Posted on June 19th, 2014 1 comment
Lingering gold at ELAG 2014
Libraries tend to see themselves as intermediaries between information and the public, between creators and consumers of information. Looking back at the ELAG 2014 conference at the University of Bath however, I can’t get the image out of my head of libraries standing in the way between information and consumers. We’ve been talking about “inside out libraries”, “libraries everywhere”, “rethinking the library” and similar soundbites for some years now, but it looks like it’s been only talk and nothing more. A number of speakers at ELAG 2014 reported that researchers, students and other potential library visitors wanted the library to get out of their way and give them direct access to all data, files and objects. A couple of quotes:
- “We hide great objects behind search forms” (Peter Mayr, “EuropeanaBot”)
- “Give us everything” (Ben O’Steen, “The Mechanical Curator”).
[Lingering gold: data, objects]
In a cynical way this observation tightly fits this year’s conference theme “Lingering Gold”, which refers to the valuable information and objects hidden and locked away somewhere in physical and virtual local stores, waiting to be dug up and put to use. In her keynote talk, Stella Wisdom, digital curator at the British Library, gave an extensive overview of the digital content available there, and the tools and services employed to present it to the public. However, besides options for success, there are all kinds of pitfalls in attempting to bring local content to the world. In our performance “The Lord of the Strings”, Karen Coyle, Rurik Greenall, Martin Malmsten, Anders Söderbäck and myself tried to illustrate that in an allegorical way, resulting in a ROADMAP containing guidelines for bringing local gold to the world.
In recent years it has become quite clear that data, dispersed and locked away in countless systems and silos, once liberated and connected can be a very valuable source of new information. This was very pertinently demonstrated by Stina Johansson in her presentation of visualization of research and related networks at Chalmers University using available data from a number of their information systems. Similar network visualizations are available in the VIVO open source linked data based research information tool, which was the topic of a preconference bootcamp which I helped organize (many thanks especially to Violeta Ilik, Gabriel Birke and Ted Lawless who did most of the work).
[Systems, apis, technology trap]
The point made here also implies that information systems actually function as roadblocks to full data access instead of as finding aids. I have come to realize this some time ago, and my perception was definitely confirmed during ELAG 2014. In his lightning talk Rurik Greenall emphasized the fact that what we do in libraries and other institutions is actually technology driven. Systems define the way we work and what we publish. This should be the other way around. Even APIs, intended for access to data in systems without having to use end user system functions, are actually sub-systems, giving non transparent views on the data. When Steve Meyer in his talk “Building useful and usable web services” said “data is the API” he was right in theory, yet in practice the reverse is not necessarily true. Also, APIs are meant to be used by developers in new systems. Non-tech end users have no use for it, as is illustrated by one of the main general reactions from researchers to the British Library Labs surveys, as reported by Ben O’Steen: “API? What’s that? I don’t care. Just give me the files.”.
[Commercial vs open source]
This technology critique essentially applies to both commercial/proprietary and open source systems alike. However, it could be that open source environments are more favorable to open and findable data than proprietary ones. Felix Ostrowski talked about the reasons for and outcomes of the Regal project, moving the electronic objects repository of the State Library of Rheinland-Pfalz from an environment based on commercial software to one based on open source tools and linked data concepts. One of the side effects of this move was that complaints were received from researchers about their output being publicly available on the web. This shows that the new approach worked, that the old approach was effectively hiding information and that certain stakeholders are completely satisfied with that.
On the side: one of the open source components of the new Regal environment is Fedora , only used for digital objects, not any metadata, which is exactly what is currently happening in the new repository project at the Library of the University of Amsterdam. A legitimate question asked by Felix: why use Fedora and not just the file system in this case?
All these observations also imply that, if libraries really want to disseminate and share their lingering gold with the world, alternative ways of exposing content are needed, instead of or besides the existing ones. Fortunately some libraries and individuals have been working on providing better direct access and even unguided and unsolicited publication of data and objects that might be available but not really findable with traditional library search tools. The above mentioned EuropeanaBot (and other twitter bots) and the British Library Labs’ Mechanical Curator are a case in point. Every hour EuropeanaBot sends a tweet about a random digital object, enriching it with extra information from Wikipedia and other sources.
In the case of the British Library Labs Ben O’Steen described an experiment with free access to large amounts of data that by chance led to the observation that randomly excavated images from that vast amount of content drew people’s attention. As all content was in the public domain anyway, they asked themselves “what’s the harm in making it a bit more acessible?”. So the Mechanical Curator was born, with channels on tumblr, twitter and flickr.
Another alternative way to expose and share library content, a game, was presented by Ciaran Talbot and Kay Munro: LibraryGame. In brief, students are encouraged to use and visit the library and share library content with others by awarding them points and badges as members of an online community. The only two things students didn’t like about the name LibraryGame were “library” and “game”, so the name was changed to “BookedIn”.
No matter if you like bots and games or not, the important message here is that it is worthwhile exploring alternative ways by which people can find the content that libraries consider so valuable.
In the end, it’s people that libraries work for. At Utrecht University Library they realised that they needed simpler ways to make it possible for people to use their content, not only APIs. Marina Muilwijk described how they are experimenting with the Lean Startup method. In a continuous cycle of building, measuring and learning, simple applications are released to end users in order to test if they use them and how they react to them.
“Focus on the user” was also the theme of the workshop given by Ken Chad around the Jobs-to-be-done methodology.
Interestingly, “How people find” instead of: “How people search” was one of the perspectives of the Jisc “Spotlight on the Digital” project, presented by Owen Stephens in his lightning talk.
[Collections and findability]
Another perspective of that Jisc project was how to make collections discoverable. It turns out that collections as such are represented on the web quite well, whereas items in these collection aren’t.
Valentine Charles of The European Library demonstrated the benefits of collection level metadata for the discoverability of hidden content, using the CENDARI project as example.
What’s a library technology conference without linked data? Implicitly and explicitly the instrument of connecting data from different sources relates quite well to most of the topics presented around the theme of lingering gold, with or without the application of the official linked data rules. I have already mentioned most cases, I will only go into a couple of specific sessions here.
Niklas Lindström and Lina Westerling presented the developments with the new linked data based cataloguing system for the Swedish LIBRIS union catalogue. This approach is not simply a matter of exposing and consuming linked data, but in essence the reconstruction of existing workflows using a completely new architecture.
The data management and integration platform d:swarm, a joint open source project of SLUB State and University Library Dresden and the commercial company AvantgardeLabs was presented in a lightning talk by Jan Polowinski. This tool aims at harvesting and normalising data from various existing systems and datastores into an intermediate platform that in turn can be used for all kinds of existing and new front end systems and services. The concept looks very useful for library environments with a multitude of legacy systems. Some time ago I visited the d:swarm team in Dresden together with a group of developers from the KOBV library consortium in Berlin, two of whom (Julia Goltz and Viktoria Schubert) presented their own new K2 portal solution for the data integration challenge in a lightning talk.
Linked data is all about unique identifiers on the web. The recent popular global identifier for researchers ORCiD, at last year’s ELAG topic of one of the workshops, was explained by Tom Demeranville. As it happened, right after the conference it became clear that ORCiD implemented the Turtle linked data format.
The problem of matching string based personal names from various data sources without matching identifiers was tackled in the workshop “Linking Data with sameAs” which I attended. Jane and Adrian Stevenson of the ArchivesHub UK showed us hands-on how to use tools like LOD-Refine and Silk for reconciling string value data fields and producing “sameAs” relationships/triples to be used in your local triple store. They have had substantial experience with this challenge in their Linking Lives project. I found the workshop very useful. One of the take-aways was that matching string data is hard work.
Hard work also goes on in the caves and basements of the library world, as was demonstrated by Toke Eskildsen in his war stories of the Danish State Library with scanning companies, and by Eva Dahlbäck and Theodor Tolstoy in their account of using smartphones and RFID technology in fetching books from the stacks.
