Friday, September 4, 2009

The physical and virtual converge: social media influences

The rise of web 2.0 and social media has created an online world of interaction, sharing, and community engagement. This online behaviour is now so much a part of everyday life for many people that we expect the physical world to more closely mirror aspects of the virtual world. This convergence of the physical and virtual is already displayed in libraries for example, in the trend for group study spaces and 'information/learning commons'. However, certain aspects of online social media could be transferred to the physical world to better meet client expectations.

Social media is well known for allowing users to tag online content such as text, video, images, and bookmarks. This allows users to create a personalised metadata system that is shared with others to create folksonomies. While not replacing traditional classification systems, folksomonies make it easier for clients to find resources by allowling them to search and browse using everyday language. If the online world of information can be navigated more easily through this personalised classification system, why is the physical world not following suit?

A possible scenario
Traditionally, a new library client arrives and is confronted with the daunting prospect of finding books by number. Most clients have little understanding of Dewey numbers and find the system confusing and hard to navigate. The serendipitous finding of information in a Dewey library is limited because often, books on a similar subject area can be spread across many levels of the library. If we allow the physical space of the library to more closely mirror the online realm perhaps we can create a more engaging space with more opportunities for serendipity.

For example, resources could be arranged by subject area around an information common space. This would create a natural gathering place for people interested in that subject area to meet, share ideas and collaborate. In this scenario, the library catalogue is able to accommodate tagging and clients can tag items while they are at the shelf looking at them via their mobile phone. This could allow clients to physically browse the shelves and scan items with their phone to see user-generated tags, comments, ratings etc. to determine if the resource is worthwhile. They could then 'share' the resource with their project team, tutorial group etc. in much the same way they currently share items online.

The library could be responsive to user generated tags and move resources accordingly to allow more serendipity than is currently possible with Dewey systems. Of course, resources must to be located easily when a client knows what they need. In this scenario, the implementation of an RFID system would ensure that clients are directed to the exact location of the item they require.

The scenario described above creates a further integration of physical and virtual realms within the library. It enables the development of a more responsive and interactive physical space that more closely mirrors what clients have come to expect online. With the advancement of the semantic web there is even greater potential for user-generated tags to be a useful tool for the personalisation of information access and discovery (Specia & Motta, 2007). Information/learning commons already create a social space within the library but more can be done to create an interactive library that allows genuine community engagement and information sharing. Customisation of the physical space to more closely mirror virtual space is one way this can be achieved.

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