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  • Resilience, connections and a clean slate

    Posted on June 10th, 2013 Lukas Koster 17 comments

    The inside-out library at ELAG 2013
    This year marked my fifth ELAG conference since 2008 (I skipped 2009), which is not much if you take into account that ELAG2013 was the 37th one. I really enjoyed the 2013 conference, not in the least because of the wonderful people of the local organising committee at the Ghent University Library, who made ELAG2013 a very pleasant event.This year’s theme was “the inside-out library”, a concept coined by Lorcan Dempsey, which in brief emphasises the need for libraries to shift focus 180 degrees.

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    Sylvia Van Peteghem opening speech

    Before you read any further I strongly suggest you read Rurik Greenall’s post on ELAG 2013 first. He covered most of the programme in his usual thorough and analytical way.

    In my personal overall conference experience major emphasis was on research support in libraries. This was partly due to my attendance of the pre-conference Joint OpenAIRE/LIBER WorkshopDealing with Data – what’s the role for the library?’ on May 28. It was good to have sessions focusing on different perspectives: data management, data publication, the researchers’ needs, library support and training. I was honoured to be invited to participate in the closing round table panel discussion together with two library directors Wilma van Wezenbeek (TU Delft Library) and Wolfram Horstmann (Bodleian Library), under the excellent supervision of Kevin Ashley (DDC). An important central concept in the workshop was the research life cycle, which consists of many different tasks of a very diverse nature. Academic and research libraries should focus on those tasks for which they are or can easily become qualified.

    Looking from another angle we can distinguish two main perspectives in integrating research: the research ecosystem itself, which can be seen as the main topic of the OpenAIRE/LIBER workshop, and the research content, the actual focus of researchers and research projects. I will try to address both perspectives here.

    On the first day of the actual conference Herbert Van de Sompel gave the keynote speech with the title “A clean slate”. Rurik Greenall aptly describes the scope and meaning of Herbert’s argument. Herbert has been involved in a number of important and relevant projects in the domain of scholarly communication. My impression this time was: now he’s bringing it all together around the fairly new concept of the “research object”, integrating a number of projects and protocols, like ORE, Memento, OpenAnnotation, Provenance, ResourceSync. It’s all about connections between all components related to research on the web in all dimensions.

    This linking of input, output, procedures and actors of research projects in various temporal and contextual dimensions in a machine readable way is extremely important in order to be able to process all relevant information by means of computer systems and present it to the human consumer. In this respect I think it is essential that data citations in scholarly articles should not only be made available in the article text, but also as machine readable metadata that can be indexed by external aggregators.
    Moreover, it would be even better if it was possible to provide links to research projects that would serve as central hubs for linking to all associated entities, not only datasets. This is the role that the research object can fulfill. During the OpenAIRE/LIBER workshop I tried to address this issue a number of times, because I am a bit surprised that  both researchers and publishers appear to be satisfied with having text only clickable dataset citations. That is even the case the other way around with links to articles in dataset repositories like Dryad. I think there is a role here for information professionals and metadata experts in libraries. This is exactly the point that Peter van Boheemen made in his talk about producing better metadata for research output. Similarly Jing Wang stressed the importance of investigating the role of metadata specialists and data librarians for interoperability and authority control in her presentation on the open source linked data based research discovery tool Vivo.

    Again there are two perspectives here. Even if we have machine readable metadata on research projects and datasets, most systems are not adequately equipped with functionality to process or present this information. It is not so easy to update complex systems with new functionality. Planned update cycles, including extensive testing, are necessary in order to adhere to the system’s design and architecture and to avoid breaking things. This equally applies to commercial, open source and home grown systems. Joachim Neubert’s presentation of the use of the open source CMS Drupal for linked data enhanced publishing for special collections illustrated this. Some very specialist custom extensions to the essentially quite flexible system were needed to make this a success. (On a different note, it was nice to see that Joachim used a simple triple diagram from my first library linked data blog post to illustrate the use of different types of predicates between similar subjects and objects.)
    Anyway, a similar point can be made about systems and identifiers for people (authors, researchers, etc.). I participated in the workshop on ISNI, ORCID and VIAF : Examining the fundamentals and application of contributor identifiers led by Anila Angjeli and Thom Hickey, one of six ELAG workshops this year. Thom and Anila presented a very complete and detailed overview of the similarities and differences of these three identifier schemes. One of the discussion topics was the difference in adoption of these schemes by the community on the one hand and as machine readable metadata and their application in library systems on the other.