Once again I have to say that a number of unofficial sessions, at breakfast, dinner, in pubs and hotel bars, were much more informative than the official presentations. These open discussions in small groups, fostering free exchange of ideas without fear of embarrassment, while being triggered by the talks in the official programme, can simply not take place within a tight conference schedule. Nevertheless, ELAG is a conference small and informal enough to attract people inclined to these extracurricular activities. I thank everybody who engaged in this. You know who you are. Or check Rurik Greenall’s conference report, which is a very structured yet personal account of the event.
Lots of thanks to the dedicated and very helpful local organisation team of the Library of the University of Bath, who have done a wonderful job doing something completely new to them: organising an international conference.
Posted on December 1st, 2013 No comments
Struggling towards usable linked data services at SWIB13
Paraphrasing some of the challenges proposed by keynote speaker Dorothea Salo, the unofficial theme of the SWIB13 conference in Hamburg might be described as “No more ontologies, we want out of the box linked data tools!”. This sounds like we are dealing with some serious confrontations in the linked open data world. Judging by Martin Malmsten’s LIBRIS battle cry “Linked data or die!” you might even think there’s an actual war going on.
Looking at the whole range of this year’s SWIB pre-conference workshops, plenary presentations and lightning talks, you may conclude that “linked data is a technology that is maturing” as Rurik Greenall rightly states in his conference report. “But it has quite a way to go before we can say this stuff is ready to roll out in libraries” as he continues. I completely agree with this. Personally I got the impression that we are in a paradoxical situation where on the one hand people speak of “we” and “community”, and on the other hand they take fundamentalist positions, unconditionally defending their own beliefs and slandering and ridiculing other options. In my view there are multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes irreconcilable “we’s” and “communities”. Sticking to your own point of view without willingness to reason with the other party really does not bring “us” further.
This all sounds a bit grim, but I again agree with Rurik Greenall when he says that he “enjoyed this conference immensely because of the people involved”. And of course on the whole the individual workshops and presentations were of a high quality.
Before proceeding to the positive aspects of the conference, let me first elaborate a bit on the opposing positions I observed during the conference, which I think we should try to overcome.
Developers disagree on a multitude of issues:
Developers hate MARC. Everybody seems to hate RDF/XML, JSON-LD seems to be the thing for RDF, but some say only Turtle should be used, or just JSON.
Tools and languages
Perl users hate Java, Jave users hate PHP, there’s Python and Ruby bashing.
Create your own, reuse existing ones, yes or no upper ontologies, no ontologies but usable tools.
Windows/UNIX/Linux/Apple… it’s either/or.
Open source vs. commercial software
Need I say more?
Belgians hate German beer, or any foreign beer for that matter.
(Not to mention PDF).
OK, I hope I made myself clear. The point is that I have no problem at all with having diverse opinions, but I dislike it when people are convinced that their own opinion is the only right one and refuse to have a conversation with those who think otherwise, or even respect their choices in silence. The developer “community” definitely has quite a way to go.
Apart from these internal developer disagreements I noticed, there is the more fundamental gap between developers and users of linked open data. By “users” I do not mean “end users” in this case, but the intermediary deployers of systems. Let’s call them “libraries”.
Linked Data developers talk about tools and programming languages, metadata formats, open source, ontologies, technology stacks. Librarians want to offer useful services to their end users, right now. They may not always agree on what kind of services and what kind of end users, and they may have an opinion on metadata formats in systems, but their outlook is slightly different from the developers’ horizon. It’s all about expectations and expectation management. That is basically Dorothea Salo’s keynote’s point. Of course theoretical, scientific and technical papers and projects are needed to take linked data further, but libraries need linked data tools, focused on providing new services to their end users/customers in the world of the web, that can easily be implemented and maintained.
In this respect OCLC’s efforts to add linked data features to WorldCat is praiseworthy. OCLC’s Technology Evangelist Richard Wallis presented his view on the benefits of linked open data for libraries, using Google’s Knowledge Graph as an example. His talk was mainly focused at a librarian audience. At SWIB, where the majority of attendees are developers or technology staff, this seemed somewhat misplaced. By chance I had been present at Richard’s talk at the Dutch National Information Professional annual meeting two weeks earlier, where he delivered almost the same presentation for a large room full of librarians. There and then that was completely on target. For the SWIB audience this all may have been old news, except for the heads up about OCLC’s work on FRBR “Works” BIBFRAME type linked data which will result in published URIs for Works in WorldCat.
An important point here is that OCLC is a company with many library customers worldwide, so developments like this benefit all of these libraries. The same applies to customers of one of the other big library system vendors, Ex Libris. They have been working on developing linked data features for their so called “next generation” tools since some time now, in close cooperation with the international user groups’ Linked Open Data Special Interest Working Group, as I explained in the lightning talk I gave. Also open source library systems like Koha are working on adding linked open data features to their tools. It’s with tools like these, that reach a large number of libraries, that linked open data for libraries can spread relatively quickly.
In contrast to this linked data broadcasting, the majority of the SWIB presentations showed local proprietary development or research projects, mostly of high quality notwithstanding. In the case of systems or tools that were built all the code and ontologies are available on GitHub, making them open source. However, while it is commendable, open source on GitHub doesn’t mean that these potentially ground breaking systems and ontologies can and will be adopted as de facto standards in the wider library community. Most libraries, both public and academic, are dependent on commercial system and content providers and can’t afford large scale local system development. This also applies up to a point to libraries that deploy large open source tools like Koha, I presume.
It would be great if some of these many great open source projects could evolve into commonly used standard tools, like Koha, Fedora and Drupal, just to name a few. Vivo is another example of an open source project rapidly moving towards an accepted standard. It is a framework for connecting and publishing research information of different nature and origin, based on linked data concepts. At SWIB there was a pre-conference “VivoCamp”, organised by Lambert Heller, Valeria Pesce and myself. Research information is an area rapidly gaining importance in the academic world. The Library of the University of Amsterdam, where I work, is in the process of starting a Vivo pilot, in which I am involved. (Yes, the Library of the University of Amsterdam uses both commercial providers like OCLC and Ex Libris, and many open source tools). The VivoCamp was a good opportunity to have a practical introduction in and discussion about the framework, not in the least by the presence of John Fereira of Cornell University, one of the driving forces behind Vivo. All attendees (26) expressed their interest in a follow-up.
Vivo, although it may be imperfect, represents the type of infrastructure that may be needed for large scale adoption of linked open data in libraries. PUB, the repository based linked data research information project at Bielefeld University presented by Vitali Peil, is aimed at exactly the same domain as Vivo, but it again is a locally developed system, using another smaller scale open source framework (LibreCat/Catmandu of Bielefeld, Ghent and Lund universities) and a number of different ontologies, of which Vivo is just one. My guess is that, although PUB/LibreCat might be superior, Vivo will become the de facto standard in linked data based research information systems.
Instead of focusing on systems, maybe the library linked data world would be better served by a common user-friendly metadata+services infrastructure. Of course, the web and the semantic web are supposed to be that infrastructure, but in reality we all move around and process metadata all the time, from one system and database to another, in order to be able to offer new legacy and linked data services. At SWIB there was mention of a number of tools for ETL, which is developer jargon for Extract, Transform, Load. By the way, jargon is a very good way to widen the gap between developers and libraries.
There were pre-conference workshop for the ETL tools Catmandu and Metafacture, and in a lightning talk SLUB Dresden, in collaboration with Avantgarde Labs, presented a new project focused on using ETL for a separate multi-purpose data management platform, serving as a unified layer between external data sources and services. This looks like a very interesting concept, similar to the ideas of a data services hub I described in an earlier post “(Discover AND deliver) OR else”. The ResourceSync project, presented by Simeon Warner, is trying to address the same issue by a different method, distributed synchronisation of web resources.
