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The future of research and the research library

According to a recent report from DEFF, Denmark’s Electronic Research Library:

There are three aspects of the functions of the research library that can be seen as providing potential scenarios. The library as a learning centre focusing on the provision of learning materials and support for learning processes. The library as a knowledge centre being a co-creator in the production of knowledge closely connected to active research groups. The library as a meta-knowledge institution working as a catalyst for knowledge synthesis, the organisation, evaluation and consolidation of knowledge.

As well as exploring this typology in greater detail, the report The future of research and the research library also describes a couple of more concrete and familiar scenarios.

Firstly, one that might have benefited from a deeper exploration in the report:

… up-to-date physical locations where the students can study with other students and in that way get a sense of a working day and a working community. In that way, the library will become more of a social zone, instead of the quiet room for lonely absorption which it is traditionally known for.

And secondly, one that is very much informed by the information literacy role of modern university libraries:

“’The touching library’, i.e. a research library which can touch and move its users through its competence to select and qualify knowledge, and which is touched and moved by its users in order to deliver the best possible product.”

What about the report itself?

It’s ambitious. Very ambitious. It’s also universal in its scope – only occasionally delving into Denmark-specific structures and scenarios. I can’t hope to do justice to the richness of its content in one single blog, so I can only present a subjective take.

Essentially, the report seeks to answer the following questions:

–          Does the research library have a future?

–          What future roles are open to the research library?

–          Would a roadmap be useful?

Instinctively I draw away from the idea of a roadmap. There are simply too many variables and broad forces over which we have so little control, notwithstanding the excellent framework that this report has provided. I’m unsure after reading the report twice whether it has answered these questions, Certainly no roadmap is forthcoming. Nevertheless, for those of us who spend time pondering over the future of the university library, it provides excellent food for thought.

Seismic change and disruption

It’s especially useful in terms of the material it presents for understanding the scale of disruption that the research library is undergoing.

Massive technological changes in the area of research, knowledge production, publishing and communication are influencing the way research is done and the functions of the research library in supporting and facilitating research and learning. Digital technology in its many forms is at the centre of the changes. The old functions of the research library are thus served in new ways. New forms of research emerge and new ways of learning too, and consequently not only new ways of serving old functions but also new functions serving new needs.

On the historical value of the research library, the report states:

The original form of value creation of the research library was based on minimising expenditure for acquisition and availability of books and journals. By having a central store it was possible to acquire fewer entities and by making these available it was possible to maximise their use. Books were expensive and few could afford large private libraries.

The report goes on to make the point that this cost-effectiveness is found today in licensing of e-journals and database, but the value is surely diminished where the number of users is factored into the cost of the licence, in a way that was not the case with a printed monograph.

There are also broader changes in terms of the research and educational systems, not least the expansion of higher education which is a global phenomenon, and the role that digital technology is perceived as a means of resolving the resultant problems and tensions. In research too there is much change – more collaborative styles and the ascendant trends towards interdisciplinary research being two obvious examples.

I know that one bright and joyous day I will pick up a report that talks about the impact of cultural relativism on an institution (the library) that has served as an absolutist custodian of authoritative artefacts. Sadly, that day is not today, and I just have to live with that (or write my own).

What history tells us

By and large, this isn’t an easy read. It’s highly theoretical and enormously broad as I’ve said. However, the report does present a very digestible history of the research library. Space constraints preclude even an attempt to do this justice, but what I will say is that it clarified in my mind many unanswered questions about how precisely the research library model has been disrupted. As is so often the case, it is not simply the case that the Internet has somehow thrown a deadly missile into a centuries-old static model, and instead should be seen as the latest and most disruptive change in the history of the research library, following on the heels of other catalysts such as the shift away from books in favour of scientific journals.

Research library and the innovation economy

The other interesting thing about the historical narrative of this report is that it presents a degree of historical continuum in the relationship between the research library and more focused problem-driven innovative activities in the broader economy. The report notes that a massive amount of research is being done in the knowledge-intensive private sector. It makes a very valid point that the limitations experienced in terms of access to digital resources (being mainly restricted to academia) is problematic, especially for SMEs.

What about curiosity driven research?

