Personalisation and Resource Discovery (Or, Can the Archives Hub Learn a Few Lessons From Amazon?)

As the team thinks carefully about the future of the Hub, we are pressed to examine current trends and developments surrounding the UK (and broader) Information Environment, and to make sure our long-term strategic aims are in line with those trends. In other words, we need to predict which technologies and user-expectations are going to take a hold, and make sure the Hub is in step with that future. Understanding those trends and these possible futures is no simple matter, and the trend of ‘Personalisation’ is a perfect example of a seriously complex area that we must examine with real scrutiny.

JISC (our funders) are investing a lot of time and revenue into personalisation — funding several studies in the area, including this one — Developing Personalisation for the Information Environment and encouraging its services to consider ways in which users might have personalised experiences when accessing and using content. The first of these studies has specifically looked at the relation of JISC services to social-networking and collaborative environments, surveying all ‘web 2.0’ implementations currently in effect within JISC services. The second study, still underway, continues this scoping work, but aims to look specifically at ‘opportunities to personalise sites adaptively in a way that is transparent to the user’ (see page 1 of their interim report).

What is ‘adaptive personalisation’ and what might it mean for services like the Hub? Many JISC services offer some sort of personalisation where users can customise their experiences — for instance Zetoc’s RSS alerts, Copac’s search RSS, or Intute’s bookmarking tools — but adaptive personalisation is different in that the system uses information it knows about a user to ‘push’ content. This technique is already used to great effect by commercial organisations, the most obvious being Amazon and eBay, who collect usage data (what you searched, what you clicked on, what you bought) to suggest or ‘recommend’ items to you.

This is a rather clever marketing technique, but of course from a resource discovery standpoint, there is a great deal of potential — notwithstanding the fact that you need a vast amount of usage data to make this form of personalisation meaningful. In my days slogging through the Ph.D., I often found Amazon a useful research tool for discovering books that my library searches had not uncovered — I would search for a book that I already had, and scavenged the ‘people who bought this, also bought this’ lists. (I suppose this might be cheating, but I prefer to call it ‘enterprising’!) In the interdisciplinary field I was researching (history of technology) this was a highly productive method of surfacing relevant records, as the library metadata might not necessarily reflect the subject matter.

More interestingly, however, is the fact that not only was I finding content, I was also — if on a very peripheral level — engaging with a community of peers. People ‘like me’ who were also interested in the same research questions (or, in more mercenary terms, I knew what the competition was up to).

So what will the Archives Hub of the future look like? More to the point, what will be the experience of Archives Hub users? These are questions that form the focus of a think-tank meeting we are holding next week here in Manchester. Our Steering Committee, along with some other stakeholders, will be joining us to think collaboratively about our future, and we’re very much looking forward to it. Will personalisation (in its many forms) or social networking have a role here? And if so, in what ways? Will the Hub users of the future find records ‘recommended’ to them? Will they be able to share, comment, or annotate records (will they want to?) All of these questions, of course, get at the very heart of what it is we do as a profession (archivists, information professionals, researchers) and in some ways begin to undermine some of our traditional practices or assumptions about cataloguing and standards — what it actually means to describe something. Who gets to describe (and who doesn’t)? For what purposes?

It’s tricky territory, for sure, but exciting and challenging nonetheless. We’d be curious to hear your thoughts about these issues, and especially in terms of the Hub’s future. In turn, we’ll look forward to sharing with you what we learn from our day.