Going Virtual for Enhanced Library Experience: a Case Study of the National Library of Singapore

Schubert Foo, Professor, Division of Information Studies, Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, Nanyang Technological University
Amidst changing lifestyles, Internet savvy users, and the availability of large amounts of information on the Web, libraries are faced with the main challenge to remain relevant and to continue develop innovative products and services to serve the needs of users. This paper proposes a number of roles that libraries can play in such a future: as info-concierges; as a network of inter-connected info-concierges; and as a network of true collaborations. Using a case study of the National Library Singapore (NLS), a number of initiatives currently undertaken by the library to move forward in such a direction are outlined. These include the introduction of a SMS reference service, enhanced accessibility of NLS’s content through deliberate availability in users’ search and social networking spaces, and the development and use of a platform that uses the principles of “wiki” to support the formation and use of a collaborative reference network to support reference enquiries.
This paper is directly relevant to our references services in the Research Centre. I’ll make the full paper available to all RC staff (and anyone else interested) when I get back. My notes here are really pretty rough, but give you a taste of the content.
He was impressed by what he had seen and heard at the conference and encouraged us to spread our wings and not always expect the US to be the leaders in information management and technology.
He said that his students in Singapore have been very keen on using Wikipedia as a reference source for nearly everything! Many public reference enquiries received from parents on behalf of their children for study purposes. They use an acceptable complaint:compliment ratio of 1:24. Collaboration in teams is big in Singapore.
Libraries: brick V click; collect-organise-store-access; mediator (source-user); authoritative-trusted content. Most library users don’t come to the library they are net users. They use search engines and sometimes they believe that that is the only place to find information. Instant gratification is expected and must be download-able; they are not interested in browsing. They also like exceptional user-experiences (memorable, unique, exceptional were the words he used), but are not interested in help files. Only 1% of users go to an OPAC – they prefer Google (55%), Yahoo (21%) and then MSN (9.6%), in Singapore (I expect that the % in favour of Google is higher in Australia).
So what do we do as librarians? (Well, not me as I’m not a librarian.) We delve into their net world. Singapore has high saturation of broadband, PCs and mobile phone use. SMS is very highly used too. SMS plans are much cheaper there. (I think cost has a lot to do with the usage rates of new IT services and the web.) Users want to connect anywhere, anytime from any device.
The Info-Concierge – information as a commodity. Each object is self-contained, but must be connected and across multi-platforms. Let users continue on the pathway of discovery – “what is next?”. Connectivity through links, different platforms and by pushing/suggesting further exploration (like Amazon does). They use push for simple alerts, but it could be pushed much more on a finer granular manner. The concern is spamming users or intruding on their private spaces. They want to deliver information to users, not bother them. Basic encouragement ideas: taxonomies (browsing); formats; relational search; events; share & join in.
Promotion of discovery is very important. A good example is bookjetty.com, and where formal MARC records that are augmented by user tags/comments, like LibraryThing for Libraries. Bookjetty recognises where you are and presents you with options relevant for you. It gets users to get back to the library.
Libraries need to harvest, select & authenticate, meta-tag, create/maintain/grow taxonomies (they must be download-able!), and organise information content.
He encouraged connections (facilitated by libraries using Web 2.0): content-content; content-people; and people-people. Using tools like wikis, blogs & social spaces.
They also curate exhibitions relevant to topical and current events and to highlight their collections. All are eventually moved online in a virtual sense.
Reference services are provided within reach of everyone – wherever, whenever. SMS service as well as email and mobile phone. SMS request constrained to 160 characters. Answers are usually sent back as a URL within a template. If they provide a book’s catalogue entry, they have a comment field for value-adding “Librarian’s notes”. It finishes with a feedback sheet that attempts to get to know the user better by three key questions – like usefulness, finished, other comments (I could not read them on the screen). He said users are overwhelmingly positive in feedback.
They have an infopedia like our Encyclopedia, that was once buried in their website and now can be accessed by Google, Yahoo and MSN (he calls them the “GYM space”). They’ve used a microsite to expose it to Google. Content can be found more easily on Google Maps, Google Earth, a Yahoo Search, etc. Content usage has increased exponentially (160 fold). I wasn’t sure how they managed to push the content to these search engines – may be in the paper.
Collaborative research responses. Making wider use of librarians and even other users. There are multiple entry points and a network of specialists (community) that power it and moderate it. Based on a wiki. Community alerted by SMS/email to them and can come in and assist to make the full answer. Multi-user collaboration.
He urges support for librarians to initiate new projects, but says that we should not push too hard and allow for some experiments to fail. We also need to get to know users better and encourage information literacy. The basics are still needed.
Question responses:
He referred to the recent JISC/British Library report The Google generation is a myth – they are not that information (web) literate. One stop shops don’t work. He said that we need to be much more e-consumer friendly and connect via Facebook, etc. [The significance of this for research libraries is threefold: (1) they need to make their sites more highly visible in cyberspace by opening them up to search engines; they should abandon any hope of being a one-stop shop; they should accept that much content will seldom or never be used, other than perhaps a place from which to bounce.]
He was asked about Second Life and said that he thought it was something that a lot of users went into once and came out, then never returned. He suspects users are not serious about using it. (Apparently it has a huge “churn rate”.)

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