One can say that the BIBFRAME project is also focused on data infrastructure, albeit at the moment limited to the internal library cataloguing workflow, aimed at replacing MARC. An overview of the current state of the project was presented by Lars Svensson of the German National Library.
The same can be said for the National Library of Sweden’s new LIBRIS linked data based cataloguing system, presented by Martin Malmsten (Decentralisation, Distribution, Disintegration – towards Linked Data as a First Class Citizen in Libraryland). The big difference is that they’re actually doing what BIBFRAME is trying to plan. The war cry “Linked data or die!” refers to the fact that it is better to start from scratch with a domain and format independent data infrastructure, like linked data, than to try and build linking around existing rigid formats like MARC. Martin Malmsten rightly stated that we should keep formats outside our systems, as is also the core statement of the MARC-MUST-DIE movement. Proprietary formats can be dynamically imported and exported at will, as was demonstrated by the “MARC” button in the LIBRIS user interface. New library linked data developments will have to coexist with the existing wider library metadata and systems environment for some time.
Like all other local projects, the LIBRIS source code and ontology descriptions are available on GitHub. In this case the mere scope of the National Library of Sweden and of the project makes it a bit more plausible that this may actually be reused on a larger scale. At least the library cataloguing ontology in JSON-LD there is worth having a look at.
To return to our starting point, the LIBRIS project acknowledges the fact that we need actual tools besides the ontologies. As Martin Malmsten quoted: “Trying to sell the idea of linked data without interfaces is like trying to sell a fax without the invention of paper”.
The central question in all this: what is the role of libraries in linked data? Developers or implementers, individually or in a community? There is obviously not one answer. Maybe we will know more at SWIB14. Paraphrasing Fabian Steeg and Pascal Christoph of hbz and Dorothea Salo, next years theme might be “Out of the box data knitting for great justice”.
Posted on November 11th, 2013 4 comments
Using discovery tools for presenting integrated information
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about library discovery tools. Basically, a library discovery tool provides a centrally maintained shared scholarly material metadata index, a system for searching and an option for adding a local metadata index. Academic libraries use it for providing a unified access platform to subscribed and open access databases and ejournals as well as their own local print and digital holdings.
I would like to put forward that, despite their shortcomings, library discovery tools can also be used for finding and presenting other scholarly information in the broadest sense. Libraries should look beyond the narrow focus on limitations and turn imperfection into benefits.
The two main points of discussion regarding discovery tools are the coverage of the central shared index and relevance ranking. For a number of reasons of a practical, technical and competitive nature, none of the commercial central indexes cover all the content that academic libraries may subscribe to. Relevance ranking of search results depends on so many factors that it is a science in itself to satisfy each and every end user with their own specific background and context. Discovery tool vendors spend a lot of energy in improving coverage and relevance ranking.
These two problems are the reason that not many academic libraries have been able to achieve the one-stop unified scholarly information portals for their staff and students that discovery tool providers promised them. In most cases the institutional discovery portal is just one of the solutions for finding scholarly publications that are offered by the library. A number of libraries are reconsidering their attitude towards discovery tools, or have even decided to renounce these tools altogether and focus on delivery instead, leaving discovery to external parties like Google Scholar.
I fully support the idea that libraries should reconsider their attitude towards discovery tools, but I would like to stress that they should do so with a much broader perspective than just the traditional library responsibility of providing access to scholarly publications. Libraries must not throw away the baby with the bathwater. They should realise that a discovery tool can be used as a platform for presenting connected scholarly information, for instance publications with related research project information and research datasets, based on linked open data principles. You could call this the “poor person’s linked open data platform”, because the library has already paid the license fee for the discovery platform, and it does not have to spend a lot of extra money on additional linked open data tools and facilities.
Of course this presupposes a number of things: the content to be connected should have identifiers, preferably in the form of URIs, and should be openly available for reuse, preferably via RDF. The discovery tools should be able to process URIs and RDF and present the resolved content in their user interfaces. We all know that this is not the case yet. Long term strategies are needed.
Content providers must be convinced of the added value of adding identifiers and URIs to their metadata and providing RDF entry points. In the case of publishers of scholarly publications this means identifiers/URIs for the publications themselves, but also for authors, contributors, organisations, related research projects and datasets. A number of international associations and initiatives are already active in lobbying for these developments: OpenAIRE, Research Data Alliance, DataCite, the W3C Research Object for Scholarly Communication Community Group, etc. Universities themselves can contribute by adding URIs and RDF to their own institutional repositories and research information systems. Some universities are implementing special tools for providing integrated views on research information based on linked data, such as VIVO.
There are also many other interesting data sources that can be used to integrate information in discovery tools, for instance in the government and cultural heritage domain. Many institutions in these areas already provide linked open data entry points. And then there is WikiPedia with its linked open data interface DBpedia.
On the other side of the scale discovery tool providers must be convinced of the added value of providing procedures for resolving URIs and processing RDF in order to integrate information from internal and external data sources into new knowledge. I don’t know of any plans for implementing linked open data features in any of the main commercial or open source discovery tools, except for Ex Libris’ Primo. OCLC provides a linked data section for each WorldCat search result, but that is mainly focused on publishing their own bibliographic metadata in linked data format, using links to external subject and author authority files. This is a positive development, but it’s not consumption and reuse of external information in order to create new integrated knowledge beyond the bibliographic domain.
With the joint IGeLU/ELUNA Linked Open Data Special Interest Working Group the independent Ex Libris user groups have been communicating with Ex Libris strategy and technology management on the best ways to implement much needed linked open data features in their products. The Primo discovery tool (with the Primo Central shared metadata index) is one of the main platforms in focus. Ex Libris is very keen on getting actual use cases and scenarios in order to identify priorities in going forward. We have been providing these for some time now through publications, presentations at user group conferences, monthly calls and face to face meetings. Ex Libris is also exploring best practices for the technical infrastructure to be used and is planning pilots with selected customers.
The Austrian national library service OBVSG for instance has integrated WikiPedia/DBpedia information about authors in their Primo results.
The Saxon State and University Library Dresden (SLUB) has implemented a multilingual semantic search tool for subjects based on DBpedia in their Primo installation.
At the University of Amsterdam I have been experimenting myself with linking publications from our Institutional Repository (UvA DARE) in Primo with related research project information. This has for now resulted in adding extra external links to that information in the Dutch National Research portal NARCIS, because NARCIS doesn’t provide RDF yet. We are communicating with DANS, the NARCIS provider, about extending their linked open data features for this purpose.
Of course all these local implementations can serve as use cases for discovery tool providers.
I have only talked about the options of using discovery tools as a platform for consuming, reusing and presenting external linked open data, but I can imagine that a discovery tool can also be used as a platform for publishing linked open data. It shouldn’t be too hard to add extra RDF options besides the existing HTML and internal record format output formats. That way libraries could have a full linked open data consumption and publishing workbench at their disposal at minimal cost. Library discovery tools would from then on be known as information discovery tools.
Posted on June 23rd, 2013 1 comment
Lessons from Cycling for Libraries
As I am writing this, more than 100 people working in and for libraries from all over the world are cycling from Amsterdam to Brussels in the Cycling for Libraries 2013 event, defying heat, cold, wind and rain. And other cyclists ;-). Cycling for Libraries is an independent unconference on wheels that aims to promote and defend the role of libraries, mainly public libraries, in and for society. This year it’s the third time the trip is organised. In 2011 (Copenhagen-Berlin) I was only able to attend the last two days in Berlin. In 2012 (Vilnius-Tallinn) I could not attend at all. This year I was honoured and pleased to be able to contribute to the organisation of and to actively participate in the first two days of the tour, in the area where I live (Haarlem) and work (Amsterdam).
