Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.

2006-01-31

Interview with Jeff Chow Of Library Elf

Jeff Chow, one of the developers of Library Elf, kindly agreed to answer a few questions for a Pop Goes the Library interview.

Liz B.: What was your inspiration for Library Elf?

Jeff: The inspiration for Elf came about because my friend started to receive a lot of overdue fines -- he and his wife were having a hard time keeping track of their library books and videos at their local library. They have three kids and the library is a big part of their lives (everyone has a library card). At first they tried a manual system where each kid took out exactly five items. That helped a bit but it forced a fixed reading diet on the kids and the kids weren't particularly keen on being limited this way.

So he asked if some software I was working on at time could be adapted to help him and his family keep track of their library borrowings. He basically wanted an email reminder notice just before their books and videos were due. We built a prototype and when he and his wife started using it, they were amazed at how much it changed the way they used the library. It had a wonderful freeing effect when it came to their library activities. They discovered that they're able to go to the library more often and check out items with less worry, plus the kids are a lot happier since they could borrow without restrictions.

Just before going to the library, his wife would print out an Elf email reminder notice and walk around the house collecting all the items. She found that the printout was very convenient because the kids tend to put the videos and books in odd places. And without the printout, it was easy to forget what was checked out. The printed slips of papers from the libraries often were the first things to get lost.

At the same time, another inspiration for Elf came about because of our needs. Here in the Greater Vancouver Metropolitan area (British Columbia, Canada), there are 11 different library systems that are within driving distance. Many of us use a number of these libraries and it can be difficult to keep track of all of the books that we’ve borrowed. With this, we could also use a way to consolidate multiple cards and get early email reminders as well. Like my friend, Elf has helped immensely and we are able to check out more books and return them on time. We’re also finding that we go to the library a lot more often now.

Between my friend's need of wanting to consolidate his family's library accounts, within a single library, and our need of wanting to consolidate library accounts across libraries - Library Elf was born.

Liz B: Can you share with us any new things that we may be seeing from Library Elf in the near future?

A lot of the new development is on having the system work more efficiently. In the near future, Elf will be moving to a larger server. We are also working on trying to reschedule more of the checking to when the library is closed. Although Elf doesn’t take much of the library’s computer resources, this would be better for both the library and user. Notices could go out earlier and the processing would be in the library’s off-hours when their computer system is used less.

Liz B: As you know, bloggers have been discussing Library Elf and different issues about library security that the Elf brought to their attention, such as privacy of RSS feeds. Library Elf has been responsive to those issues; in particular, I'm thinking of Mary Minow's concerns and comments and the Elf's responses, both at the site and at her Library Law blog. Is there anything more that you'd like to say about security and RSS?

RSS is still in its infancy. The way to handle RSS for private feeds at this time is with HTTP authentication but many of the RSS readers have not implemented this yet. Also, there is more than one way of handling HTTP authentication, which further complicates the problem. Bloglines apparently uses the least secure method of HTTP authentication. To recognize a private RSS feed, Bloglines requires that the username and password be embedded in the RSS URL.

As RSS grows, more attention will be paid to the security aspect of it. For now, it’s best not to have identifying elements in the RSS feed that can be linked to the individual. For Elf’s RSS feeds, there are no references to email address or the person’s last name. Still, those who are not comfortable with RSS may want to consider email only or RSS readers on their own computer.

Liz B: Is it OK that I think of Library Elf as the Elf? Or do you prefer the J. Lo version, L. Elf?

Elf is our preferred way as well.

Liz B: Pop Goes the Library is about popular culture and libraries; what do you consider your pop culture area of expertise?

Interesting question. Not sure if I have an answer. However, if user comments are any indication, it might be about convenience when it comes to things related to library activities. I think the bottom line of Elf is that many of our users are borrowing more and frequenting the library more often. Amazing that such a small thing as giving advance due notices is able to change the borrowing habits of library patrons.

Liz B: Thank you, Jeff!

Jeff observes that giving advance notice changes the borrowing habits of patrons; in this case, increased use. What strikes me is that Jeff listened to what patrons wanted and figured out a way to do it. Too often, in library land, the response to patrons is to tell them how the library does things (a slip of paper with dates, to be held onto and tracked by the patron) rather than figuring out a way to respond to the patron's need (advance email notice of items out and holds waiting).

Prior Pop Goes the Library posts about Library Elf: Library Elf; Revisiting the Elf; Not the Elf Again

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