I joined the world of libraries some twenty years ago and was immediately impressed with the implicit mission to share, the knowledge and information that libraries look after, with all for the benefit of mankind. Being part of an organisation that was built out of a desire for libraries to share the data that backs up that knowledge, I was surprised how insular and protectionist with that data this world can be. Some of the reasons behind this were technological. Anyone who played with Z39.50 and other similar, so called, standards before the century turned will relate you war stories about the joys of sharing data. Then along came the web [I know it started in the mid 1990s, but it really came along post the .com boom] and things started to get much easier, from a technology point of view anyway.
So why do libraries make it so difficult to share the data that they hold. This isn’t the stuff that they hold – that is a whole other can of worms. This is the data about the stuff they hold. The data that helps mankind find what mankind can benefit from. I know we have a lot of history to get over, but the commercial world recognised ages ago that if you share information about what you have and what you do, people find what they are looking for and you get more business.
However, negatively ranting on about the insular outlook of some in library land, was not my purpose in writing this post. You may know that I, and Talis, are involved in the emerging world of Linked Data. Over recent months I have found myself immersed in other parallel universes such as National and Local Government, newspapers, broadcast media, and finance systems. It therefore was a great pleasure, to find my self organising a Linked Data and Libraries event at the British Library last week. Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a Web of Data, complementing the current web of documents, utilising a collection of standards and techniques known as Linked Data, is all about sharing and linking data across organisations and sectors for the benefit of mankind – sound familiar?.
It was very refreshing to see the amount of interest this day attracted. As you will see from the presentations from the day, made available via our sister Nodalities blog, there are many libraries and library organisations actively engaged with this. Several, such as The German National Library, have released traditional (sourced from Marc records) bibliographic data in a Linked Data form using RDF. Others, such as VIAF hosted by OCLC and the Library of Congress Authorities are providing RDF as one of the formats openly available from their service. The Bibliothèque nationale de France is in the process of inviting tenders for an entire new system to open up their data and holdings as Linked Data.
It is fair to say that most of these initiatives are coming from National, International,large and cooperative libraries, but the interest is already trickling down to smaller libraries especially in the academic sector. It is also fair to say that most who are engaged in thinking about Linked Data and libraries, take on board Sir Tim’s point about many of the benefits coming from the linking of data between sectors – libraries and science and government and the media and commerce and education and leisure and…
So despite my frustrations about the library world, still very evident in some circles, I am becoming more positive about libraries being able to fulfil their mankind benefiting mission as the web of data emerges. The changing of influential attitudes, and the move to different underlying data formats, may help us leave behind some emotional and legal baggage.
Anyone who has followed us for a while will know that we have been banging on about, and implementing, semantic web and linked data techniques and technologies for many years. It is great when others start to ‘get it’ and you stop having to be one of a few voices in the wilderness. These changes will not happen to all libraries over night, but it is nice to swap frustration at the lack of vision and ambition for frustration at a lack of progress – something I think I was born with.