Change or be irrelevant

Or: Think “different” or paint yourself in a corner

EMTACL12 – Emerging Technologies in Academic Libraries 2012

I attended the EMTACL12 conference in Trondheim October 1-3, 2012, organised by the Library of NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology, both as a member of the international programme committee and as a speaker. EMTACL stands for “emerging technologies in academic libraries”. Looking back, my impression was that the conference was not so much about emerging technologies, as about emerging tasks using existing technologies. One of the keynote speakers, Rudolf Mumenthaler, expressed similar thoughts in his blog post “No new technologies in libraries”, but some of the other participants disagreed, saying that “being emerging” has more to do with the context of technology than with the technology itself (see the comments on that blog post). Some technologies can be established, but may still be emerging in certain domains. There is something to say for that. Anyway, whatever you say, we all mean the same thing.

EMTACL12 was the second EMTACL conference. The first one was organised in 2010. One of the presentations that caused a great stir amongst librarians on twitter in the 2010 edition was the one entitled “I’ve got Google, why do I need you? A student’s expectations of academic libraries” by Ida Aalen. Let’s look at this year’s conference with that perspective in mind: is there a future for academic libraries in supporting students and researchers other than just giving access to publications?

The word “change” best describes the overall impression I got from all EMTACL12 presentations. And “data”. Both concepts involving “support and services for research and education”. Technologies that were mentioned: linked data, apis, mobile computing, visualisation, infrastructure, communication.

The EMTACL12 programme consisted of 8 plenary keynote presentations by invited speakers, and a number of presentations in two parallel tracks. Let me report on the things that struck me most.



The title of the opening keynote presentation by Herbert Van de Sompel, “Paint-yourself-in-the-corner Infrastructure” aptly describes the current situation of academic libraries. “Paint yourself in a corner” means something like: “To put yourself in a situation with no visible solution or alternative”. Herbert Van de Sompel talked about the changing nature of the scholarly record: from “fixity” and “boundary” to dynamic and interdependent on the web. Online publications and related information, like research project information, references and data, change over time, so it becomes increasingly difficult to recreate a scholarly record. These are the challenges that academic libraries need to address. Van de Sompel mentioned a couple of new tools and protocols that can help: Memento, DURI (Durable URI), SiteStory. See also the excellent report of this session by Jane Stevenson on the Archives Hub blog.


5 dimensions

Think “different”’ is what Karen Coyle told us, using the famous Steve Jobs quote. And yes, the quotes around “different” are there for a reason, it’s not the grammatically correct “think differently”, because that’s too easy.  What is meant here is: you have to have the term “different” in your mind all the time. Karen Coyle confronted us with a number of ingrained obsolete practices in libraries. Like the ineradicable need for alphabetic ordering, which only makes sense in physical catalogue card systems. “Alphabetical order is not generally meaningful and an accident of language” she said. Same with page numbers and ebooks: “…it is literally impossible to get everyone ‘on the same page’”. Before printing we already had a perfect reference system for texts, independent of physical appearance: paragraph or verse numbers (like in the Bible).
Libraries put things on shelves, forcing the user to see individual items, and ignoring the connections there are between them. “Library classification is a knowledge-prevention system, not a knowledge-organisation system”. The focus is still too much on physical items: “The FRBR user tasks drive me insane, as they end with obtain”.  According to Karen Coyle, libraries are two-dimensional linear things. We need to add a third (links), fourth (time) and fifth dimension (the users).

© Patrick Hochstenbach

Is linked data the answer? Not as such: “ISBD in RDF is like putting a turbo engine on a dinosaur”. The world is not waiting for libraries’ bibliographic data as Linked Open Data. The web is awash with bibliographic data. But we have holdings information, and that is unique and adds value. We should try and get that information into Google search results rich snippets.

Karen’s message, which I wholeheartedly support, was: “The mission of the library is not to gather physical things into an inventory, but to organize human knowledge that has been very inconveniently packaged.

Rurik Greenall’s keynote “Defining/Defying reality: the struggle towards relevance in bibliographic data” also focused on the imminent irrelevancy of libraries, from another perspective. “Outsourcing library business is better called ‘outscarcing’. Libraries are losing skills.”. “You can tell a lot about an organization from the way it treats its data.”. “We see metadata as good and data as bad. The terms are the same.” . “Ideas change, so should your data.”. Buying shelf-ready data means being static. “Data should age like wine, not like fish.”. In this changing environment bibliographic data needs to be enhanced. There is a role for experts, for the library. Final quote: “The semantic web doesn’t exist anymore, it’s been absorbed by the web”.

Rurik’s world


Rudolf Mumenthaler spoke about “Innovation management in and for libraries”. During and after his talk the big question was: can innovation be promoted by management, or does it need to grow of itself in freedom, by allowing staff to play the Google way? It appears that there may be cultural differences. Main thing is: innovation has to be facilitated in one way or another. See the comments on his blog post.

Astrophysicist Eirik Newth entertained the audience with his slideless “Forecast for the academic library of 2025: Cloudy with a chance of user participation and content lock-in”.

Jens Vigen, Head Librarian at CERN, delivered a very entertaining and compelling argumentation for open access with his talk “Connecting people and information: how open access supports research in High Energy Physics. Since 50 years!” The CERN convention of 1953 already effectively contains an Open Access Manifesto. CERN supports SCOAP3, Sponsoring Consortium for Open Access Publishing in Particle Physics.  CERN uses subscription funds for open access. “You librarians today spend money on subscriptions, tomorrow you will spend it on open access.”.
A couple of very interesting remarks by Jens Vigen that are of direct interest to online library discovery layers:
A researcher would never go to an institutional repository, they find their colleagues in subject repositories.”.
A successful digital library: one size does not fit all.”.