I really like the Cycling for Libraries concept and the people involved, and I will tell you why, because it is not so obvious in my case. You may know that I am rather critical of libraries and their slowness in adapting to rapidly changing circumstances. And also that I am more involved with academic and research libraries than with public libraries. Moreover I have become a bit “conference tired” lately. There are so many library and related conferences where there is a lot of talk which doesn’t lead to any practical consequences.
The things I like about Cycling for Libraries are: the cycling, the passion, the open-mindedness, the camaraderie, the networking, the un-organisedness, the flexibility, the determination and the art of achieving goals and more than those.
I like cycling trips very much. I have done a few long and far away ones in my time, and I know that this is the best way to visit places you would never see otherwise. While cycling around you have unexpected meetings and experiences, you get a clear mind, and in the end there is the overwhelming satisfaction of having overcome all obstacles and having reached your goal. It is fun, although sometimes you wonder why on earth you thought you were up to this.
The organisers and participants of Cycling for Libraries are all passionate about and proud of their library and information profession, without being defensive and introverted. As you can see from their “homework assignments” they’re all working on innovative ways, on different levels and with varying scopes, to make sure the information profession stays relevant in the ever changing society where traditional libraries are more and more undervalued and threatened. So, the participants really try to make a difference and they’re willing to cycle around Europe in order to attract attention and spread the message.
Open minds are a necessity if you embark on an adventure that involves hundreds of people from different backgrounds. For collaborating both in decentralised organisation teams and in the core group of 120 people on the move, you need to appreciate and respect everybody’s ideas and contributions. Working towards one big overall goal requires giving and taking. Especially in the group of 120 people on wheels doing the hard work this leads to an intense form of camaraderie. These comrades on wheels are depending on each other to get where they’re going. A refreshing alternative for the everyday practice of competition and struggle between vendors, publishers and libraries.
The event offers an unparallelled opportunity for networking. With ordinary conferences the official programme offers a lot of interesting information and sometimes discussion, but let’s be honest, the most useful parts are the informal meetings during lunches, coffee breaks and most importantly in the pubs at night. It is then that relevant information is exchanged, new insights are born and valuable connections are made. Cycling for Libraries turns this model completely upside down and inside out. It is one long networking event with some official sessions in between.
Cycling for Libraries is an un-conference. As I have learned, this specific type on wheels depends on un-organisation and flexibility. It is impossible to organise an event like this following a strict and centralised coordination model where everybody has to agree on everything. For us Dutch people this can be uneasy. Historically we have depended on talking and agreeing on details in order to win the struggle against the water. The cyclists have ridden along the visible physical results of this struggle between Delft and Brugge, the dykes, dams and bridges of the Delta Works. The need to agree led to what became known as the Polder Model. On the other hand we also have a history of decentralised administration. “The Netherlands” is not a plural name for nothing, the country was formed out of a loose coalition of autonomous counties, cities and social groups, united against a common enemy.
Anyway, the organisation of Cycling for Libraries 2013 started in February with a meeting in The Hague with a number of representatives and volunteers from The Netherlands and Belgium (or Flanders I should say), when Jukka Pennanen, Mace Ojala and Tuomas Lipponen visited the area. After that the preparations were carried out by local volunteers and institutions without any official central coordination whatsoever. This worked quite well, with some challenges of course. I myself happened to end up coordinating events in the Amsterdam-Haarlem-Zandvoort area. I soon learned to take things as they came, delegate as much as possible and rely on time and chance. In the end almost everything worked out fine. In Amsterdam we planned the start event at OBA Central Public Library and the kick-off party at the University of Amsterdam Special Collections building. I only learned about the afternoon visit to KIT Royal Tropical Institute a couple of weeks before. I had nothing to do with that, but it turned out be a successful part of day one. Actually the day after KIT staff told the Cycling for Libraries participants that the museum and library faced closing down, a solution was reached and museum and library were saved. Coincidence?
The next day, the first actual cycling day between Amsterdam and The Hague, I cycled along for part of the route, from my home town Haarlem to halfway to The Hague. The visit of the Haarlem Station Library started an hour later than planned, and during lunch in Zandvoort on the coast we received word that the local public library were waiting for us to visit them. This was a surprise for me and Gert-Jan van Velzen (who helped plot the route from Amsterdam to The Hague). But we decided to go there anyway, and we were welcomed with free drinks and presents by the friendly librarians in their brand new building. At 4 o’clock we were expected to arrive at Noordwijk Public Library, but we were still in Zandvoort. No problem for Jeanine Deckers (airport librarian and regional librarian) who was waiting in Noordwijk with stroopwafels. Unfortunately I didn’t make it to Noordwijk, because I had to go back home and work the next day. But it was great to experience one day of actual cycling for libraries.
This loose, distributed and flexible organisation might be seen as an example of resilience, the concept that was introduced by Beate Rusch in her talk about the future of German regional library service centres at the recent ELAG 2013 conference in Ghent. Resilience means something like “the ability of someone or something to return to its original state after being subjected to a severe disturbance”, or simply put “something doesn’t break, but adapts under unexpected serious outside influences”. I completely agree that it would be better if organisations and infrastructures in the library and information profession were more loosely organised and connected. By the way, Beate was also involved in organising the Berlin part of the first Cycling for Libraries.
One final thing I want to say is that I admire the way in which Cycling for Libraries manages to reach their goals and more by means of this loose, distributed and flexible organisation. Depending on local coordination teams they succeeded in meeting Dutch members of parliament in The Hague and the European Parliament in Brussels to promote their cause. Which is a remarkable result for a small group of crazy Fins.
Posted on June 10th, 2013 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.
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 Workshop ‘Dealing 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.
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.
Posted on March 22nd, 2013 46 comments
The BeyondThePDF2 conference, organised by FORCE11, was held in Amsterdam, March 19-20. From the website: “...we aim to bring about a change in modern scholarly communications through the effective use of information technology”. Basically the conference participants discussed new models of content creation, content dissemination, content consumption, funding and research evaluation.
Because I work for an academic library in Amsterdam, dealing with online scholarly information systems and currently trying to connect traditional library information to related research information, I decided to attend.
Academic libraries are supposed to support university students, teaching and research staff by providing access to scholarly information. They should be somewhere in the middle between researchers, authors, publishers, content providers, students and teachers. Consequently, any big changes in the way that scholarly communication is being carried out in the near and far future definitely affects the role of academic libraries. For instance, if the scholarly publication model would change overnight from the current static document centered model to a dynamic linked data model, the academic library discovery and delivery systems infrastructure would grind to a halt.
So I was surprised to see that the library representation at the conference was so low compared to researchers, publishers, students and tech/tools people (thanks to Paul Groth for the opening slides). No Dutch university library directors were present. Maybe that’s because they all attended the Research Data Alliance launch in Gothenburg which was held at the same time. I know of at least one Dutch university library director who was there. Maybe an official international association is more appealing to managers than an informal hands on bunch like FORCE11.
A number of questions arise from this observation:
Are academic libraries talking to researchers?
Probably (or maybe even apparently) not enough. Besides traditional library services like providing access to publications and collections, academic libraries are more and more asked to provide support for the research process as such, research data management, preservation and reuse, scholarly output repositories and research information systems. In order to perform these new tasks in an efficient way for both the library and the researcher, they need to communicate about needs and solutions.
I took the opportunity and talked to a couple of scholars/researchers at BeyondThePDF2, asking among other things: “When looking for information relevant to your research topic, do you use (our) library search tools?” Answer: “No. Google.” or similar. Which brings me to the next question.
Do researchers know what academic libraries are doing?
Probably (or maybe even apparently) not enough. Same answer indeed. It struck me that of the few times libraries were mentioned in talks and presentations, it was almost always in the form of the old stereotype of the stack of books. Books? I always say: “Forget books, it’s about information!”. One of the presenters whose visionary talk I liked very much even told me that they hoped the new Amsterdam University Library Director would know something about books.That really left me speechless.
