Steve Lawson: The academic library 2.0 interface

Steve Lawson

The academic library 2.0 interface, or, what we can learn from Flickr.

There is no academic library 2.0, and this is a pre-conference about it.  It’s not about definitions, bit’s about what we do.

The www experience: A street market.  Some people got there first, some people got better spots, some people might be dangerous, and it’s lively.  The academic library web experience: A farm on the horizon.  It’s distant.  It’s pretty.  Can we get anything from them?

Images, like books, are for use.  We’re not yet smart about making it obvious that digital objects are for use; Flickr IS good at this.  Flickr is also good at tags, comments, notes, feeds, and API.

Tags are broad, deep, narrow, odd, useful, and deeply localized.   The “Delicious lesson” from Joshua Porter is that personal value precedes network value, in tagging.  “No one is going to tag your junk for you unless that tagging has value to them personally.  (Interestingly, I think librarians think about network value first.  If our users are thinking personal value, and we’re thinking network value, what disconnects or synergies are we creating?)  Clay Shirky: Social software is stuff that gets spammed.  So if we add social features to library sites, what do we do when it inevitably gets spammed?

We don’t often think about URLs.  But we should!  We don’t, and Flickr does.  URLs on Flickr can be read over the phone, they are short enough to cut and paste, and we can generalize from Flickr URLs, and figure out the site structure from how the URL is structured.  “Now let’s go to the American Memory Project.  (Iris starts laughing) Iris knows where this is going.”  Flickr URLs: 57 characters max, permanent.  American Memory URL: 852 characters, not permanent.   FAIL.  “I thought, maybe I was not fair to American Memory, so I went back and looked.”  And could not find a way to link to a permanent URL to individual pages.  ContentDM example: 79 character URL contains a reference to version 4.  If they upgrade, does the URL break?  Maybe it does.  This impedes sharing and redistribution of information in a major way.  Flickr wins.

Comments and Notes
USSR poster collection, digitized.  Debate began about “is it propaganda”, “Is that translation correct”, “are those posters copyright legal?”, “The Orb used that as an album cover”, etc, that makes the whole thing far more interesting for the user.  Experimentation is underway with these technologies in academic classrooms; pedagogically, it’s still a gray area.  How to use it effectively isn’t yet clear.

Quoting Griffey, RSS feeds “surround and penetrate social software and bind the World wide web together.”  On Flickr, every page has a feed.  EVERY PAGE.  Practical uses in academia?  Using search feeds from Flickr, Steve tracks Flickr photos of his library from other users, and can watch perceptions, do outreach to people who visit campus, and stay connected to how users are interacting with the library.

Roy Tennant says, “If it doesn’t have an API, it’s not worth having.”  APIs let programmers take information out of systems and do other things with the data.

Lots of cool examples (check the slides), then “So why don’t we do this stuff?”

  • Because it’s hard.
Because Flickr, for example, has 2 main goals.  They have single-minded devotion.  We do not, and cannot, match that.
  • We lack programmers.  We have interest and energy, but not necessarily skills or resources.
  • We lack critical mass.  We don’t have the sheer volume of content or users that make tagging and aggregation and searching work so well at sites like Flickr.  We have a scale problem in terms of users and content.  Comparison of Ann Arbor District Library’s local tagging to LibraryThing’s tagging — LT wins, because personal value trumps network value.
  • We don’t understand our users.  Flickr has the ability to pilot features to small groups, and then analyze results data.  We don’t/can’t do that enough.

(my notes make this sound like a really grim ending, but it wasn’t!  Steve’s so upbeat and clear and thoughtful that it was an interesting place to end, with a sense of “we want this stuff, right? and we have real barriers.  but we can’t stop thinking” as we reached Q&A.)


  1. Hi Jenica,

    You’re probably right about librarians…they do look at the network value first…they’re one of the few folks whose job it is to do so. I’m mostly talking about amateurs…who don’t have direct financial interest in tagging.




  2. Hello Jenica,

    In regards to your question about CONTENTdm URLs, they do not break when the software is upgraded. Every item in CONTENTdm has a short, unique reference URL that is independent of software version. This URL is available to the end user when viewing an item. They can copy and paste this for citation purposes. Here’s an example of what the reference URL looks like for an item in the Iowa Digital Library:,183

    This URL is persistent between upgrades and doesn’t change between software versions.

    Thank you,
    Claire Cocco
    Global Product Manager, CONTENTdm
    OCLC, Inc.


  3. Claire, thanks for that information. It’s good to hear that even though all main ContentDM links contain “cdm4” that they won’t break on upgrade to CDM5, 6, 7, or 10. Unfortunately, you’re also proving Steve’s larger point about URL use in online venues. That reference URL is not the URL a user gets when they perform a search, and click on the item in the search results. The link that comes out of search for that item is:

    Therefore, if the average user tries to bookmark or email the page they get to when they they click on the product of their search, they won’t have the permanent, structurally decipherable, or humanly repeatable URL. They have to take an extra step (often a non-obvious extra step; do we really think the average user knows what a ‘reference url’ is?) to get to the shorter and more useful permanent link, and therefore they just don’t get a permanent link.

    That ease of use and smart URL schema is something nearly every ‘normal’ website offers users, but library software is notoriously bad at.


  4. Yeah, Jenica has already explained this pretty well, but my problem with the URLs in CONTENTdm has to do with the fact that we shouldn’t need a “reference url” (and if we do, it probably shouldn’t be a tiny link in the third layer of the navigation). Every URL in Flickr acts as a “reference url” right out of the location bar.

    Secondly, “curtis” is obviously the name of the collection in the sample URL you gave. But I can’t just truncate the URL by removing the “183” and get to the top level of the Curtis collection. And what does “u?” mean?

    I tried to say in my presentation that this doesn’t mean that CONTENTdm is unusable (or, heaven knows, unusual). It just shows that library applications have something to learn from Flickr. Or, from, say, WordPress–if you look at the URL for this post on Jenica’s blog you could truncate it as:

    And they are all viable, useful URLs. And now that I know that, I know I could substitute, say “2007/06” to see posts from June of last year. The CONTENTdm url, while short and permanent, has none of those virtues.

    And the more librarians think about things like this, the better we will be able to demand these things that users of social software sites have taken for granted for years now.


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