Creating Context

Many people see libraries as places of content. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. Where content delivery in concerned, libraries in fact offer contextualised content. Librarians manufacture contexts all the time… sometimes before the content is even there. It is how we make our resources more meaningful and useful for the patron.

What is context?

Things can get a bit lofty here, and there are several disciplines from which to view the question. Personally speaking, I sum context up as relational and relative significance. Context is what we use to imbue meaning within a thing or idea, by means of comparison or relation to other things and ideas. Anyone who has studied across various academic fields will understand just how many ways a concept or piece of information may be interpreted. The Linguist versus the Social Psychologist versus the Anthropologist versus the Scientist… etc. But “versus” is not the right word to use. In a library setting, context is not about right or wrong. It is about differences and similarities, and revealing different facets of the one thing. It is about shining the light.

Both online and in the physical library space, librarians instinctively notice links between disciplines, subjects and topics. Our specialisation is in finding and providing information and resources, no matter what the topic. We see relationships and contexts where other people see disembodied pieces of information.

Creating ‘context layers’

Context is indeed a kind of magic. It makes something ‘appear’ where it may otherwise not have. Although context incidentally materialises as part of a patron’s perception – the end result of a patron’s information seeking behaviour, if you like. I strongly believe that it also needs to materialise as a a deliberate overlay, created by the librarian, to enrich the patron’s journey. It needs to tap into the seemingly innate desire to ‘browse’, to follow the yellow brick road, and to sneak a quick peek at what just popped up and looks interesting.

What does a ‘context layer’ look like?

Suggestions for the OPAC:

  • The facility for hyper-linking makes the OPACs and library websites easy places for context layers to be created.
  • As well as the obvious inclusion of “did you know” or “have you tried…” text and image boxes, librarians can incorporate innovative online tools that enable exploration of content in different ways (e.g. search video by catch phrase).
  • Use metadata to gather content from various disciplines which share common topical attributes, and have these appear on a search results page in a side panel: “we also found…”. The idea is to offer content that is NOT closely related, but related nonetheless.
  • User-generated tags and tag clouds are a great way to offer new contexts. For this, the user would see something along the lines of “people who searched for X, were also interested in Y and Z”; although you may wish to do some fancy coding to ensure that Y and Z are actually somewhat related to X (perhaps by means of minimum matching terms). To a large extent, your options depend on the functionality of your integrated library system (ILS) and the capacity of your team to configure and personalise the various functionalities available – or to integrate new products into your ILS.

Suggestions for the library space

  • Create resource displays for obscure topics
  • Place topic guides around the room, which offer innovative contexts for major subject areas
  • Add special notes to the covers of biographies, leading people to explore other books/DVDs related to the person’s life, achievements or the time period in which they lived
  • Attach some laminated “Also Related..” posters or flick-books to shelves holding particular subject areas or call number ranges. In a public library, for instance, add medicinal herbs, aromatherapy, botany and the ancient ‘language’ of flower meanings as fresh contexts for the gardening section.

At a very top level, I like to try to include the following contexts, where appropriate:

  • social context
  • local context (outside services or resources in the community)
  • historical context
  • scientific context
  • technological context
  • philosophical context

Creativity and your patron’s needs will determine what these context layers look like in a tangible sense, and how they might work. Ultimately, deliberate context layer creation will:

  • Encourage cross-discipline investigation
  • Promote resources (especially those that are little known or often overlooked)
  • Encourage reader development
  • Inspire creative approaches to research (i.e. the yellow brick road)