WordCamp Gold Coast 2011

Some of the regulars from Book Coasters presented at WordCamp Gold Coast 2011. This is a rough approximation of what we said.  Very rough.  It was mostly improv. Eventually it will be up on WordPress TV, if you want a more accurate rendition.

Why a book club?

Most of our audience were Australians, and Australians read more books, per head, than any other country on Earth.  It all goes back to the tyranny of distance, and being early adopters for technology. So, a lot of Australians read.  A lot love reading. A lot love talking about their reading.

Why an online book club?

The Utterly Brilliant Problem

Have you ever been in a book club that reaches, say, 12 people and wants to divide into two groups so that everyone gets turn speaking?  Ever notice that there’s one person everyone wants to be in the same group as? Maybe she’s just funny and charismatic, so conversation flows with her as a catalyst. Maybe her house is a great venue and she bakes muffins. You know the one I mean.

We get that too: some of our book group co-ordinators have been running book clubs since the 1970s, and they have learned a lot about keeping conversation going. Some are techno-sorceresses of book clubbery, and are on the pulse of every genre, so they know what you’ll like as soon as you tell them what you have liked. Some are really hot on particular genres.

So, how do we train new facilitators then?  Why would you, as an attendee, not want the experienced ones? Why would you want to go to one of our groups that has a member of the public instead of a librarian as facilitator?  There are ways around this in real life, but on the web, you get access to a group of library staff and members, of varying interests and skill levels.

The Tim-Tam Shortage Problem

We get 8 000 visitors a day in the Library Service. If 1% of those want to be in a book club, that stretches our capabilities. An online venue mitigates this because side conversations, which are a distraction in real life book clubs, allow readers to amuse and assist each other. Also, when online, participants don’t need to speak in sequence (Amy gives her opinion, then Bob, then Carol) and they read what others want to “say”, which is faster than listening.

The Glowing Mushroom Problem

The Gold Coast is a long, thin local government area, and, as a bit of a note for visitors from Melbourne or Sydney, we don’t divide up our local government areas in Queensland.  South of the border the Gold Coast would be divided into at least four local government areas. That’s why we are the second-largest public library service in the Southern Hemisphere (Brisbane is the largest). We’d like to give service that is comparably good to people living in the Southport CBD and in the mountains that overlook New South Wales. There are many practical barriers to this, but in terms of book clubs, an online venue allows us to give equally good service everywhere.

The Iceberg Advantage

More than 90% of our collection is electronic. If our collection is electronic, why would we focus on the face to face services to help you interpret the collection?

The Swarm of Vultures Advantage

Librarians love answering questions: it’s fun. On Book Coasters, the librarians who answer your question self-select. If you ask about early horror, then the early horror fans will swoop in with an answer. In real life you might go to a book club, want to talk about romance novels, and find out you’re with a moderator who is really into sci-fi.  Online, that doesn’t happen.

The Sandbox Advantage

Book coasters has allowed us to train our librarians in Web 2.0 technologies, but in an informal, recreational way. The staff who test out new e-services tend to overlap strongly with those who participate in the book club.

Museum 2.0 model

We used the Museum 2.0 model as a framework
Check their blog at museumtwo.blogspot.com
Boiled down, our commitment level is 2 or 3 messages by staff each week and 2.5 hours of staff time per week.

What we get for our time (and your money)

Currently 75.5 viewers and 143 views per day (average 2014).

One third of our viewers click through to our library catalogue.

Posts and comments are increasingly created by non-staff, so they are free.

An increasingly large proportion of views are of “long tail posts”: digital assets created years ago by staff which require no further cost to maintain.

What makes our service unique

This slide was removed from our WordCamp material. It’s a bit librarianish, and has fewer thoughts you can take home for your own club, so we cut it for time. Consider it an extra web bonus. 8)

Librarian as interface, connector, and maven.

Have you read The tipping point? It’s about how ideas go viral on the web. I’m stealing their jargon here.

The librarian acts as an interface between the world of normal speech and the controlled vocabulary used to file material in libraries. Our systems are getting more intuitive all the time, but they still aren’t as easy to use as asking at the desk.

A connector is a person who links you to other real life services.  Chances are, we have heard your question before, or have heard a question similar in type before. So we can often refer you to a human who knows your answer.

A maven, in the example given in The Tipping Point, are a special 5% of customers for any product. When they see a phone number on the back of a bar of soap with a message saying “If you have any questions about this product, please call.”, a soap maven calls. If you need to know about soap, you need to talk to your local maven. All industries have mavens. They know what’s best and where to get it and how much it will cost. You know people in your own life where you think “If I ever need to know about X, I’ll ask Denise.”

We are information mavens.

Makes insider knowledge public.

Librarians used to keep a stack of special books for the most asked questions. We called these “ready reserve” in a lot of places. People would ask one of these top 50-or-so questions, we’d quickly check the ready reserve, and we’d look like geniuses. The trick is, the asker doesn’t see the larger pattern of questions, and so assumes we could do the same for any question. Going electronic lets us make the ready reference section accessible from home through your browser. That frees up our time for the trickier questions.

Focuses customer swarm.

