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.