Fortunately the keynote speaker on the second day, Carol Tenopir, had lots of positive things to say about libraries. One remark was made (not sure who said it) that has been made before: “if libraries do their work properly, they are invisible”. This specifically referred to academic libraries’ role in selecting, acquiring, paying for and providing technical access to scholarly publications from publishers and other content providers.
Another illustration of this invisibility is the in itself great initiative that was started during the conference: “An open alternative to Google Scholar”, which could just as well have been called “An open alternative to Google Scholar, Primo Central, WorldCatLocal, Summon, EDS”. These last four are the best known commercial global scholarly metadata indexes that lots of academic libraries offer.
Anyway, my impression that academic libraries need to pay attention to their changing role in a changing environment was once again confirmed.
Publishers and researchers talk to each other!
(Yes I know that’s not a question). In the light of the recent war between open access advocates and commercial publishers it was good to see so many representatives of Elsevier, Springer etc. actively engaged in discussions with representatives of the scholarly community about new forms of content creation and dissemination. Some of the commercial content providers/aggregators are also vendors of the above mentioned Google Scholar alternatives (OCLC-WorldCatLocal, Proquest/SerialsSolutions-Summon, EBSCO-EDS). All of these are very reluctant to contribute their own metadata to their competitors’ indexes. Academic libraries are caught in the middle here. They pay lots of money for content that apparently they can only access through the provider’s own channels. And in this case the publishers/providers do not listen to the libraries.
Why so many tools/tech people?
Frankly I don’t know. However, I talked to a tools/tech person who worked for one of the publishers. So there obviously is some overlap in the attendee provenance information. Speaking about myself, working for a library, I am not a librarian, but rather a tools/tech person (with an academic degree even). Tools/tech people work for publishers, universities, university libraries and other types of organisations.
There is a lot of interesting innovative technical work being done in libraries by tools/tech people. We even have our own conferences and unconferences that have the same spirit as BeyondThePDF. If you want to talk to us, come for instance to ELAG2013 in Ghent in May, where the conference theme will be “The inside-out library”. Or have a look at Code4Lib, or the Library Linked Data movement.
Besides the good presentations, discussions and sessions, the most striking result of BeyondThePDF2 was the start of no less than three bottom-up revolutionary initiatives that draw immediate attention on the web:
- The Scholarly Revolution – Peter Murray-Rust
- The Open Alternative to Google Scholar – Stian Håklev
- The Amsterdam Manifesto on Data Citation Principles - Merce Crosas, Todd Carpenter, Jody Schneider
We can make it work.
Posted on January 7th, 2013 98 comments
The future of the academic library as a data services hub
Is there a future for libraries, or more specifically: is there a future for academic libraries? This has been the topic of lots of articles, blog posts, books and conferences. See for instance Aaron Tay’s recent post about his favourite “future of libraries” articles. But the question needs to be addressed over and over again, because libraries, and particularly academic libraries, continue to persevere in their belief that they will stay relevant in the future. I’m not so sure.
I will focus here on academic libraries. I work for one, the Library of the University of Amsterdam. Academic libraries in my view are completely different from public libraries in audience, content, funding and mission. As far as I’m concerned, they only have the name in common. For a vision on the future of public libraries, see Ed Summer’s excellent post “The inside out library”. As for research and special libraries, some of what I am about to say will apply to these libraries as well.
So, is there a future for academic libraries? Personally I think in the near future we will see the end of the academic library as we know it. Let’s start with looking at what are perceived to be the core functions of libraries: discovery and delivery, of books and articles.
For a complete overview of the current library ecosystem you should read Lorcan Dempsey’s excellent article “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Libraries, Discovery, and the Catalog: Scale, Workflow, Attention”.
“Discovery happens elsewhere”. Lorcan Dempsey said this already in 2007 . What this means is that the audience the library aims at, primarily searches for and finds information via other platforms than the library’s website and search interfaces. Several studies (for instance OCLC’s “Perceptions of libraries, 2010“) show that the most popular platforms are general search engines like Google and Wikipedia but also specific databases. And of course, if you’re looking for instant information, you don’t go to the library catalogue, because it only points you to items that you have to read in order to ascertain that they may or may not contain the information you need.
And if you are indeed looking for publications (books, articles, etc.) you could of course search your library’s catalogue and discovery interface. But you can find exactly the same and probably even more results elsewhere: in other libraries’ search interfaces, or aggregators that collect bibliographic metadata from all over the world. Moreover, academic libraries are doing their best to get their local holdings metadata in WorldCat and their journal holdings in Google Scholar. As I said in my EMTACL12 talk: you can’t find all you need with one local discovery tool.
Also, the traditional way of discovery through browsing the shelves is disappearing rapidly. The physical copies at the University of Amsterdam Library for instance are all stored in a storage facility in a suburb. Apart from some reference works and latest journal issues there is nothing to find in the library buildings. There is no need for a university library building for discovery purposes anymore.
Utrecht University Library has taken the logical next step: they decided not to acquire a new discovery tool, discontinue their local homegrown article search index and focus on delivery. See the article “Thinking the unthinkable: a library without a catalogue” .
So, if discovery is something that academic libraries should not invest in anymore, is delivery really the only core responsibility left? Let’s have a closer look.
Delivery in the traditional academic library sense means: giving the customer access to the publications he or she selected, both in print and digital form. In the case of subscription based e-journal articles, delivery consists of taking a subscription and leading the customer to the appropriate provider website to obtain the online article. Taking subscriptions is an administrative and financial activity. For historical reasons the university library has been taking care of this task. Because they handled the print subscriptions, they also started taking care of the digital versions. But actually it’s not the library that holds the subscription, it’s the university. And it really does not require librarian skills to handle subscriptions. This could very well be taken care of by the central university administration. For free and open access journals you don’t even need that.
The selection and procurement of journal packages from a large number of publishers and content providers is a different issue. Specific expertise is required for this. I will come to that later.
The task of leading the customer to the appropriate online copy is only a technical procedure, involving setting up link resolvers. Again, no librarian skills needed. This task could be done by some central university agency, maybe even using an external global linking registry.
As for the delivery of physical print copies, this is obviously nothing more than a logistics workflow, no different from delivery of furniture, tools, food, or any other physical business. The item is ordered, it is fetched from the shelf, sometimes by huge industrial robot installations, put in a van or cart, transported to the desired location and put in the customer’s locker or something similar. Again: no librarian skills whatsoever. Physical delivery only needs a separate internal or external logistics unit.
So, if discovery and delivery will cease to be core activities of the central university library organisation, what else is there?
Selection of print and digital material was already mentioned. It is evident that the selection of printed and digital books and journal subscriptions needs to be governed by expert knowledge and decisions in order to provide staff and students with the best possible material, because there is a lot of money involved. Typically this task is carried out by subject specialists (also called subject librarians), not by generalists. These ‘faculty liaisons’ usually have had an education in the disciplines they are responsible for, and they work closely together with their customers (academic staff and students). Many universities have semiautonomous discipline oriented sublibraries. The recent development of Patron Driven Acquisition (PDA) also fits into this construction.
The actual comparison, selection and procurement of journal packages from a large number of publishers and content providers requires a certain generic specific expertise which is not discipline dependent. This is a task that could well continue to be the responsibility of some central organisational unit, which may or may not be called the university library.
And what about cataloguing, a definite librarian skill? If discovery happens elsewhere, and libraries don’t need to maintain their own local catalogues, then it seems obvious that libraries don’t need to catalogue anything anymore. In fact, in the current situation most libraries don’t catalogue that much already. All the main bibliographical metadata for books (title, author, date, etc.) are already provided by publishers, by external central library service centres, or by other libraries in a shared cataloguing environment. And libraries have never catalogued journal articles anyway, only journals and issues. Article metadata are provided by the publishers or aggregators. Libraries pay for these services.