OCLC’s new “Technology evangelist” Richard Wallis‘ talk “OCLC WorldShare and Linked Data” actually was not about WorldShare and Linked data, but consisted of two parts, a WorldShare commercial, and a presentation of WorldCat and linked data, mainly the embedding of additional markup in WorldCat search results. Richard Wallis also mentioned the WorldCat Linked Data Facebook app, which almost nobody seemed to know. Maybe Facebook isn’t the right platform for things like this after all?

In his closing keynote “What Next for Libraries? Making Sense of the FutureBrian Kelly, UKOLN, University of Bath, in the UK, made it clear that it is very hard to foresee the future, with Star Trek, monorails and paper planes as evidence.

Parallel tracks

Obviously I could only attend half of the parallel tracks sessions. Moreover, I chaired two sessions of two presentations each, in the “Semantic Web” and “Supporting Research” tracks, and I gave one presentation myself.

In “The winner takes it al? – APIs and Linked Data battle it outJane and Adrian Stevenson (yes, they’re married, and work together) of the MIMAS National Data Centre at the University of Manchester in the UK, performed an actual battle defending the use of the generic linked data protocol versus the more dedicated API approach in making data available for reuse and mashups. Two interesting projects served as an example: the World War 1 Discovery Project (Adrian for APIs) and Linking Lives (Jane for Linked Data). Conclusion: too close to call.

Black Metal MARC

Norwegian Black Metal was the intriguing topic of Kim Tallerås’ talk “Using Linked data to harmonize heterogeneous metadata – Modeling the birth of Norwegian black metal”. He and three others combined complicated metadata from two heterogeneous data sources about early Norwegian black metal bands, performances and recordings using linked data ontologies and graph matching techniques. We saw some very interesting slides containing MARC records and some typical Black Metal band and song names.
Afterwards we had the opportunity to experience the real thing in the Black Metal Room in the Norwegian Rock and Pop Museum Rockheim during our conference excursion.

Black Metal Room at Rockheim

Mubil: a digital laboratory” is a project (NTNU Trondheim, PERCRO, Pisa, Italy) aimed at augmenting and enriching rare old books in a digital 3D architecture, ready for all kinds of platforms and devices. Results are touch ebooks, with options for retrieving extra textual information and virtual 3D objects. A very interesting presentation by Alexandra Angeletaki, Marcello Carrozzino and Chiara Evangelista.

In her talk “Libraries, research infrastructures and the digital humanities: are we ready for the challenge?”, Sally Chambers (DARIAH Göttingen) gave us a very thorough and complete overview of what “Digital Humanities” means and of all organisations and infrastructures currently available to libraries that are charged with supporting digital humanities research.

The History Engine project was the subject of the presentation “Driving history forward: The History Engine as a vehicle for engaging undergraduate research” by Paulina Rousseau, Whitney Kemble and Christine Berkowitz (University of Toronto Scarborough), as a real example of how libraries can support undergraduate students in their efforts to master research.

Sharon Favaro, Digital Services Librarian at Seton Hall University in South Orange, USA, showed us the landscape of disconnected tools used in the different stages of research projects: catalogues, databases, writing tools, drawing tools, reference managers, task managers, email; on the web, on internet file sharing tools, on desktop, on flash drives. The topic of her talk “Designing tools for the 21st century workflow of research and how it changes what libraries must do” was: how can research libraries support scholars within the entire lifecycle of the research process? The goal being to identify areas where library tools could be better integrated to support library resource use throughout the lifecycle of research. It was a pity that there was no real view yet on the best way to solve this problem: create a new library based infrastructure platform, use existing linking features, or other options. This will hopefully be the objective of a follow-up project at Seton Hall University Library.

Publication profiles – presenting research in a new way“: Urban Andersson and Stina Johansson presented the Chalmers University (Gothenburg, Sweden) Publication Profiles Platform, in which all kinds of information related to Chalmers University researchers and publications are linked together. The main objective is to increase the visibility of Chalmers University research. A good example of how university libraries should take care of their own research and publications domain.  A very interesting visualisation feature was shown: Chalmers Geography, or geographical relations between researchers and projects on Google Maps. A question I should have asked (but didn’t) is: how does this project relate to the VIVO project?

In my own presentation “Primo at the University of Amsterdam – Technology vs Real Life” I tried to show the discrepancies between the in theory unlimited possibilities of the technology used in library discovery layers and the limitations in the actual implementation of these tools, focused on content, indexing and user interface configuration. One of my conclusions was already expressed earlier by Jens Vigen: “A successful digital library: one size does not fit all.”.

Of the other parallel tracks sessions I heard good reports about Andrew Withworth’s “The triadic model: A holistic view of how digital and information literacy must support each other” and Shun Nagaya and Keizo Itabashi – “Covo.js : A JavaScript Library to Utilize Subject Headings and Thesauri on the Web”. This doesn’t mean that the other talks were bad, I just didn’t manage to talk to people about them. One presentation worth mentioning is Krista Godfrey’s “The QR Question: QR Codes in Academic Libraries”, because it featured QR cows and my own photo of the University of Amsterdam Library’s QR cards.

Let’s not forget Rune Martin Andersen’s talk of the Bartebuss (Moustache Bus) Trondheim public transport open data app project. This is yet another proof that public transport apps are the killer apps of open data.

Trondheim moustache men

Last but not least: the food (delicious and lots of it), the photos, Patrick Hochstenbach’s doodles and the music: the excursion to Rockheim Museum, the conference dinner entertainment by Skrømt, and the afterparty at Ramp bar, resulting in an interesting playlist afterwards.

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