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Exploring societal challenges through library data

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From film credits to library catalogues, the creative industries are constantly, passively generating rich textual data. Could this data be used to shed new light on societal challenges? At Nesta, we’re focused on three societal challenges: A Sustainable Future, A Healthy Life and A Fairer Start. Our Sustainable Future mission aims to accelerate the decarbonisation of household activities in the UK. In this article, we explore how library catalogue data can enrich our understanding of this mission and its evolution overtime. While we must be mindful of methodological limitations, we find that there has been both a broadening and deepening of library material related to sources of renewable energy. This supports the idea that methodologies that take advantage of untapped data emerging from creative sectors could not only help us better understand the world we live in but also reveal trends we may not otherwise see.

This study looks at decades of library data and reveals that there has been a dramatic increase in academic records on renewable technologies such as solar and heat pumps, especially in the last ten years. Topics related to renewable energy have been in the literature for a surprisingly long period of time, as early as the mid 19th century. While some subject areas have grown and shrunk, others have persisted, including scientific methodologies, energy policy, science and engineering and U.S. energy policy. Meanwhile, more recent networks reveal increased specialisation both beyond and across earlier topic areas. They also show the growing interaction between different forms of renewable energy. More broadly, this article serves to demonstrate that datasets from the creative industries can serve to both confirm macrotrends and highlight unexpected or hidden topics.

There are a number of interesting directions in which to take this form of analysis. First, as the Library Discovery hub API is open, it could be used to construct a real-time monitoring system for any given topic. This system could include tracking growth in the number of publications across keywords as well as the evolution of subject areas over time. Second, given the records also return author names, prominent scholars in keywords or topic areas could be identified. Finally, a similar analysis could be conducted across a variety of topic areas.

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