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Liberact Workshop: Finding 'Serendipitous Discoveries'

March 12, 2013—At the recent Liberact Workshop, attendees came to Harvard from as far away as Australia to discuss and brainstorm interactive, gesture-based systems for library settings. While libraries are making Herculean strides in making information available online, an ongoing challenge is successfully bridging the gap between physical and virtual spaces, to build real solutions to improve research and interaction across communities.


“We wanted to learn what other people were doing, and see how other libraries were thinking about this technology,” said Chris Erdmann, Head Librarian at the John G. Wolbach Library in the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who coordinated the conference. “It can be a burning but isolating question, so I think the workshop will really spark some good discussion.”


In keeping with the workshop’s interactive, real-time communication theme, attendees tweeted actively during the conference, using the hashtag #liberact.


Alice Thudt came from the University of Calgary to discuss her Bohemian Bookshelf, a visualization system of the library catalog that encourages open-ended exploration, browsing and “serendipitous discoveries.”


“It’s a system that shows the catalog from different angles,” Thudt explained. “Different aspects of the books are visualized, ranging from the book cover’s color to keywords, author names, the time frame that the book is about and so on.”


Thudt believes that using the visualization system revives both the wonder and discovery of books by freeing them, virtually speaking, from the traditional bookshelf. While a traditional, targeted search can be advantageous for students and researchers, Thudt believes that the creativity of an open-ended search can yield positive results for scholars seeking new insights or connections for their topic. 


“If you are open to discovery, if you’re not entirely sure what you’re looking for and you just want to be inspired—then that’s more difficult, with today’s interfaces,” she said. “By moving the books off the bookshelves and introducing interactive technologies, we hoped that we might open up that experience and offer new options of discovery.”


The response, Thudt said, has been very positive. “In the library in Calgary, people really liked it,” she said. “We surveyed some people who used the system, and they did report having serendipitous discoveries—where they found a book they didn’t know of before, but they are excited to read it in the future.”


Another speaker at the conference, Neil Roodyn of NSquared, focuses on creating multi-user technologies, where several people engage on the same screen at once. The irony, Roodyn said, is that ‘social platforms’ wind up being made up of several people being by themselves, each using their own personal device, “which is not ‘social’ at all!”


Instead, Roodyn suggests, to maximize discussion and interaction, consider a timeless gathering device with a proven track record: the table, reimagined for a digital world. 


“The furniture of a digital table creates a space that’s socially engaging,” Roodyn said. “It’s a place where you gather for a meeting or a meal, and so the table itself creates a space that is socially engaging. By enhancing it with digital content on the tabletop, that creates an opportunity, a new space, to do things that have never been done before.


“So often, you see this at universities, where a whole group of students is crammed around one laptop screen to look at something they’re trying to share with one another,” Roodyn said. “Why do that, when you could just bring the entire thing up onto the entire surface of table itself?”


In addition to providing more ample space to review and share information, Roodyn’s digital table also opens up more complex nuances of real-life communication, such as eye contact and body language, creating greater opportunities for more successful brainstorming, in-depth research, and interdisciplinary ideas.


In communication, Roodyn suggested, “there’s a whole bunch of what we might consider superfluous information, but actually, as a human, it’s very valuable information to see whether you’re sitting and facing me, or whether your eyebrows go up when I say something. Being able to see that really enriches communication; it’s much more direct and interactive. I can see, immediately, what the other person’s intention is.”


That theme of collaboration and communication was crucial for Erdmann, who was particularly looking forward to a brainstorming session on the second day of the workshop. “That’s going to be pretty interesting,” he said. “We’re hoping to save it as a Google document, to collect people’s thoughts and then make it available to others who weren’t able to attend, so that they can draw from it as well.”


For more information, visit the Liberact website.