June 7, 2016

Linked data is what we (and libraries) have been waiting for

For more than 20 years, I’ve worked at NoveList on helping readers discover books and helping librarians help those readers. It’s a tricky problem, one that we’ve tried to solve with multiple solutions, both inside and outside the library walls. Recently we expanded into the world of linked data. It’s exciting to think about the potential of linked data -- I believe it is exactly the solution that libraries need at this time of great change and transformation.

The problem that linked data solves

The problem is a simple one, really -- libraries have great stuff, but that stuff rarely appears in web search results. I could go into the technical explanations, but the basic explanation is that library records are hidden from the web, and not built in a way that web understands. Libraries have the information about their primary resources (books) stored in a black box, in a foreign language. Web crawlers can’t reach it, and wouldn’t understand it very well even if they could. And nothing else on the web links to this data, since it is in a black box.

Linked data solves that by transforming library records into digital formats that web search engines understand. This is why I believe so strongly in linked data -- it brings libraries to the forefront instead of keeping them hidden.

But there are some interesting complications -- the MARC standard is one of them. Libraries have some great data hidden inside MARC records. The MARC standard was designed to solve specific problems at a specific point in time -- and it worked pretty well for a while. But the web has really transformed the structure and use of information, and it’s time for a change to library data.

There is ongoing work underway to develop new standards -- the Library of Congress and others have identified BIBFRAME as a path forward. There are other digital formats that should also be considered as part of the solution, such as Schema.org. But the problem is urgent, and I don’t think libraries can afford to wait.

Which is why I am so excited about what NoveList is doing with linked data, because it solves the problem now.

How we got here today

Years ago, NoveList grew out of the need to find better ways for readers to access information about books.

From the beginning, our team at NoveList cataloged book records to expand points of access. A recent example is our decision to add appeal characteristics to our records. Character, tone, pace, writing style, storyline, and illustration -- these categories of appeal provide a rich set of access points not available anywhere else.

We also built NoveList so that it ties together ‘work’-type records, instead of separate records for each manifestation of a work. Likewise, series information is typically entered into individual MARC records, but is frequently not complete or accurate. NoveList provides series authority records that not only provide a more accurate picture, but also provide a series description (why do people read this series), and cataloging for the series as a whole.

All of this means more access points for readers to discover books.

Reaching out beyond the library walls

A few years ago, we decided that we needed to go a step further. In an effort to help libraries reach beyond their walls -- to reach their community, their supporters, their partners -- we developed LibraryAware, a tool that helps libraries promote their collections and services by getting valuable content outside the library walls.

I think of linked data as a continuation of this effort. Linked data helps libraries reach beyond their wall and into the places where readers are more likely to be searching (the web).

And all of that great NoveList content that I talked about earlier? It can all be baked into linked data in a way that multiplies the power of the data. Our aggregation of content (work records, author records, series records, appeal terms, and more) makes linked data that much more powerful. You can see why this is a natural progression from where we started -- this is the culmination of NoveList’s effort to help libraries connect readers to books.

Looking to the future

While no one can predict all that will come from having the rich data of libraries visible on the web, it is easy to see some of the near-term benefits we expect to occur:

  • Asking Siri/Cortana: “Does my library have books in Kay Scarpetta series?” and finding NoveList’s rich description of the series, and seeing that your library has available copies of Flesh and blood, which they had not yet read
  • Searching the web for: “Activities for families with kindergarteners” and finding your library’s programs
  • Looking for : “New books at my library” and locating a custom-made list created by your local library

Readers will love being reminded that their local library has exactly what they are looking for. Libraries will rise as they regain their status as a community resource.

It all begins with libraries getting their data out there, where the answers are waiting to be found.

Want to learn more about linked data? Join us for a webcast on Getting Your Library Visible on the Web.

Roger Rohweder is one of the founding members of NoveList, and the Senior Director of the Technology department.


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