The report states that:

The British sociologist of science Steve Fuller has made a distinction between two ways in which research and universities create value. One is the direct creation of knowledge that can be used in making processes and products available in a market. This is the role of research in innovation. It contributes to the creation of financial capital. In this knowledge is seen as instrumental. The other way is through the creation of degree programmes and public education and making knowledge publicly available.

It wasn’t clear to me when reading the report where curiosity-driven research sits in this model, and indeed in the report as a whole. Yet it is surely of vital importance, even in today’s instrumental thinking around research and economic innovation. You could even argue that it assumes an even greater importance – we surely need to make huge leaps in our thinking to achieve the necessary scale of economic restructuring in most Western economies, and thinking needs to be as unrestrained as possible.

The central dilemma of the intermediary

The report provides some valuable pointers in terms of the role of the librarian and the competences that will be required. Our old friend disintermediation plays a major role in the discomfort that librarians have experienced for many years now:

New players are appearing as important and can take over some of the functions or parts of these. Publishers can provide access to journals on-line via their own servers, and universities and scientific groups or societies can provide access to digital repositories of papers and books.

As one interviewee said:

The dilemma is that you on one hand do something for the user and make yourself indispensable, and on the other hand you create the user in your own picture [sic] and thus make yourself dispensable.

This quotation surely goes to the heart of the pain of disintermediation, and reminded me forcibly of my days as a special librarian in the metals industry.

To my mind, the most optimistic statement in the whole report was this one:

Our belief about who we are does influence what we perceive as possible.

It really is true that even in adverse conditions, a little bit of self-belief can make a lot of difference, and this report has at least delivered some clarity to a highly complex landscape.

Talking with Talis Podcast: Hazel Hall, Strategic Leader at LIS Research Coalition

Dr Hazel Hall


In this Talking with Talis Podcast I speak to Hazel Hall, the newly appointed Strategic Leader at the recently established Library and Information Science Research Coalition. We discuss how the six month old Coalition aims to address leadership and advocacy challenges by working with five bodies representing each corner of the LIS Research world (currently, the British Library, CILIP, JISC, MLA and the Research Information Network). As the first to be appointed to drive the aims of the Coalition, Hazel Hall’s plans moving forward and her vision of a successful first year are also discussed.

RIN’s Michael Jubb Talks with Talis about bibliographic records in a networked world

michael-jub Dr Michael Jubb, Director of the Research Information Network, is my guest for this podcast.

The RIN was established by the higher education funding councils, the research councils, and the national libraries in the UK to investigate how efficient and effective the information services provided for the UK research community are.

As part of their role, they publish many reports to inform and create debate to lead to real change.  Our conversation focuses on the recently published “Creating catalogues: bibliographic records in a networked world”, which explores the production and supply chain of bibliographic metadata for physical and electronic books, journals, and articles.  We discuss the need for the report, and therefore change in this area, its recommendations and possible ways forward.

A look through the Grid at Code4lib

OCLC logo Code4lib 2009 in Providence, Rhode Island, got off to a good start yesterday with a great selection of pre-conference workshops including LinkedData, OCLC Grid Services, XML in Libraies, Fedora, VuFind, Koha, Open Source GIS, and LibX.  With that lot to choose from, where to go was the first challenge of the week.  With two other Talisians helping to run the LinkedData Workshop, I plumped for OCLC Grid Services.

Since its first announcement the ‘Grid Services’ label for a collection of assorted APIs from an assortment OCLC products has always struck me as more a marketing wrapper than a coordinated initiative across development.  Nevertheless these services are starting to mature somewhat and are starting to deliver a useful set of functionality.

We were taken through a series of presentations in the morning describing what was available from each service set.

Worldcat Search API – a program with just a couple of developers behind it, delivers basically a SRU interface on to the WorldCat database, with an additional OpenSearch interface.  Authorised users get access to special indexes, to limit by holding library for instance, where everybody gets access to the indexes that drive   With the ability to sort by geographic location, and output in various citation formats, and in various data formats .  There is an evaluator interface for developers to see how their search URIs should be constructed making it easy to implement.

xID – The collection of xISBN, xOCLCNUM, and xISSN  simple FRBR lookup services out of OCLC’s New Jersey office are continuing to be usefully used to drive  many applications & enhance others.  With the ability to access for free from a a single ip address for up to 500 hits per day, they are seeing wide usage often with little understanding of exactly what for.  OCLC members have free access for much higher hit rates.

