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Turning your phones into Cataloging clients

Over the past few years, I’ve owned a number of different smart phones.  I’ve had an IPhone, Android (the first in fact) and now a Windows 7 Phone.  I have admit, they are all great, especially when I compare them to my old Blackberry.  What you can do with each of these devices is quite cool.  One of my favorite aspects of these phones is how easy it is to hack on them.  When I had my IPhone, I spent some time learning Object C and writing a few simple IOS apps.  I did the same thing with Android and Java.  However, now that I have a Windows Phone, I find that I have many more opportunities to write applications for it because there’s no learning curve…I already use both Silverlight and C# in some personal coding projects. 

So, why do I bring this up.  Well, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how these little micro computers that fit in our pockets can potentially be used in libraries.  There are some obvious uses (making our catalogs more mobile, using geolocation within a building to help users navigate to a book, etc), but what I’m more interested in is how we can make staff life a little easier with these devices.  Looking around our library, one area that I can definitely see where these kind of devices might be able to make a big impact is in cataloging and technical services – well, more specifically, eliminating the need to perform recon within cataloging and technical services. 

Travelling around a few libraries in my immediate area, one thing that I’ve found is many libraries still have small card catalogs.  The often are of materials that have yet to be reconned and represent older journal titles and monographs.  Many libraries also have large gift shelves, and areas in the stacks themselves, that remain uncataloged.  It would be nice if we could take these micro computers, fully equipped with a digital camera, and photograph ourselves out of this problem.  The difficulties of course relate to OCR and the conversion of this data into MARC itself…or maybe it’s not a difficulty.

I’ve been doing a little bit of playing around (well, more than a little bit) and here’s what I’ve found.  It’s easy to do OCR on the web (free OCR).  Folks my not realize it, but the Google Docs API provides a free OCR service.  So does Microsoft.  By working with the camera on a smart phone, it’s easy to send a snapshot of a book title page or card catalog card to one of these OCR services and return the results back to the phone.  Using MarcEdit (being written in C#, MarcEdit can be compiled to run on a windows phone, I’ve done it), I’m able to utilize the MARCEngine to take that OCR data and either retrieve data from Amazon, the library of congress, another library catalog – massage the data, and upload it to my catalog – all from my phone.  Pretty cool stuff. 

Right now, this work all remains in the research stages…its rough.  The UI is sad, and the parsing of the OCR’d data could be much better.  But the interesting thing is that it does work.  Does it have a real applicability in the library world – maybe, maybe not.  I’m just not sure if enough reconned material still exists for this type of application to be needed.  But what this type of experimentation does show is that libraries probably should be looking at these little micro computers as more than consumer devices (i.e., how they change the way our users interact with our services) and consider how these devices may change the way libraries perform their own work. 

BTW, if folks are interested in this recon project – my intention is to talk about it at C4L this Feb during a lightening talk.  Ideally, I’ll have it cleaned up enough to show it off, and maybe, if there is interest, talk to some folks about how they can run something like this on their own Windows 7 Phone. 

–TR

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