It is usual for libraries to add their own subject headings and classification terms to the already existing ones. But as Karen Coyle said at EMTACL12: “Library classification is a knowledge prevention system“, because it offers only one specific object oriented view on the information world. So maybe libraries should stop doing this, which would be in line with the “discovery happens elsewhere” argument anyway.
What remains of cataloguing is adding local holdings, items and subscription information. This is very useful information for library customers, but again this doesn’t seem to require very detailed librarian skills. As a matter of fact most of these metadata are already provided in the selection and acquisition process by acquisition staff and vendors.
The recent Library of Congress BIBFRAME initiative developments in theory make it possible to replace all local cataloguing efforts by linking local holdings information to global metadata.
There is still one area that may require the full local cataloguing range: the university’s own scientific output, as long as it is not published in journals or as books. The fulltext material is made available through institutional repositories, which obviously requires metadata to make the publications findable. However, the majority of the institutional publications are made available through other channels as well, as mentioned, so the need for local cataloguing in these cases is absent.
More and more students are coming to the library buildings every day, that’s what you hear all the time. Large amounts of money are spent on creating new study centres and meeting places in existing library buildings, even on new buildings. But that’s exactly the point: students don’t come to the library for discovery anymore, because the building no longer provides that. They come for places to study, use network pc’s or the university wifi, meet with fellow students, pick up their print items on loan, or view not-for-loan material. The physical locations are nothing more or less than study centres. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they are very important, but they do not have to be associated with the university library, but can be provided by the university, on any location.
The reference desk, or its online counterpart, is a weird phenomenon. It seems to emphasise the fact that if you want instant information, books are of no use. On the other hand, it suggests that you should come to the library if you need specific information right now. In my view, although the reference desk partly embodies the actual original objective of a library, namely giving access to information, this could function very well outside the library context.
The reference desk service is also somewhat ambiguous. In some cases subject specialist expertise is needed, other cases require a more general knowledge of how to search and find information.
Statistics of the use of library holdings, both print and electronic, are an important source of information for making decisions on acquisitions and subscriptions. These statistics are provided by local and remote delivery systems and vendors. Usage statistics can also be used for other purposes, like identifying certain trends in scholarly processes, mapping of information sources to specific user groups, etc. Administering and providing statistics once again is not a librarian task, but can be done by internal or external service providers.
Special Collections are a Special Case. Most university libraries have a Special Collections division, for historical reasons. But of course Special Collections divisions are nothing less than a Museum and Archive division with specific skills, expertise and procedures. Most of the time they are autonomous units within the university anyway.
Now, if the traditional library tasks of selection, cataloguing, discovery and delivery will increasingly be carried out by non-librarian staff and units inside and outside the university, is there still a valid reason for maintaining an autonomous central university library organisation? Should academic libraries shift focus? There are a number of possible new services and responsibilities for the library that are being discussed or already being implemented.
Content curation can be seen as the task of bringing together information on a specific subject, of all kinds, from different sources on the web to be consumed by people in an easy way. This is something that can be done and is already done by all kinds of organisations and people. Libraries, academic, public and other types, can and should play a bigger role in this area. This involves looking at other units and sources of information than just the traditional library ones: books and journals. This new service type evidently is closely related to the traditional reference desk service.
Obviously this can best be taken care of by subject specialists. To do this, they need tools and infrastructure. These tools and infrastructure are of a generic nature and can be provided by technical specialists inside or outside the libraries or universities.
Techniques are often referred to as “mashups” or “linked data”, depending on the background of the people involved.
Linked data deserves its own section here, because it has been an ever widening movement since a number of years. It finally reached the library world the last couple of years with developments like the W3C Library Linked Data Incubator Group, the Library of Congress BIBFRAME initiative and the IFLA Semantic Web Special Interest Group. Linked data is a special type of data source mashup infrastructure. It requires the use of URIs for all separately usable data entities, and triples as the format for the actual linking (subject-predicate-object), mostly using the RDF structure.
There are two sides to linked data: the publishing of data in RDF and consequently the consumption of data elsewhere. A special case is the linked data based infrastructure, combining both publication and consumption in a specific way, as is the objective of the above mentioned BIBFRAME project.
Again, we need both subject specialists and generic technology experts to make this work in libraries, both academic and public ones.
University libraries are more and more expected to increase the level of support for researchers. It’s not only about providing access to scholarly publications anymore, but also about maintaining research information systems, virtual research environments, and long term preservation, availability and reusability of research data sets.
Again, here we see the need for discipline specific support because the needs of researchers for communication, collaboration and data varies greatly per discipline. And again, for the technical and organisational infrastructure we need internal or external generic technology experts and services. Apart from metadata expertise there are no traditional librarian skills required.
The Final Frontier: the library turning 180 degrees and switching from consumption to production of publications. According to some people university libraries are very suitable and qualified to become scholarly publishers (see for instance Björn Brembs‘ “Libraries Are Better Than Corporate Publishers Because…”). 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. A number of universities already have dedicated university press publishing agencies. But of course the publishing process can and probably will change. There is the open access movement, there is the rebellion against large scientific publishers, and last but not least, there is the slow rise of nanopublications, which could revolutionise the form that scholarly publishing will take. In the future publishing can originate at the source, making use of all kinds of new technologies of linking different types of data into new forms of non-static publications. Universities or university libraries could play a role here. Again we see here the need for both subject specialists and generic technology.
Special and general
So what is the overall picture? Of the current academic library tasks, only a few may still be around in the university in the future: selection, acquisition, cataloguing (if any), reference desk, usage statistics, and only a small part actually requires traditional librarian skills. Together with the new service areas of content curation, linked data, research support and publishing, this is rather an odd collection of very different fields of expertise. There does not seem to be a nice matching set of tasks for one central university division, let alone a library.
But what all these areas have in common is that they depend on linking and coordination of data from different sources.
And another interesting conclusion is that virtually all of these areas have two distinct components:
- Discipline or subject specific expertise
- Generic technical and organisational data infrastructure
I see a new duality in the realm of information management in universities. Selection, content curation, reference desk, linking data, cataloguing and research support will all be the domain of subject specialists directly connected to departments responsible for teaching and research in specific disciplines. These discipline related services will depend on generic technological and organisational infrastructures, available inside and outside the university, maintained by generic technical specialists.
These generic infrastructures could function completely separately, or they could somehow be interlinked and coordinated by some central university organisational unit. This would make sense, because there is a lot of overlap in information between these areas. Some kind of central data coordination unit would make it possible to provide a lot more useful data services than can be imagined now. Also, usage statistics, acquisition and the potential new publishing framework, yes even the special collections, could benefit from a central data services unit.
Such a unit would be different from the existing university ICT department. The latter mainly provides generic hardware, network, storage and security, and is focused on the internal infrastructure, trying to keep out as much external traffic as possible.
The new unit would be targeted at providing data services, possibly built on top of the internal technical infrastructure, but mainly using existing external ones. And it is obvious that there is added value in cooperation with similar bodies outside the university.
“Data services” then stands for providing storage, use, reuse, creation and linking of internal and external metadata and datasets by means of system administration, tools selection and implementation, and explicitly also programming when needed.
Such a unit would up to a point resemble current library service providers like the German regional library consortia and service centres such as hbz, KOBV or GBV, or high level organisations like the Dutch National Library Catalogue project.
Paraphrasing the conclusion of my own SWIB12 talk: it is time to stop thinking publications and start thinking data. This way the academic library could transform itself into a new central data services hub.
(Subject expertise AND data infrastructure) OR else!
Posted on October 10th, 2012 28 comments
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.
‘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).
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”.
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 schema.org 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 Future“ Brian 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.
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 out” Jane 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.
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.
“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.”.
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.
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.
