Even as libraries everywhere are turning to new technologies to meet the needs of 21st century researchers, Polk Library has introduced a tool that makes online browsing a little more old-school.
When University of Wisconsin Oshkosh students, faculty and staff search Polk Library’s online catalog (www.uwosh.edu/library), a new “browse this shelf” feature appears at the bottom of the page for each book. The Related Items Bookshelf displays the books that are adjacent to the selected book on the actual library shelf.
The tool, created by emerging technologies librarian Maccabee Levine and inspired by similar applications found at online bookstores like Amazon.com, recently won first place in an international competition sponsored by ExLibris, a leading provider of automation solutions for academic, national and research libraries. Second place went to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich; the National Library of Finland placed third.
“I knew what I was contributing was useful and somewhat innovative in this field,” said Levine, originally of New York City and currently of Oshkosh. “I am proud to be standing alongside the other winners in this contest. I’m in good company.”
Levine had been working on the Related Items Bookshelf when he learned of the contest. Although text-only ways of browsing similar books were built into the catalog, research showed they were under-utilized. Levine wanted to make the existing functionality more visible and user-friendly.
“When students are walking among the library stacks, they can’t help but find more books related to whatever topic they are researching because books of the same subject are located next to one another,” Levine said.
While there are a lot of ways library catalogs try to duplicate that actual-world experience, most are not nearly as intuitive or automatic as the real thing. So Levine decided to incorporate visual appeal, using images of actual book covers when available and generic placeholders, created by Brian Ledwell, Media Services, for the rest.
But the Related Items Bookshelf is more than mere eye candy.
“The setup helps orient students who might not be familiar with how library items are organized, and students can see immediately if the book is available at Polk and get descriptions and previews from Google Book Search,” Levine said.
“We’re trying to do as much as possible to meet the expectations of our users. Polk Library provides access to great academic resources, but they won’t do anyone much good if the services aren’t easy to use,” he added.
Online tools like the Related Items Bookshelf are a boon for Polk Library patrons, who increasingly depend on electronic interfaces to find resources.
“Many of Polk Library’s regular users never walk through the door,” said Sarah Neises, head of information and instruction and instructional services at the library. “Any steps we take that increase accessibility furthers our mission to continually improve the library’s services.”
Since joining the staff at UW Oshkosh in 2008, Levine has leveraged new technologies to enhance Polk Library’s already considerable offerings. First, he worked with Archives and Area Research Center staff to transform the Naturalization Records Index into an online and searchable database (www.uwosh.edu/archives). His next project was the Library Course Pages, which connects faculty and students with roughly 120 databases and search resources related to specific UW Oshkosh course topics.
Another project, developed by former Student Titan Employment Program (STEP) intern Cody Thimm ’10, indicates which of Polk Library’s journals are peer-reviewed and connects students with appropriate sources for research assignments. Erica Mutsch, another STEP intern and spring 2010 graduate, created an interactive map of Polk Library that will show patrons the location of a specific item inside the library. That tool is expected to be made available in time for the fall semester.
As for the Related Items Bookshelf, Levine is grateful for the international recognition of his work but finds the feedback from his patrons and peers even more rewarding.
“I have heard from nine institutions that already are using the Related Items Bookshelf in their live catalogs, including libraries in Kentucky, California, Colorado and Texas. Someone is testing it in Australia and New Zealand, too,” Levine said.
“It feels great to share something that can be used in libraries around the world,” he added.
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