Having an online book club focuses customers on that way of asking for help. We love answering questions, but the phone, which is still the most popular way of asking them, is an incredibly rude device.  It doesn’t matter who you are serving or what you are doing, the phone needs to be answered. I’ve even seen a guy come up to a desk, realize the line was three people long (with two staff assisting) and go out into the foyer to ring us on his phone.

If you ask online, then before replying, a librarian can go check her facts, ask for help from other librarians, send out a plea on librarian mailing lists, craft a perfect answer and get back to you. You get a better answer and we get to serve the physically-present customers better.

In an indexed world, local knowledge is obscured and interesting.

Most users do not know that Google has a second page of results, and unless they specify Australian content, that first page is filled with American or British sites. Libraries are the custodians of your local story. We know what should be available, so we know what is being missed by searches which get millions of results, but none that seem quite right.

Learn from our mistakes

We’ve rebuilt our site twice. These are the key mistakes we made, and how we fixed them. Consider these when building your own. After the first refit, out views went up, consistently, by about 20%, the second refit worked even better (about 40%).

Build your own look

We used a theme based on Reddit, which was hot and new at the time. When Reddit’s owners then went online and said they didn’t like their theme and were changing it, we were left with a look even its creators said was ugly. Our next theme was Twenty-Ten, which won out in a comprehensive blind study we performed internally. Yes: it was the vanilla theme. Nonetheless, it worked for us.

Our current them, TheStyle, is very different to our previous themes. It has been selected because we found that many of our users were entering the blog from our other sites, hitting our welcome message, then bouncing out. TheStyle puts more content, and more graphics, in the Home page as an eyeball hook. It also lets us change our background graphic to suit events.

We also found that most people were entering the blog not from the home page, but directly at the content related to their subject search. TheStyle cheats for us, by recycling the featured images from the Home page into each post. It also suggests similar material automatically, based on the tagging of the post. This lets us tempt people onward to more clicks with no extra work.

Put the eyeball hooks up front

Our home page originally consisted of four icons which linked to categories on the site. We thought this was rather clever, because the coding for it was a little tricky, and we were proud of it. For us, it doesn’t work as well as a wide variety of content on the front page.

Match the name to the URL

We built the site, then chose the name. This is why our URL and name do not match.  Do it the other way.

Be cool about public participation

We had really tight rules about approvals for posts by non-staff on the site. What if they post political stuff? What if they try to sell stuff? What if they try to post pictures of naked people? When people started posting on the site, all of those concerns, and all of the approval mechanisms, just fell away. Members of the public now just get Author privilege and are edited in hindsight: that is, they post live, and our staff check later.

Avoid feature explosion

WordPress has a lot of bells and whistles, and the people who are tech-savy in your group will want to play with them. This tends to create a small sub-group who know what all of the parts do, and only they have the skills to maintain the site. This makes the site fragile if that handful of people lose interest or move city. Roll out features slowly, and spread the knowledge of their use through a larger group.

You’ll see we still haven’t quite conquered feature images on our new theme? That’s our next challenge in terms of rolling out new features.

Talk like normal people, but normal, book-loving people

Librarians have a jargon that allows us to talk about books with each other. It is easy to say “Don’t use jargon” but it is unrealistic. The public like using our jargon. Are you a sci-fi reader?  Do you read fantasy novels? “Sci-fi”, “fantasy” and “novel” are all book-trade jargon words. If you come to the library and ask “Where is the anime?” do you want us to say “You mean the Japanese cartoons?” There’s a balance here. Originally we tried not to use the word “genre” on our site, but it fell through because other people kept using it.

Don’t exhaust yourself with events

It’s tempting to chase the spikes in views you get with events, but it’s exhausting and less important than you think.

Learn from our successes

The majority of our views are long tail and our comments are in genre lit.

Most of our views are from posts which get three or less views that day. It’s tempting to try to write posts which smash your view record, but the real work on your blog is done by your back catalog of posts. Blogging is a long-term thing. Focus on quality posts that get a view per day forever, rather than a surge and then irrelevance.

Sincerity matters more than topicality

When we tried to do horror in October, we had fewer views, because most people don’t know Google has a second page of results, and we get swamped by American Hallowe’en sites. Only chase the news if it ties in with a strategy (in our case, being local). Some of our most popular posts have been obituaries for librarians and authors.  People value sincere posts, and are more likely to share them in social media, than fluff pieces about topical things.

You need at least two voices at the start and you need a soft launch

People won’t participate on a site that looks barren: have a conversation going before you ask people to use the site. Have things for them to enjoy and do. Don’t force them to make their own fun, and don’t give them so many options that it paralyses them and they go somewhere else.

You need a hook that LibraryThing or Goodreads won’t provide.

In our case, that’s our localness and our professionalism. LT and GoodReads both have librarians as well, but our ratio of librarians to users is way higher.

Crowdsource structure, not just content

We made the site using our best guess of what people wanted. Then, after a year, we rebuilt it based on their feedback. Eighteen months later, we looked at the use data and rebuilt it from scratch again. Don’t over-engineer your first site: you may want to peel many of the features off once people start using it.

Whatever people can sell us on

The site originally didn’t have reading lists. It does now, because users wanted them. We can’t be sure what people will want in the future, so we need to stay flexible. WordPress is a flexible platform, so that suits us, because we may need to rework out site regularly, as readers demand new services. Again: don’t over-engineer.

If you have questions, please comment below, our contact your local Library branch.