue.

Below shows a recommendation for the book in the catalogue.  Example is suggested by Dave himself.

Sometimes the recommendations give odd results below is one for Men are from Mars, women are from Venus , this could be due to the lack of circulation data.
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David has written a few blog posts on this topic including showing the impact of this service

3. National Library Board (Singapore) Recommender - Sharealike system

The National Library Board (NLB) in Singapore here also has a book recommender system though admittedly I don't know much about how it works (please note I work at the National University of Singapore Libraries which is independent of the National Library Board).

There are some details in this recorded talk , where it is mentioned that NLB is unique in having lots of circulation data to mine through due to high borrowing levels in Singapore. So definitely some of the recommender system is based on circulation records, though I get the sense some is based on similarity in item characteristics?

In any case as a user I do see the following popup when I check my loan account.

I blocked out the titles I borrowed, but you can probably guess what I borrowed in the past.

Is this recommendations based on mining circulation records of other users who have borrowed similar items as the ones you have done, perhaps akin to the Huddersfield one or is it recommending based on other characteristics of items I have borrowed? Not sure here.

There are kiosks around in the public libraries, that allow you to slot books in, and it will recommend similar books - aka "Title Recommendation System".  Same comments as above is this based on circulation data?

That said, the National Library Board also has Read on site that allows you to check directly book recommendations and those are definitely based on circulation data.

Here's the entry for The Hobbit, where you can clearly see "Out patrons also borrowed the following"

I am unsure how "Quick Picks" is determined, but I would guess this is based on similarity in subject, author etc?

I was a bit curious about how they integrated this with normal catalogue and it seems it's handled in their new Primo system dubbed NLB SearchPlus

On each item record, there is a link to a "Recommendation" tab that actually links out.

 In the catalogue accessible on the mobile web site, you can see a "other related items" but I don't think that's based  on "our patrons also borrowed.."

4. Ex Libris Bx Recommender + ScholarRank

Academic library services like their public library counterparts generally don't have recommender systems. Offerings by Ex Libris systems seem to be an exception.

In the video below they talk about ScholarRank and how ranking is done.  The first few points are pretty standard but around 3:05 they talk about how ranking is based on user characteristics.

Example given is how a search for "Mercury" would give different relevancy ranking if done by a chemistry student as opposed to a student majoring in the music. The system also takes into account whether someone searching is a Phd student or a fresh undergraduate.

Very interesting, though I suppose this can only happen if the user has already authenticated?

Still the above merely changes the relevancy ranking, but what about outright recommendations for articles?

This is where the bx recommender comes into play.

Essentially, this leverages usage data from users of SFX, perhaps one of the most popular OpenURL resolvers in the world. By association of articles accessed by researchers via SFX in the same session , they are able to create recommendations essentially "researchers who searched/accessed this article also....."

The interesting question is where to embed these recommendations, the video mentions Primo and some other ILS can put such recommendations next to results. Below shows an example from Central Michigan University Library using Primo Central.

If Recommendations are available there will be a recommendations tab you can click on.

But more commonly I see it appearing in link resolver screens typically for libraries using SFX by the same company. But it can be done on other link resolver systems. Here's an example by QUT using 360link.

5. Google Scholar Citations

One of the things that initially escaped my notice was that after creating a Google Scholar citation profile, Google Scholar will start recommending items.

The main limitation of this is that it is recommending based off articles or works you added to your Google Scholar citation profile.

Below it recommends a article on wikipedia because I have an article published relating to that done when I was in library school.

The issue with basing recommendations just off published works you have done is, often by the time you have published something you pretty much scoped out the area and are actually least in need of the recommendations because you did the literature review already!

It's true this features helps you keep uptodate about developments in the field after that, but it hardly helps at the start and for new researchers just starting off or even established researchers seeking to expand to a new area this feature is a non-starter.

I wondered if one could work around this problem by adding works you find interesting to a profile to see what recommendations popups but keep the profile private, but this doesn't work since recommendations work only for public accounts.

6. Citeulike + Mendeley

Instead of trying to abuse Google scholar citations, one can probably use Citeulike (which was recently acquired by Springer) to generate recommendations.

Unlike Google where you can add only what you published, this is based on items you add to your library of items you are interested in.

How does it work? The settings have some information

The other system that is very similar is Mendeley, which I have written on before.

There are 2 types of recommendations. The first is available via the web version and shows "related research" link for each item shown. Note, when you click on the links, some will have no recommendations.

Mendeley also includes a "Mendeley Suggest" feature, though it is only available to premium account holders in the desktop version 

Before are some details.

7. Read by QxMD

Currently the Krafty Librarian blog is tracking and reviewing 4 Medical related iPad app service namely

These four are pretty much positioned as Flipboard for Medical Journals (or all academic journals in the case of Browzine) and are a important development due to the high tech usage in the medical world.

However, for the purposes of this blog post, I am more interested in apps that are positioned as a Zite-like app for academic articles. Not only must the app, aggregate articles and display them in a easy to read newspaper/newszine like format, they must also learn from what the users select to read, their thumbs up and down and use machine learning techniques to customize the articles to display.

I am not sure, which of these apps are closest to Zite, but as noted in the review on the Krafty Librarian blog, QxMD makers of Read seems very proud of their "machine learning" etc technques '

"“Rather than simply relying on our users to tell us which journals they want to read, we use a combination of machine learning, semantic analysis, crowd-sourcing and proprietary algorithms to figure out which articles our users should likely be reviewing.”

comments at

Read together with the privacy policy, and the ability to "thumb up" or "thumb down" it seems on some level they must be doing recommendations though I am unsure how personalized it is.

8. Others/pilot

There are plenty of other pilots and proof of concepts for recommender systems in the library world of course. This includes

In years gone by, I also blogged about attempts to make your own recommender using a bayesian filter of RSS feeds. , though with more and more apis available, there are more options now including a interesting idea here to use this idea combined with information drawn from your Mendeley library using the Mendeley API  .


I have no idea how good in general these recommendations are, in any case when I asked on Twitter for any library related recommender systems my network might be aware of, one of the wry replies was "yes, the librarian".

Indeed, just as the meme that states Librarians are the original search engine, Librarians are also the original recommender systems.

There was also another piece of irony that passed me by until now, to write this post on recommender systems, I had to ask recommendations from people on the Twitter network. So should I include Twitter in here?

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