WorldCat Identities & Terminologies – (out of OCLC Research Group) Give powerful access to metadata that has been drawn from Worldcat in to a separate service with their own SRU based interface to return people and organisations and the works they are related to.  The Terminology service does this with taxonomies.  Both include fuzzy indexing to help return best guess results.

Registry Services – were the last service on the agenda.  The registry holds information about over 100,000 institutions.  Initially seeded from OCLC’s billing system it is maturing with input both from OCLC staff and general input from institution members.  Providing address (both physical and internet)  information, OPAC type etc. to institutions via this API has the potential to add value to many an application.

During the afternoon session, futures were discussed including:

  • A metadata management service
  • Access to some of the data cross-walks used inside OCLC
  • Update APIs for WorldCat

More speculative were:

  • Realtime update synchronisation between Worlcat and local catalogues
  • A delivery resolver
  • APIs for the Worldcat social features
  • Server hosting for developers
  • Hosted EZProxy
  • APIs for ILL Services

It was also mentioned in conversation that there is upcoming an Open LinkedData implementation for the Identity service and latterly WorldCat itself  – but  not for the marc records.  Now those will be really powerful if they are really open. 

A very interesting and useful workshop.

Now on to the main conference which is looking good….

Open Access STORRE

STORRE_ Stirling Online Research Repository _ Home Mirroring the moves from Harvard University earlier in the year The University of Sterling has become the first academic institution in the UK to oblige staff to make all their published research available online.

Stirling is leading the way in open access to its research work, after the University’s Academic Council issued an institutional mandate which requires self-archiving of all theses and journal articles.

Professor Ian Simpson, Deputy Principal (Research and Knowledge Transfer) said: “We believe that the outcomes of all publicly funded research should be made available as widely as possible. By ensuring free online access to all our research output, we will maximise the visibility and impact of the University’s work to researchers worldwide.”

The four year project to create STORRE (Stirling Online Research Repository) has been brought to fruition by information technology specialists Clare Allan and Michael White.

Clare Allan said: “The University now requires all published journal articles to be deposited by authors, as soon as possible after they are accepted for publication, and in compliance with the publishers’ copyright agreements.

Many of the major UK research funders now require open access to published results from research awards they fund, but by going a step further and ensuring that this is done in every case, the University of Stirling is setting a high standard of access that is expected to reap rewards.

STORRE is available to search here.

As I said when commenting about the vote at Harvard "If Open Access publishing by default system spreads across the rest of the faculties and to the wider world, this could be the beginning of a seismic shift in scholarly publishing" – and I still believe that.

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Draft JISC strategy out for comment

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), historically the driver of so much innovation in the UK’s engagement with digital libraries, e-learning, and the like, has released a draft of their 2007-09 strategy for comment.

Comments are due by 25 September, and could play a role in shaping the way in which hundreds of millions of pounds are spent over the next three years.

Like so many other organisations, JISC increasingly recognises that we operate in a global environment, so don’t let being on the other side of the water put you off responding…

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Google Search Appliance + OPAC = ?

I have been in discussion with the University of Sunderland about the possibility of surfacing records from their Talis Prism Library OPAC within results from their Google Search Appliance (GSA).

Utilising the GSA’s ability to import XML described content, coupled with Prism’s default capability to provide a fixed URL to any cataloged item, it doesn’t appear too difficult to get the OPAC records to appear in the GSA’s indexes.

One of the major problems we foresee however is how to ensure that these bibliographic results appear with the correct relevance [whatever that may turn out to be] in a result set also containing web pages from the other University systems.

The Google Page Rank algorithm works by weighting a page’s relevance dependent upon how many pages link to it, and in turn how many pages link to those pages, etc. etc. As bibliographic entries in an OPAC tend not to have links to them, the assumption is that the GSA will treat them to be of equal low relevance as compared with the interlinked web pages on their site.

This will probably initially turn out to be a suck-it-and-see research exercise. If anyone has any thoughts about this or has even tried putting a Search Appliance in front of an OPAC, I would love to hear from you.

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Whisper gets an update.

The fourth in the series of Talis Research Days took place today in our Birmingham offices. This particular day was supported by BIC, who presented on their work with standards for the library and book trades. Yet again a well attended day in which the presentations stimulated much constructive debate around the impact of Web 2.0 technologies upon libraries, their processes, and the systems & processes of the library and book supply chains.

