Applied Mechanics News

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Libraries and Amazon

Libraries take premium spaces, which will not grow and will likely shrink. As more and more books are stored in off-campus depositories, people miss the serendipity of browsing among shelves and discovering books that they don’t know they’d like to read. They can browse the catalogues of the libraries. However, a typical catalogue of a library contains meager information: the online catalogue is a clone of its ancestor on cards. Creating an information-rich and user-friendly online catalogue is too expensive for a library.

These problems have a solution. The primary source of data on books is Amazon. It contains publisher-supplied data such as cover images, table of contents, index, and sample material. Searchable full texts are within reach. Perhaps even more valuable, Amazon contains comments of users on books. Based on collective behavior of users, Amazon also recommends books to users. Amazon will no doubt continue relentless innovation.

In an ideal world, a user should not waste his time on the catalog of a library, nor should the library waste its resources on maintaining a stand-alone catalog. The user should simply browse on Amazon. Once he finds an interesting book, a single click should tell him if the book is in any of the libraries accessible to him. In this ideal world, to enter a book into the catalog of a library, a librarian only needs to enter a single number: the call number of the book. All other data of the book are not library-specific and are already in Amazon. What if the library owns a book not in Amazon? The librarian should enter a detailed description of the book, as if she were the publisher of the book.

This ideal world may not be far different from our world. The LibraryLookup Project allows a user to generate a bookmarklet, so that with one click he can look up a book in a library, while surfing on Amazon. The creator of the Project, Jon Udell, has developed a screencast to guide you through the process of generating your own bookmarklet.

A deeper integration of Amazon and libraries would harness more power. The statistics of borrowing books could be aggregated from all libraries and be used to recommend books to users. Amazon, libraries and some third party could collaborate on the business of print on demand. Libraries could send even more books to depositories and greatly simplify efforts in cataloging books. Users would have a seamless experience with books. Oh, if a book is not in a library, users could suggest, with a single click, that the library order the book.

Ending added on 26 June 2006, after reading a message from Zak Stone. is named after the Amazon River, the largest river in the world, carrying more water than the next six largest rivers combined. May the rivers of libraries and the streams of users contribute to the River of All Books. May nurture the civilization without drowning us with commercialism.

Note added on 10 July 2006. An entry describes my experience with LibraryLookup Bookmarklets.

Note added on 15 July 2006. Wall Street Journal (13 July 2006) on Rice University's Press on line and print on demand (POD). For an example of comercial POD, see Also see a recent product annoucement of e-reader.

Note added on 17 July 2006. OCLC and Amazon: A Connection Revealed.

Note added on 27 July 2006. Springer will offer all new titles in e-book form.

Note added on 20 August 2006. Amazon introduces library processing.

Note added on 31 August 2006. Google offers free download of books.

Note added on 31 August 2006. Stanford's vision for library.


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