The 22nd Century Librarian Is A Digital Librarian

Here’s the presentation I gave at Reinvention @ MI last November. Thanks to Bron Lowden from MI Victoria for requesting the full text.

The 22nd Century Librarian Is A Digital Librarian

by Michelle Zaffino, M.S., Author and Digital Librarian Developer

Founder, In the Stacks

This paper was originally presented at the Mechanics’ Institute Reinvention Conference, San Francisco, November 6, 2016


Hi, I’m Michelle Zaffino, founder of In the Stacks book recommendations from a Librarian Brain. I’m here to present the book recommendation and discovery product my team and I are building and to discuss how digital librarians are transforming the role of librarians. Thank you to the Mechanics’ Institute San Francisco for having me speak at this impressive international gathering of Mechanics’ Institutes worldwide.

The Mechanics’ Institute Library is our startup incubator! In the Stacks is start up-in-residence here at the Mechanics’ Institute San Francisco. It’s where we had our demo day, at Women Wine and Startups. And it’s the workspace where we’re based, along with CapitalOne Cafe down the street.

My story (briefly) is that I’m a former magazine editor & journalist. I also write young adult novels and I researched my third book, Allegra, as a special project for my MLIS. Through the experience of writing 3 novels and earning my graduate degree, I realized that whether your book is indie or traditionally published, book discovery is broken, so I learned to code, in order to build products to fix it. In the Stacks is our way of sharing good books with the readers who love them.

My path includes changing perceptions of librarians. There are a million librarians in the world. Librarians are a highly educated untapped resource, and we love books. I want to start a conversation about how the roles of librarians are currently viewed in society at large, and how we’re updating the stereotypical definition. I’ve worked as a freelance contractor for copywriting, UX, content strategy and information architecture. After grad school, I attended front-end developer bootcamp and Women Who Code meetups, and have built a dozen websites. In the future we’ll all be digital librarians and archivists. We’ll promote the continued relevance of librarians, as workers in jobs such as information scientists, developers, data scientists, digital asset managers, digital publishing experts, and in other new job roles we’ll continue to create.

I continually assess and adjust how to define and position myself as a digital librarian, and ask what we’re offering, and why, with our unique skill sets we’re the best ones for the job. How do others describe what we do? How can we tie it to something that will get digital librarians high-paying jobs? Every chance I can, I accept public speaking roles (more than 15x now) to practice and share my view of the future of digital libraries and get feedback from others. Collaboration is essential, when building a company and moving an industry forward.

I’ve written several articles that encourage us to look at librarians in a new way. One is Women Who Code In the Stacks, about the developer skills I learned after grad school to shape my career. It’s interesting to note that the iSchool at Pitt where I completed my MLIS recently merged with the Computer Science school, so there is even more crossover in instructors and curriculum. Another article of note is Why Librarians?, about how we can shift public perception so Librarians can be valued by an even broader audience.

I work continuously on being an influencer and thought leader, which is helpful when pitching to angel investors for seed funds for In the Stacks. Being funded in a major way, for the 18-24 month runway that we’re asking for in our pitch (which you can view here) will not only allow us to scale the In the Stacks product, sell to more customers and attract more users, but give us the confidence to really pursue the cultural shift we want to see in our library’s future.

What We’re Doing In the Stacks

Traditional publishing is shrinking, and it’s challenging to publish in that old-fashioned way. With eBook publishing there’s no barrier, because of free ISBNs, and other publication costs are minimal. So we created In the Stacks Publishing and to date have released three eBook titles. We found during the marketing and publicity that book discovery is broken. The problem of book discovery is so interesting to me, since writing books and discovering new ways to promote them using technology is my true passion, and you really need this kind of resolve as an entrepreneur.

When you want to start a company, you need to ask, what problem do I have, that other people also have? And how can I best serve and use my skills as a digital librarian to solve the problem? In the Stacks is our answer to that. The In the Stacks app lets Librarians choose your next read for you. You can find a book online with the Librarian Brain Book Recommendation Engine, a story that has the power to change your life.

In 2015, we landed on a B2B business model (now a B2B2C) for In the Stacks book discovery products, where booksellers license our database, and booklovers use the app to find their next read. The team expanded into a revolving cast of freelance contractors, under my leadership, and I learned to code to build the product. When a librarian added my first book to the syllabus for her freshman English Comp class, sales from the those four sections of students totaled more than 125 copies. So we have the proof we need to posit that librarians can increase book sales, eBooks sales, audiobook sales, DVD sales and sales of other streaming stories.

There’s a glut of information today, with so many new eBooks and no one to filter them. The reviews on Amazon are all biased, from friends and family, written by people getting free review copies. Or the recommendations are “readalikes” based on purchase history. Additionally, publishers push certain titles to drive book sales. Book marketing is ripe for disruption.

Over the course of a year, we attended several industry conferences to gauge interest in the In the Stacks product, by pitching it using lo-fi protypes and signing up users. We crowdfunded, landed a small business loan and built the first version of the product to demo.

