The Public Library as an (Almost) Open-Source Institution

Building A Community: On-Line


To try and solve that problem and build on the success of Teen Summer Challenge by opening the idea up to a wider audience, PCLS secured a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to build an "Interactive Discovery Platform" – an underlying framework, built around Wordpress, that multiple different programs could be run on top of to target different interests, age groups, and ability levels. The first two applications to come out of the IDP are a reworked Teen Summer Challenge, rebuilt to take advantage of the new platform, and Scout, which takes the concept first fostered and researched in the early incarnation of Teen Summer Challenge and throws it open for adults to take advantage of.

Regrettably, Pierce County Library System closed down Scout at the end of 02015. No word yet on whether the underlying code will be open-sourced so that others will be able to replicate the Platform for their own purposes.

The Platform, at the most basic level, offers activities that players can complete to collect an amount of points. Activities consist of self-claimable items ("I did it!"), items that request a response of some sort ("Write a paragraph about what you think / upload a picture of your completed efforts"), claim codes that are specific triggers (answers to questions, or specific phrases placed inside locations that are related to activities), referral links ("Ah, you've read to the end of our policies page. Click on this link here to get your points."), and, because we're a public library, people can input items with an ISBN to get points for activities like "Recommend a book for fans of television show X." Activities can be set to require a manual review of the submitted content by a moderator or administrators before approval.A group of activities all around the same theme forms a badge, which is awarded, along with optional bonus points, after the completion of all the activities in the group. Badges are organized into categories.

This doesn't make Scout, or Teen Summer Challenge for that matter, anything gigantically different than other gamification applications. I do think we're a bit different in that, once it's been robustly developed enough, we plan on releasing as much source code as possible so that everyone else can build their own applications on top of the platform, contributing back to the community that helped us build our platform.

What's most interesting about both Scout and Teen Summer Challenge is that they're building a community around the activities. Teen Summer Challenge's participants took to the social aspects of the platform faster, but both Teen Summer Challenge and Scout participants were soon mentioning each other, commenting on activities, and using their shared love of the subjects (and their sometimes personal knowledge of each other outside of the platform) as a focal point to interact with each other and the library staff in mostly positive ways. Staff, for their part, try to protect the community from spammers, trolls, cheaters, and other anti-community behaviors and encourage more interaction and detail from the submissions that come in. Staff are encouraged to organically suggest library or community activities that participants might find useful to continue their explorations or to help them get past a particularly difficult question. In Scout's Forums, some of the community members are also taking on those roles, with threads on how to do alternatives for activities where allergies will become a problem or for someone who doesn't have a readily-available camera and is supposed to take pictures. By trying to make the focus of Scout on the community, rather than on the activities, PCLS is hoping to build something longer-lasting and that will be used by more people.

The community aspect for Scout has also produced methods to collect feedback for the libraries to incorporate. An activity asks people to try out one of our downloadable services and tell us about how easy or hard it was to use. Another asks a player to go into one of our branches and ask for some book recommendations. From these activities, we find out useful things about the library that we may not have received through standard survey methods. We're happy to find that our staff gets consistently rated well by people on their knowledge and friendliness. And that one of our on-line partners is clearly being used head-and-shoulders above the rest for the challenge. The community gives us feedback; we adjust to meet the community's needs through our expertise and programs. That seems like the essence of a good open-source institution to me.