    Here comes “resilience” into play, a concept introduced by Beate Rusch in her talk on the changing roles of the German regional library consortia and service centres in the world of cloud computing and SaaS. Rurik Greenall captures the essence of her talk when he says “… homogenous, generic solutions will not work in practice because they are at odds with how things are done …” and that “messy, imperfect systems… are smart and long lived”. Since Beate’s presentation the term “resilience” popped up in a number of discussions with colleagues, during and after the conference, mainly in the sense that most systems, communities, infrastructures are NOT resilient. Resilience is a concept mainly used in psychology and physics, meaning the ability of someone or something to return to its original state after being subjected to a severe disturbance. Beate’s idea with resilience is that we can adapt better to changing circumstances and needs in the world around us if we are less perfect and rigid than we usually are. In this sense I think resilience can also mean that a structure could permanently change instead of returning to its original state.
    In the library world resilience can be applied to librarians, libraries, library infrastructure and library systems alike. In my view “resilience” might apply to the alternative architecture I have described in a recent blog post, where I argue that we should stop thinking systems and start thinking data. In order to be resilient we need an open, connected infrastructure, that is of the web (not on the web). The SCAPE infrastructure for processing large datasets for long term preservation, presented by Sven Schlarb, might fit this description.

    A  number of presentations focused on infrastructure and architecture. The new version of the Swedish union catalogue LIBRIS could be described as a resilient system. Martin Malmsten, Markus Sköld and Niklas Lindström showed their new linked open data based integrated library framework which was built from the ground up, from ”a clean slate” so to speak. I can only echo Rurik’s verdict “ With this, Libris really are showing the world how things are done”. Contrary to the Library of Congress BibFrame development which started very promising, but now seems to evolve into an inward looking rigid New Marc. This was illustrated by Martin Malmsten when he revealed to us that Marc is undead, and by Becky Yoose, who wrote a very pertinent parable telling the tale of the resurrection of Marc.
    Rurik Greenall described the direction taken at his own institution NTNU Library: getting rid of old legacy library and webpage formats and moving towards being part of the web, providing information for the web, being data driven. It’s a slow and uphill struggle, but better than the alternative. A clean slate again!
    Dave Pattern presented a different approach in connecting data from a number of existing systems and databases by means of APIs, and combining these into a new and well received reading list service at the University of Huddersfield.

    Back to research. In our presentation, or rather performance, Jane Stevenson and I tried to present the conflicting perspectives of collection managers and researchers in a theatrical way, showing parallel developments in the music industry. Afterwards we tried to analyse the different perspectives, argued that researchers need connected information of all types and from all sources and concluded that information professionals should try and learn to take the researcher’s perspective in order to avoid becoming irrelevant in that area.
    The relationship between libraries and researchers was also the subject of the talk “Partners in research. Outside the library, inside the infrastructure“, by Sally Chambers and Saskia Scheltjens. Here the focus was on providing comprehensive infrastructures for research support, especially in the digital humanities. Central question: large top-down institutionalised structures, or bottom-up connected networks? Bottom line is: the researcher’s needs have to be met in the best possible way.
    A very interesting example of an actual digital humanities research and teaching project in collaboration between researchers and the library is the Annotated Books Online project that was presented by Utrecht University staff. The collection of rare books is made available online in order to crowdsource the interpretation of handwritten annotations present in these books.

    Besides research support there were presentations on other “inside out library” topics: publishing, teaching, data analysis and GLAM.
    Anders Söderbäck presented the Stockholm University Press, a new publishing house for open access digital and print on demand books. I was pleasantly surprised that Anders included two quotes of my aforementioned blog post in his talk: “...in the near future we will see the end of the academic library as we know it” and “According to some people university libraries are very suitable and qualified to become scholarly publishers … I am not sure that this is actually the case. Publishing as it currently exists requires a number of specific skills that have nothing to do with librarian expertise“. But of course Anders’ most important achievement was winning the Library Automation Bingo by including all required terms in one slide in a coherent and meaningful way.

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    Merrilee Proffitt presented an overview of MOOCs and libraries, Sarah Brown described the way that learning materials at the Open University in the UK are successfully connected and integrated in the linked data based STELLAR project. Looking at these developments the question arises if there are already efforts to come to a Teaching Object model, similar to the Research Object?
    Andrew Nagy described the importance of analysing huge amounts of usage data in order to improve the usability and end user front end of the Summon discovery tool. Dan Chudnov presented the Social Media Manager prototype, used for collecting data from twitter in order to be used in social science research.
    Valentine Charles described the activities carried out by Europeana to contribute large amounts of digitised library heritage resources to Wikimedia Commons by means of the GLAMwiki toolset in order to improve visibility of these resources the Open Access way. The GLAMwiki toolset currently appears to offer a number of challenges for the interoperability and integration of metadata standards between the library and the Wikimedia world. Another plea for resilience.

    Then there were the workshops. The combination of these parallel hands-on and engaging group activities and the plenary sessions makes ELAG a unique experience. Although I only participated in one, obviously, I have heard good reports from all other workshops. I would like to give a special mention to Ade and Jane Stevenson’s “Very Gentle Linked Data” workshop, where they managed to teach even non-tech people not only the basic principles of linked data, but also how to create their own triple store and query it with SPARQL.

    Summarising: looking at the ELAG2013 presentations, are we ready for the inside out library? Sometimes we can start with a clean slate, but that is not always possible. Resilience seems to be a requirement if we want to cope with the dramatic changes we are facing. But you can’t simply decide to be resilient, either something is resilient or it isn’t. A clean slate might be the only option. In any case it seems obvious that connections are key. The information profession needs to invest in new connections on every level, creating new forms of knowledge, in order to stay relevant.

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