Then in 2016, the Mechanics’ Institute librarians and I joined forces to host the Women, Wine and Startups demo day (view the program here), where my team and 15 other female entrepreneur-led startups showcased our product. In classic MI tradeshow style, guests milled about the product demos, enjoying wine and snacks and listening to guest lecturers speak on special topics relevant to women who wish to start their own business.

It was at this demo day that we debuted our internal alpha product. Our Librarian Brain database aggregates book review data from librarians, and it is this data that fuels our app, and gives top five picks of books librarians love to readers. Our book app uses an algorithm based on reference desk interview tactics, so users will feel like they’re getting an in-person library experience online. In the Stacks data librarians have created a unique taxonomy and tagged entries with thousands of keywords to create a diverse and unbiased bunch of book picks. We have 400 users in beta, and our female founders demo day held at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute, Women Wine and Startups, helped us increase our user metrics.

You can view a demo video of the working alpha version of the product here, and you can sign up for the beta test on the website at In the In the demo, you see the grid of book covers with the Top Five picks, and the scrolling list of keywords. Our data librarians have tagged each book title in the Librarian Brain database with these keywords, which range from author names, book titles, locations, emotions, genres, and many other book industry keywords. The more keywords you click on and choose, the more precise picks you get. Then you hit submit and the grid is repopulated with book picks for you.

Data is being called the new oil of the digital economy, and our Librarian Brain data set will be valuable to a bookseller with a large online catalog, and will help shape their recommendations with more personalized big data/machine learning/artificial intelligence technology. Natural language processing technology alone may not be precise enough. We’ve starting compiling other data as well, creating data sets that can be used to train big data. An example is the narrative storytelling dataset for media our team also worked on, called Entale. Entale applies narrative story structure to journalism news feeds, arranging them in story bursts that are more interesting for readers to consume. It was this computational journalism project that we debuted at the PBS POV Digital Lab hackathon in October 2016 at KQED in San Francisco, based on a paper we submitted to the computational journalism symposium at Stanford.

Our Librarian Brain database is a trusted, unbiased source for recommendations, an alternative to the biased bubble of social sites, plus we give wild card picks, with suggestions of opposing point of view. It’s a database of thousands of books reviewed by librarians. Our data librarians have sourced open, non-copyrighted metadata from these book reviews into the database. The book reviews are gathered from top publications (both commercial and library), and from the best libraries, written by MS-degree holding librarians.

The book data is crafted into a data schema and taxonomy expertly-curated by librarians. Currently thousands of book recommendations, we’re growing the brain to millions of human-curated recs. The data set will refine a larger big data set, to give more personalized human-curated picks. We think there’s value in data sets, and through user testing we’ll continue to refine the information architecture and data taxonomy of the database.

The technology stack we’ve used to build our book recommendation product includes HTML5, Javascript/J$, Python, and ReactJS. Our database runs on MySQL, custom algorithms, and is patent pending.

In the Stacks At Mechanics’ Institute SF

The Mechanics Institute SF (MI) is a phenomenal resource for early-stage startups like In the Stacks. The SF Chronicle calls MI “the boostrapper’s bargain.” Some resources offered at MI include help with research of market, competitors, etc., low-cost space, with excellent wi-fi, and a community that supports entrepreneurs. MI has much of what spaces like WeWork offer but at a more affordable cost—membership is only $95 a year.

We have advocates in the MI community, and it’s a great source for feedback. We gained more user testers from within MI and get lots of valuable advice as we iterate our product. In the Stacks is sometimes called Mechanics’ Institute SF’s startup-in-residence, and we think it’s a great space to be in. We’ve discussed the possibility of starting a small business incubator at MI, and a MI Fund, as a way of ensuring the office space on floors 4-9 is always full, and to generate a more abundant growth mindset overall. A future goal is to be a member of the MI board. I’d like an enduring part of my membership in the MI community to be to continue to support female-founded startups and small businesses.

We’re also publishing a librarian detective novel series set at MI. It’s being serialized on the web, so you can read a few chapters at It has an interactive element: We use social media, blogs, location mapping via Placing Literature and keywords to encourage audience participation in solving the mystery.

In Conclusion

It’s essential that librarians remain at the forefront of digital innovation in information science and be pioneers in the technology revolution, to ensure access for everyone. While continuing to introduce new technology to the public as well as underserved segments, libraries and librarians can partner with tech companies and technology efforts in myriad ways, both inside and outside the traditional library: as places to learn coding, incubator spaces for new technology to thrive, and centers for testing and trying new technology products. Life at the Mechanics’ Institute just keeps getting better. It’s a thriving community, for creativity and commerce, books and the benefit of life-long learning. Life is what you make it, and time at MI is well spent.

Michelle Zaffino is an author and digital librarian developer living in San Francisco. She can be reached at and Sign up for the book recommendation private beta at