Posted on January 5th, 2012 33 comments
2011 has in a sense been the year of library linked data. Not that libraries of all kinds are now publishing and consuming linked data in great numbers. No. But we have witnessed the publication of the final report of the W3C Library Linked Data Incubator Group, the Library of Congress announcement of the new Bibliographic Framework for the Digital Age based on Linked Data and RDF, the release by a number of large libraries and library consortia of their bibliographic metadata, many publications, sessions and presentations on the subject.
All these events focus mainly on publishing library bibliographic metadata as linked open data. Personally I am not convinced that this is the most interesting type of data that libraries can provide. Bibliographic metadata as such describe publications, in the broadest sense, providing information about title, authors, subjects, editions, dates, urls, but also physical attributes like dimensions, number of pages, formats, etc. This type of information, in FRBR terms: Work, Expression and Manifestation metadata, is typically shared among a large number of libraries, publishers, booksellers, etc. ‘Shared’ in this case means ‘multiplied and redundantly stored in many different local systems‘. It doesn’t really make sense if all libraries in the world publish identical metadata side by side, does it?
In essence only really unique data is worth publishing. You link to the rest.
Currently, library data that is really unique and interesting is administrative information about holdings and circulation. After having found metadata about a potentially relevant publication it is very useful for someone to know how and where to get access to it, if it’s not freely available online. Do you need to go to a specific library location to get the physical item, or to have access to the online article? Do you have to be affiliated to a specific institution to be entitled to borrow or access it?
Usage data about publications, both print and digital, can be very useful in establishing relevance and impact. This way information seekers can be supported in finding the best possible publications for their specific circumstances. There are some interesting projects dealing with circulation data already, such as the research project by Magnus Pfeffer and Kai Eckert as presented at the SWIB 11 conference, and the JISC funded Library Impact Data project at the University of Huddersfield. The Ex Libris bX service presents article recommendations based on SFX usage log analysis.
The consequence of this assertion is that if libraries want to publish linked open data, they should focus on holdings and circulation data, and for the rest link to available bibliographic metadata as much as possible. It is to be expected that the Library of Congress’ New Bibliographic Framework will take care of that part one way or another.
In order to achieve this libraries should join forces with each other and with publishers and aggregators to put their efforts into establishing shared global bibliographic metadata pools accessible through linked open data. We can think of already existing data sources like WorldCat, OpenLibrary, Summon, Primo Central and the like. We can only hope that commercial bibliographic metadata aggregators like OCLC, SerialsSolutions and Ex Libris will come to realise that it’s in everybody’s interest to contribute to the realisation of the new Bibliographic Framework. The recent disagreement between OCLC and the Swedish National Library seems to indicate that this may take some time. For a detailed analysis of this see the blog post ‘Can linked library data disrupt OCLC? Part one’.
An interesting initiative in this respect is LibraryCloud, an open, multi-library data service that aggregates and delivers library metadata. And there is the HBZ LOBID project, which is targeted at ‘the conversion of existing bibliographic data and associated data to Linked Open Data‘.
So what would the new bibliographic framework look like? If we take the FRBR model as a starting point, the new framework could look something like this. See also my slideshow “Linked Open Data for libraries”, slides 39-42.
The basic metadata about a publication or a unit of content, on the FRBR Work level, would be an entry in a global datastore identified by a URI ( Uniform Resource Identifier). This datastore could for instance be WorldCat, or OpenLibrary, or even a publisher’s datastore. It doesn’t really matter. We don’t even have to assume it’s only one central datastore that contains all Work entries.
The thing identified by the URI would have a text string field associated with it containing the original title, let’s say “The Da Vinci Code” as an example of a book. But also articles can and should be identified this way. The basic information we need to know about the Work would be attached to it using URIs to other things in the linked data web. A set of two things linked by a URI is called a ‘triple’. ‘Author’ could for instance be a link to OCLC’s VIAF (http://viaf.org/viaf/102403515 = Dan Brown), which would then constitute a triple. If there are more authors, you simply add a URI for every person or institution. Subjects could be links to DBPedia/Wikipedia, Freebase, the Library of Congress Authority files, etc. There could be some more basic information, maybe a year, or a URI to a source describing the background of the work.
At the Expression level, a Dutch translation would have it’s own URI, stored in the same or another datastore. I could imagine that the publisher who commissioned the translation would maintain a datastore with this information. Attached to the Expression there would be the URI of the original Work, a URI pointing to the language, a URI identifying the translator and a text string contaning the Dutch title, among others.
Every individual edition of the work could have it’s own Manifestation level URI, with a link to the Expression (in this case the Dutch translation), a publisher URI, a year, etc. For articles published according to the long standing tradition of peer reviewed journals, there would also be information about the journal. On this level there should also be URIs to the actual content when dealing with digital objects like articles, ebooks, etc., no matter if access is free or restricted.
So far we have everything we need to know about publications “in the cloud”, or better: in a number of datastores available on a number of servers connected to the world wide web. This is more or less the situation described by OCLC’s Lorcan Dempsey in his recent post ‘Linking not typing … knowledge organization at the network level’. The only thing we need now is software to present all linked information to the user.
No libraries in sight yet. For accessing freely available digital content on the web you actually don’t need a library, unless you need professional assistance finding the correct and relevant information. Here we have identified a possible role of librarians in this new networked information model.
Now we have reached the interesting part: how to link local library data to this global shared model? We immediately discover that the original FRBR model is inadequate in this networked environment, because it implies a specific local library situation. Individual copies of a work (the Items) are directly linked to the Manifestation, because FRBR refers to the old local catalogue which describes only the works/publications one library actually owns.
In the global shared library linked data network we need an extra explicit level to link physical Items owned by the library or online subscriptions of the library to the appropriate shared network level. I suggest to use the “Holding” level. A Holding would have it’s own URI and contain URIs of the Manifestation and of the Library. A specific Holding in this way would indicate that a specific library has one or more copies (Items) of a specific edition of a work (Manifestation), or offers access to an online digital article by way of a subscription.
If a Holding refers to physical copies (print books or journal issues for instance) then we also need the Item level. An Item would have it’s own URI and the URI of the Holding. For each Item, extra information can be provided, for instance ‘availability’, ‘location’, etc. Local circulation administration data can be registered for all Holdings and Items. For online digital content we don’t need Items, only subscription information directly attached to the Holding.
Local Holding and Item information can reside on local servers within the library’s domain or just as well on some external server ‘in the cloud’.
It’s on the level of the Holding that usage statistics per library can be collected and aggregated, both for physical items and for digital material.
Now, this networked linked library data model still allows libraries to present a local traditional catalogue type interface, showing only information about the library’s own print and digital holdings. What’s needed is software to do this using the local Holdings as entry level.
But the nice thing about the model is that there will also be a lot of other options. It will also be possible to start at the other end and search all bibliographic metadata available in the shared global network, and then find the most appropriate library to get access to a specific publication, much like WorldCat does, but on an even larger scale.
Another nice thing of using triples, URIs and linked data, is that it allows for adding all kinds of other, non-traditional bibliographic links to the old inward looking library world, making it into a flexible and open model, ready for future developments. It will for instance be possible for people to discover links to publications and library holdings from any other location on the web, for instance a Wikipedia page or a museum website. And the other way around, from an item in local library holdings to let’s say a recorded theatre performance on YouTube.
When this new data and metadata framework will be in place, there will be two important issues to be solved:
- Getting new software, systems and tools for both back end administrative functions and front end information finding needs. For this we need efforts from traditional library systems vendors but also from developers in libraries.
- Establishing future roles for libraries, librarians and information professionals in the new framework. This may turn out to be the most important issue.
Posted on September 2nd, 2011 10 commentsShifting focus from information carriers back to information
Library catalogues have traditionally been used to describe and register books and journals and other physical objects that together constitute the holdings of a library. In an integrated library system (ILS), the public catalogue is combined with acquisition and circulation modules to administer the purchases of book copies and journal subscriptions on one side, and the loans to customers on the other side. The “I” for “Integrated” in ILS stands for an internal integration of traditional library workflows. Integration from a back end view, not from a customer perspective.
