We didn't set out to create a (far) better online catalog for public libraries. We just ended up there.

BiblioCommons did not begin life as a software company, but as a nonprofit youth literacy initiative.

With a background in marketing and hi-tech, co-founder Beth Jefferson was interested in the ways in which the emerging technologies that teens were using to engage with popular culture might be co-opted to establish a social context for the sometimes isolating activity of reading, as a means to increase motivation to read for pleasure. Beth spent a year working closely with the students and staff of a large inner city primary school to develop these ideas.

Perfink in the Toronto Star

Perfink in the Toronto Star

The perF!nk Project (Perceive.Feel.Think.) that emerged won a national award from the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC), and began attracting broader attention – in particular, from libraries. An opportunity emerged with the Toronto Public Library to apply the same concepts to a teen summer reading program pilot. The main learning: If you build it they will not necessarily come – and even if they do, they’re far more likely to lurk than contribute. Architecting social media for participation is tough.

This was when we began to explore and understand the potential leverage of the online public access catalog (OPAC). As we struggled to build content and traffic on the site, TPL was circulating hundreds of copies of the featured titles to customers every week. What if we could insert the conversation where customers already were: within the OPAC? Or even better yet, let every customer who went to renew or check due dates for one of the featured titles know that there were 2 other customers online chatting about that title now, or 6 recent posts about that title in a discussion thread. And what if when they returned that title we could seamlessly suggest additional ones that other recent readers had recommended?

So for us, a social context runs deep to the core – It’s not a frill, nor a fad. It’s fundamental to the process of discovery and engagement with the collections; fundamental to the mission of public libraries.

From Perfink to BiblioCommons

The Perfink project caught the attention of The Ontario Library Association, which committed research funding. Over the next 18 months, BiblioCommons conducted surveys and more than a hundred one-on-one interviews in four library systems to explore the possibilities for re-envisioning the library catalog.

Three Canadian provincial agencies were sufficiently impressed with the research and resulting vision to fund prototypes, and ultimately to purchase advance subscriptions. Their early commitments enabled BiblioCommons to build the envisioned services and roll them out to interested libraries in those jurisdictions.

From beta to production

As it often is, the first release was the easy part. Following a year-long beta with six libraries that included ongoing research and extensive feedback, BiblioCommons took time to review and redesign much of the application to improve scalability, reliability, usability and configurability, before rolling out to broader audiences.

BiblioCommons re-launched its re-architected services to several large systems in late 2009 – and has been adding libraries large and small ever since, to consistent acclaim. The end result: a thoroughly tested, architecturally solid product that systematically use the collections to build connections!