By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Question:        How do you select a “human book?”

Answer:           There’s an app for that.

Thanks to a productive team of students and an innovative research faculty member at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), library-goers for this year’s Human Library events are able to navigate the many “human book” choices in the Syracuse area by using mobile apps.

Developed just since February, the Android app has launched on Google Play, and the iPhone app is under review by Apple’s App Store, and will be launched soon. The mobile app project also accompanies a website developed for librarians from several area libraries to input their event and book information. Human Library events start this week and take place at several area libraries (including Syracuse University’s Bird Library) as part of their National Library Week (April 13-19) celebrations.

Research Assistant Professor Yun Huang led the mobile app project, after brainstorming with Bird Library librarian Abby Kasowitz-Scheer and collaborating with stakeholders from the participating libraries. The developer team consists of iSchool graduate students Ankit Vasa, who built the website; and Ruchkia Agicha, who created the iPhone app. Also on the team is Onondaga Community College student Yu Sun, who developed the Android version of the application.

Community Knowledge Sharing

But what are “human books”? And why is a navigation app important?  

The Human Library event pairs “books”—people who volunteer to tell about their histories, interests, experiences, and viewpoints—with “readers,” people who want to learn about different cultures and life situations. The information sharing occurs one-to-one, within the safe setting of a library.  

Without a mobile app to pull the information together, patrons would have to visit the websites of each participating library separately to collect the information themselves. Instead, the app consolidates and organizes all the event data and presents it in a time-saving, cohesive, easily viewable way. The app also allows people to reach out event organizers to express their interests in volunteering as a book and to reserve a book more conveniently, promoting the creation of knowledge sharing within local communities. The availability of the app also helps librarians to share their resources effectively.

Dr. Huang notes that she received inspiration and became interested in applying her research expertise in mobile crowdsourcing systems in the library research domain after talking to iSchool faculty members Jian Qin and R. David Lankes, and postdoctoral researcher Sarah Inoue.

Function and Beyond

There are immediate benefits to community organizations when they can have a function-specific app developed, but the benefits of engaging in such community events are multi-sided, according to Professor Huang.  Feedback about how the app is used and the study aspects it offers on how crowds share information provides fodder for Dr. Huang’s research. She is studying crowdsourcing for community engagement, how to engage community members to participate in varied activities to improve community well-being, and increase public service, community safety, knowledge sharing and happiness factors. This effort involves research on how encouraging closed organizations to be more open improves operating and information environments as well.

 “The purpose of such projects isn’t only to provide a simple app that works for a single moment; I want the collaboration to provide an illustration that this movement (crowdsourced information-sharing) can work in the long run,” the professor added.  “If there is an interest in community engagement, a project where people think a mobile platform can make a change for your project, then we welcome you to contact us to brainstorm ideas,” Dr. Huang suggested.  

Since the code for the app project is reusable, it will benefit future book events and other programs the libraries want to host, plus will provide the model for a more comprehensive community calendar which additional organizations can use, she said.