When the sailors jump ship

Posted by laura on November 23, 2011 under Semantic web | 3 Comments to Read

It’s a sad day in the library development world.  Rurik Greenall, the kick-ass Linked Data developer at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology Library, has announced his intention to leave libraryland and work in industry where there’s more hope of doing great things with Linked Open Data.   He writes that there is no real need for Linked Data in libraries due to the if-it-ain’t-broke-why-fix-it phenomena.

He’s absolutely correct.  I’ve said it before.  There’s little reason for most academic libraries to expose traditional bibliographic information as linked data.  There really isn’t any reason to use Linked Data within the context of how libraries currently operate.  Our systems allow us to do the job of purchasing resources, making them searchable for our customers, and circulating them to people.  In harsh economic times, why spend time/energy/money to change if things are working?

He’s also incorrect.  There are reasons for librarians to do Linked Data.  I suspect Rurik knows this and his tongue is implanted in his cheek due to frustration with the glacial pace of change in the Library systems world.   Yes, there’s no reason to change if things are working.  But things won’t always work the way they do now.   We’re like candle makers after electricity has been harnessed.  People  still use candles but not as their sole source of light. The candle makers that are still in business pursued other avenues.  Other use cases for candles besides “source of light” became prominent.  Think of aromatherapy (scented candles), religious worship (votive candles), or decoration.   It will be the same for library catalogs. People will always use them, but not as their main source of bibliographic descriptions.  The traditional catalog data will be used in other ways.  In my opinion, its future job will be as a source of local holdings and shared collection management Linked Data.

It’s quite telling that when Rurik asked, “what are the objectives of linked data in libraries” prior to the LOD-LAM summit and heard the crickets chirping.  The cataloging world has failed profoundly at understanding our raison d’être.   I think we’ve tied ourselves too much to Panizzi’s & Lubetzky’s purpose of the catalog (explicating the differences between different expressions/manifestations of works) and lost sight of the purpose of providing a catalog in the first place — connecting people with information.    Our work should be focused on assisting others in their information seeking & use rather than focused on managing local inventories.  The FRBR user tasks (find, identify, select, obtain) don’t cover the full spectrum of information behavior in the 21st century.  People want to analyze, synthesize, re-use, re-mix, highlight, compare, correlate, and so on and so forth.   Linked Data is the enabling technology which will allow these new types of information behavior.  The use case of libraries providing catalogs of descriptive bibliographic records for discrete objects is becoming increasingly marginal.

So I’ll propose an answer to Rurik’s question.  The objective of doing Linked Data in libraries is to facilitate unforeseen modes of information use.   How does this translate into new use cases for how libraries operate? Perhaps it means creating better systems for information seeking (we’d better hurry though.  Google is kicking our ass at this…).   Perhaps, as I believe, it means focusing more on helping our customers as producers of information rather than consumers.    Putting legacy library bibliographic data into a Linked Data form is but one small first step in the process.   Once it’s out there in Linked Data form, it’s more amenable to the analyzing, synthesizing, re-using, re-mixing, highlight, comparing and correlating because we can now sic the machines on it.    Putting legacy bibliographic data into Linked Data form is how we’re going to learn how to do Linked Data.  Rurik is right that Linked Data in libraries will not work if this is all that we do.   We need to take additional steps and  figure out how to do Linked Data in a way that makes the most sense for our customers.

Rurik worked in the trenches to bring Linked Data into the library world.  I’ve often referred to his work as I struggle, mightily, to teach myself how-to expose our Linked Data and use the Linked Data exposed by others.  The library world needs more people who can help librarians bridge the gap between how we currently do business and how we need to do business if we hope to keep our jobs.  I begin to feel like we’re on the Titanic when these sailors jump ship.   I will seek the life-boat and continue learning the skills I need to help my library’s customers with their information seeking & use.

  • Rurik Greenall said,

    Laura, first off — you’re too kind; I guess I’m more a rat than a sailor.

    Second, you’re completely on the ball and are expressing my thoughts more precisely than I could myself with the this: “to facillitate unforeseen modes of information use”. Sure, we can’t know what people will want, but with linked data we can provide sustainable adaptability and an infrastructure that doesn’t hardcode second guessing at both data and interface levels.

    I suspect that we’ll understand more about how linked data really works if someone manages to create a usable, generic linked data lens that people can use as a personalized browser for the web of data.

    I look forward to providing useful code to the library community from my new position, and perhaps returning to the community someday soon to find something exciting and unexpected.

    R.

  • Gail said,

    Laura,
    Im with you on this issue. Though I am just learning about Linked data for libraries. I am thinking to myself how and who will begin this process that is real and meaningful at this time, the present? Or is this something that would not be a reality for some time. I’d hate to see the latter scenario. Libraries should be if not in the forefront, right there in the thick of use of new means and technologies, unless we want to become irrelevant as some say we are now. I fight this in a different way everyday and it’s getting old. In any event linked data may not solve all of our information organization needs but it sure is something to look at and if possible use to our advantage.

  • maryakem said,

    I will be pushing this at soon to graduate librarians as the last of their cataloguing classes. What a really great post… and what a difference a year makes ;>

    We got him again.

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