As is becoming traditional at these events, I brought together the threads of the day by practically demonstrating how Web 2.0 technologies can be used to draw together web services in to new and innovate applications.

The Talis Whisper demonstrator was updated ready for this research day. This update includes paging of results, a National Libraries map, and most importantly for those without Firefox it is now Internet Explorer compatible.

Many have linked to Whisper, especially in the context of the principles to be found in the [soon to be updated] Do libraries matter? The rise of Library 2.0 white paper. For those that could not, or have not had chance to, look and a play before it is well worth a look.

Actually its worth it just so you can have a play with the global map of National Library Locations and links. I know its sad but I never seem to tire of zooming and panning around a Google Maps mash-up. Select the Locate tab, and then the Global radio button, to see how rusty your geographic knowledge is.

Along with the invite to use and play with Whisper, I must emphasise that this is demonstration software. Although the data that underpins it is real (but not necessarily totally up to date), the services that deliver it from our research servers are not of production strength, and the AJAX application its self is by no means perfect. Also like all ‘concept cars’ functionality & services demonstrated in Whisper are no indication as to the possibility of similar services being provided by Talis in the future.

But nevertheless, on the understanding that you are using an unsupported application, you are welcome to use it for whatever you find useful.

If you have suggestions, questions, or problems around Whisper join in or start conversations on the Whisper Forum.

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A Different Day

In the normal mix of ‘stuff’ in Talis Research, which currently for me is around Library 2.0 and the Talis Whisper demonstrator, it is nice occasionally to have a different day. Yesterday was one of those different days.

It opened with a visit with Ian Corns, an analyst from our Metadata team, to the Department of Information Science at Loughborough University where we gave a presentation to students on one of their courses. This turned out to be a nostalgic trip for both of us. It was with the University Library, back in 1995, I was closely involved in the development of the first web OPAC – TalisWeb. How the web has moved on in the last decade! At about the same time Ian was a student studying for his Library qualifications. It was even more surreal for Ian as we were presenting to his former lecturer and her current students.

The title of our presentation was “The Future of OPAC?s: Web2.0, Platforms and more?”. It was very different presenting to a group of students, as against the normal group of industry professionals the I am used to finding in front of me. Nevertheless it was a stimulating experience trying to relate some of concepts and future possibilities that Library 2.0 will bring to the world they will be graduating in to. It was unfortunate we didn’t have a little more time to explore some of the stimulating questions they raised at the end, but all seemed happy, sporting their ‘Libraries Matter’ wrist bands at the end. As an aside Tim Hodson author of the excellent Information Takes Over blog is a student a Loughborough and one of those engaging in the questioning. Ian and I were grateful for the opportunity provided by Loughborough, and look forward do doing something similar again in the future. Thanks to Inese Smith & Ann O’Brien for your welcome and hospitality.

Visits like this one, are part of Talis initiatives to engage with the academic community to explain and explore the concepts that we know will radically influence the Library world in the none too distant future. So you never know this could be the start of a new career in University lecturing!

My different day closed with Paul Miller and I attending the International information industry awards in London where Panlibus was one of the candidates for the ‘Best implementation of a Business Blog’ award. Unfortunately we didn’t get to go on stage as winners, that honour in our category went to the UK Freedom of Information Act Blog (snappy name that). It was an interesting event (at which Paul and I felt well under dressed without black-tie) where the producers, consumers, and interested journalists of commercial, government, and academic information were all well represented. One of the highlights was the the video feed of Jimmy Wales accepting the ‘IWR Readers Award for Technology of the Year’ for Wikipedia from what looked like a broom closet.

Anyway back to the daily grind of trying to put some shape on, and building examples of, what this Library 2.0 thing could mean. – Its a tough job but somebody has to do it!

Research Libraries Network morphs into the RIN

The nascent Research Libraries Network (RLN) has been formally unveiled as the Research Information Network (RIN), with backing from the UK’s four Higher Education funding councils, three national libraries, and eight Research Councils.

Refreshingly for such bodies, it both has an RSS feed… and gives prominence to it on their current home page!

“The RIN is a new organisation set up in 2005 to lead and co-ordinate the provision of research information in the UK. Its ambition is to serve the research community by helping to cut paths through the ever-growing and increasingly-complex mass of information that underpins the work of all researchers.”

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