These days Oslo Public Library is completing the first prototype for the active shelves information service. The active shelf is an interactive physical device that lets users look up and explore library books. In the long term, the project aims to produce a service that could be an integrated part of the actual bookshelves in the library, as well as a mobile app the user can use from his own smartphone or tablet.
The project has run parallel to the Book reviews project, and it demonstrates an interesting way of utilizing the information libraries produce about their books. The active shelf uses a mix of bibliographic catalogue data, book reviews and data from external web services, to collect and display information about any book a user places on the shelf. The user can read book reviews, and browse through other books by the same author or books that are assumed to be similar in some way, to get ideas about other books he or she might be interested in.
The shelf has a built-in RFID reader, that identifies the book and triggers the application that collects information about it. Initially the application queries the local RDF store for bibliographic data, book reviews and lists of related books. Some of this information is used further, to retrieve additional information from external source APIs, such as online bookstores, literature databases and social websites for book lovers. The user can operate a touchscreen interface to browse reviews and ratings, or to be guided on to other books that might be interesting.
The active shelf application uses the SPARQL query language to query an RDF version of the library catalogue. If we were to base a service like this on established library protocols and formats, we simply couldn’t do it. There is no room in the MARC data format to connect our catalogue records to the kind of information we want to display to the user, and library specific protocols, such as Z39.50 and SRU, don’t allow us to query our data in the ways we need. The traditional purpose of the library catalogue is to help the user locate books in the library, not to present and market books to the user. Sadly this hasn’t changed too much as the catalogue has moved online, and this is still reflected in the library technology standards.
The RDF linked data format and the SPARQL query language not only allow us to connect catalogue data with other data and query them in new ways. They also allow us to process our data to find connections and derive new information that adds value to the catalogue. We can identify which books are editions of the same work, so that we don’t have to list all editions of each book when the user looks for related titles. And we can make new connections between books, based on similarities between the metadata describing them, so the application can suggest other titles that might be interesting.
The prototype is currently being tested internally at the library, while it is given the final touches. It will be unveiled and made available for visitors in the library in November, when we start running user tests. In the first phase of the project we have chosen to focus exclusively on books and audiobooks, but in the event of an extension of the project, it is of course interesting to look at similar services for other kinds of library material, like music and movies. Another interesting direction in which to run with this ball, would be to look at the possibility for including the same kind of functionality in a mobile app. The user of an app like this could receive the same kind of information on his smartphone by scanning barcodes from the books.