search-command-center6The Library of the Future Series:
Part 2 – The Search Command Center

As a child, it was embarrassing to ask for help. I didn’t want people to think I was the “dumb student”, and I especially didn’t want to be the one asking dumb questions in a library around people I didn’t know. My assumption was that if I had to ask, I was obviously missing something. Perhaps I should wait until I was older and come back at a time when I was smart enough to understand the library.

My impression was that librarians were incredibly smart, and in an entirely different intellectual league than I was. I felt as if I hadn’t yet earned the right to be there.

While it may sound like I was slightly paranoid, and especially today, knowing that librarians are the world’s most uniquely helpful breed of people, I’m pretty sure this perception still exists among some of us today.

As a way to improve services, the interface between librarians and their patrons needs to be under a constant state of scrutiny, and constantly improving, especially with all of the new technologies changing the information landscape.

People who come to libraries are searching for information. Sometimes it’s an exploratory mission with only vague notions about what they are looking for, at other times patrons have a laser-like precision in their search for specific data points.

Subscription Databases

One thing that is not commonly understood is that libraries have access to resources that most home-based computer researchers do not, including extensive database collections free to their patrons. For the most part, these consist of expensive pay-to-subscribe databases that few individuals can afford.

As an example, indexes of articles from both general publications and academic journals that can be found on the Internet often take users to an abstract summary of an article. The abstract includes publication info, but not the full text. The majority of library databases offer full text access to these articles, so when you find what you are looking for, you can immediately have access to the complete document.

Certainly the number of databases that libraries subscribe to varies tremendously, but many that I’ve looked at recently had a list of well over 100 subscription databases including such information rich services as Factiva, FedStats, General Science Abstracts, Lexis Nexis Academic, PsycArticles, Rand California, ScienceDirect, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Physical Education Index, NIST Chemistry WebBook, RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, IEEE Xplore, Institute of Physics E-Journals, Hoover’s Company Records, and ASME Mechanical Engineering.
An even bigger secret is that many libraries allow access to these databases from a remote computer with nothing more than a library card ID number. But only the gifted few are aware these resources exist.

The bottom line is that people can’t use what they don’t know about.

So how do we go about bridging the gap between this treasure trove of resources and an uninformed public? Answer: The search command center.

Search Command Center

In many ways the Search Command Center will replace the tradition card catalog as the first stop in finding information in a library.

The search command center will serve three critical functions:

1. Draw attention to databases, specialized search engines and other available resources
2. Provide expert, hands-on assistance in finding and using the databases
3. Teach patrons how to access this information remotely

From a facility layout perspective, think in terms of a circular bank of computers with a special “search librarian” stationed in the middle. These can be arranged in various ways. If computers face away from the center, it is easy for the librarian to see what the person may be struggling with and offer assistance. If the computers face the librarian, people will be less intimidated and will more readily ask questions.

Whatever the shape or layout, the Search Command Center needs to look distinctive, be clearly labeled, and offer an intuitive sense of purpose and usefulness.

Creating Awareness

The first step in offering a new service is simply creating awareness. Local media will be quick to pick up on this new featured offering at the library. Even though most libraries already offer this kind of assistance, the Search Command Center is a different way of packaging these services, creating a different face to the public.

After a few months in operation, it will be easy to draw attention to stories about local people who have accomplished great things by using the Search Command Center. Often times these will be remarkable people under extraordinary circumstances and the assistance offered at the library becomes a significant turning point in the lives of everyone around them. These stories can quickly serve as the foundational underpinning of the library’s relationship with the community.

Expert Assistance

Since there are a variety of ways that people will want to learn about these services, some of the options to consider should include:

• Training Classes: Short one-hour courses in both accessing specialized databases and how to use expert search engines to find information.
• Panel of Experts: Once a month pull together a question and answer session with 3-4 experts in the front of the room. Invite the public to ask questions and watch the learning unfold.
• Video Tutorials: Some videos on this topic may already exist, but videos are getting cheaper and easier to make. So a few short videos describing the various databases and other unique library collections will become tremendously valuable.
• Quick Reference Cards: A listing of each of the databases and other unique library collections as well as the search technologies available.

Keep in mind that with each person trained on using the Search Command Center, it is a process of training the “influential few”. The numbers may be small to start, but each skilled searcher will become a power user creating ripple effects throughout the community.

Advancing Search Technology

Search engine technology is destined to get far more complicated. Working primarily with information in textual formats, today’s search engines work very well in finding text-based answers for text-based searches.

Future generations of search technology will enable people to search on many other information attributes such as taste, smell, harmonic vibration, texture, reflectivity, specific gravity, as well as various cycles and patterns.

Japanese inventor Yasuo Kuniyoshi recently unveiled his invention, Smart Goggles, a pair of glasses designed to capture and record everything a person sees during a day. Adding a layer of object recognition software to the images being captured creates an interesting base of information, usable on many levels. So, a person who loses their keys can simply have a computer scan through files until it finds where they left their keys.

More impressive than searching for items on an individual level is the notion that Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s device can effectively index the world around us, in a process similar to spidering the web, giving rise to search engines for the physical world. A few hundred thousand people wearing Smart Goggles will be able to create a comprehensive database of information about the physical world unlike anything in existence today.

Establishing Libraries as a Center of Gravity for Search

Search technology is destined to become the heart and soul of future libraries. As the format and structure of information evolves, librarians will need to position themselves as cutting edge information finders, and the Search Command Center is one tool for transitioning to the next level.

The idea of a Search Command Center is one of many new ideas for revitalizing a library. As with other papers in this series, these ideas are intended to spark your imagination and add a new dimension to your list of possibilities.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

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