Because of the very nature of such a catalogue, namely the description of physical objects and the administration of processing them, there are no explicit relations between the different editions and translations of the same book, nor are there descriptions of individual journal articles. If you do a search on a specific person’s name, you may end up with a large number of result records, written by that person or someone with a similar name, or about that person, even with identical titles, without knowing if there is a relationship between them, and what that relationship might be. What’s certain is that you will not find journal articles written by or about that person. The same applies to a search on title. There is no way of telling if there is any relation between identical titles. A library catalogue user would have to look at specific metadata in the records (like MARC 76X-78X – Linking Entries, 534 – Original Version Note or 580 – Linking Entry Complexity Note), if available, to reach their own conclusions.
Most libraries nowadays also purchase electronic versions of books and journals (ebooks and ejournals) and have free or paid subscriptions to online databases. Sometimes these digital items (ebooks, ejournals and databases) are also entered into the traditional library catalogues, but they are sometimes also made available through other library systems, like federated search tools, integrated discovery tools, A-Z lists, etc. All kinds of combinations occur.
In traditional library catalogues digital items are treated exactly the same as their physical counterparts. They are all isolated individual items without relations. As Karen Coyle put it November 2010 at the SWIB10 conference: “The main goal of cataloguing today is to keep things apart” .
Basically, integrated library systems and traditional catalogues are nothing more than inventory and logistics systems for physical objects, mainly focused on internal workflows. Unfortunately in newer end user interfaces like federated search and integrated discovery tools the user experience in this respect has in general been similar to that of traditional public catalogues.
At some point in time during the rise of electronic online catalogues, apparently the lack of relations between different versions of the same original work became a problem. I’m not sure if it was library customers or librarians who started feeling the need to see these implicit connections made explicit. The fact is that IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations) started developing FRBR in 1998.
FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) is an attempt to provide a model for describing the relations between physical publications, editions, copies and their common denominator, the Work.
FRBR Group 1 describes publications in terms of the entities Work, Expression, Manifestation and Item (WEMI).
FRAD (Functional Requirements for Authority Data – ‘authors’) and FRSAD (Functional Requirements for Subject Authority Data – ‘subjects’) have been developed later on as alternatives for the FRBR Group 2 and 3 entities.
As an example let’s have a look at The Diary of Anne Frank. The original handwritten diary may be regarded as the Work. There are numerous adaptations and translations (Expressions) of the original unfinished and unedited Work. Each of these Expressions can be published in the form of one or more prints, editions, etc. These are the Manifestations, especially if they have different ISBN’s. Finally a library can have one or more physical copies of a Manifestation, the Items.
Some might even say the actual physical diary is the only existing Item embodying one specific (the first) Expression of the Work (Anne’s thoughts) and/or the only Manifestation of that Expression.
Of course, this model, if implemented, would be an enormous improvement to the old public catalogue situation. It makes it possible for library customers to have an automatic overview of all editions, translations, adaptations of one specific original work through the mechanism of Expressions and Manifestations. RDA (Resource Description and Access) is exactly doing this.
However there are some significant drawbacks, because the FRBR model is an old model, based on the traditional way of library cataloguing of physical items (books, journals, and cd’s, dvd’s), etc. (Karen Coyle at SWIB10).
- In the first place the FRBR model only shows the Works and related Manifestations and Expressions of physical copies (Items) that the library in question owns. Editions not in the possession of the library are ignored. This would be a bit different in a union catalogue of course, but then the model still only describes the holdings of the participating libraries.
- Secondly, the focus on physical copies is also the reason that the original FRBR model does not have a place for journal titles as such, only for journal issues. So there will be as many entries for one journal as the library has issues of it.
- Thirdly, it’s a hierarchical model, which incorporates only relations from the Work top down. There is no room for relations like: ‘similar works’, ‘other material on the same subject’, ‘influenced by’, etc.
- In the fourth place, FRBR still does not look at content. It is document centric, instead of information centric. It does however have the option for describing parts of a Work, if they are considered separate entities/works, like journal articles or volumes of a trilogy.
- Finally, the FRBR Item entity is only interesting in a storage and logistics environment for physical copies, such as the Circulation function in libraries, or the Sales function in bookstores. It has no relation to content whatsoever.
FRBR definitely is a positive and necessary development, but it is just not good enough. Basically it still focuses on information carriers instead of information (it’s a set of rules for managing Bibliographic Records, not for describing Information). It is an introverted view of the world. This was OK as long as it was dictated by the prevailing technological, economical and social conditions.
In a new networked digital information world libraries should shift their focus back to their original objective: being gateways to information as such. This entails replacing an introverted hierarchical model with an extroverted networked one, and moving away from describing static information aggregates in favour of units of content as primary objects.
The linked data concept provides the framework of such a networked model. In this model anything can be related to anything, with explicit declarations of the nature of the relationship. In the example of the Diary of Anne Frank one could identify relations with movies and theater plays that are based on the diary, with people connected to the diary or with the background of World War 2, antisemitism, Amsterdam, etc.
In traditional library catalogues defining relations with movies or theater plays is not possible from the description of the book. They could however be entered as a textual reference in the description of a movie, if for instance a DVD of that movie is catalogued. Relations to people, World War 2, antisemitism and Amsterdam would be described as textual or coded references to a short concept description, which in turn could provide lists of other catalogue items indexed with these subjects.
In a networked linked data model these links could connect to information entities in their own right outside the local catalogue, containing descriptions and other material about the subject, and providing links to other related information entities.
FRBR would still be a valuable part of such a universal networked model, as a subset for a specific purpose. In the context of physical information carriers it is a useful model, although with some missing features, as described above. It could be used in isolation, as originally designed, but if it’s an open model, it would also provide the missing links and options to describe and find related information.
Also, the FRBR model is essential as a minimal condition for enabling links from library catalogue items to other entity types through the Work common denominator.
In a completely digital information environment, the model could be simplified by getting rid of the Item entity. Nobody needs to keep track of available copies of online digital information, unless publishers want to enforce the old business models they have been using in order to keep making a profit. Ebooks for instance are essentially Expressions or Manifestations, depending on their nature, as I stated in my post ‘Is an e-book a book?’.
The FRBR model can be used and is used also in other subject areas, like music, theater performances, etc. The Work – Expression – Manifestation – Item hierarchy is applicable to a number of creative professions.
The networked model provides the option of describing all traditional library objects, but also other and new ones and even objects that currently don’t exist, because it is an open and adaptable model.
In the traditional library models it is for instance impossible, or at least very hard, to describe a story that continues through all volumes of a trilogy as a central thread, apart from and related to the descriptions of the three separate physical books and their own stories. In the Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson, Lisbeth Salander’s life story is the central thread, but it can’t be described as a separate “Work” in MARC/FRBR/RDA because it is not the main subject of one physical content carrier (unless we are dealing with an edition in one physical multi part volume). The three volumes will be described with the subjects ‘Missing girl mystery‘, ‘Sex trafficking‘ and ‘Illegal secret service unit‘ respectively.
In an open networked information model on the contrary it would be entirely possible to describe such a ‘roaming story’.
New forms of information objects could appear in the form of new types of aggregates, other than books or journal articles, for instance consisting of text, images, statistics and video, optionally of a flexible nature (dynamic instead of static information objects).
Existing library systems (ILS’s and Integrated Discovery tools alike), using bibliographic metadata formats and frameworks like MARC, FRBR and RDA, can’t easily deal with new developments without some sort of workaround. Obviously this means that if libraries want to continue playing a role in the information gateway world, they need completely different systems and technology. Library system vendors should take note of this.
Finally, instead of only describing information objects, libraries could take up a new role in creating new objects, in the form of subject based virtual information aggregates, like for instance the Anne Frank Timeline, or Qwiki.This would put libraries back in the center of the information access business.