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Talking up the back end in an evolving revolution: the VALA Conference 2010

by Paul Bentley


Article originally published in Online Currents June 2010 and reprinted with kind permission of the publishers Thomson Reuters.


Talk of the revolution continues. The transformational nature of the information revolution has been the dark cloud with a silver lining of library conferences since the Web began. The slogan for this year’s VALA conference — connections, content, conversations — stimulated fresh curiosity about the forces driving us through the next phase of the revolution. [i]


Three keynote speakers set the scene.

Changing online habits

Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, was to give an address about the predilections of online users. He was unable to attend because of a blizzard in Washington. But his paper, Network Creators, assessing how users of social media have changed the ecology of information, is the obvious starting point for this article.


The statistics flag the story. In 1990, a tenth of the population in the United States used the internet to broadcast or “narrowcast” to an audience. Now, well over half the population is involved in such activities. Roughly two-thirds of adult Internet users have created material for the Web, 57% have written material on a social networking site such as Facebook, 19% are using services like Twitter, and 15% are creating or working on a personal website, a blog and re-mixed information. More is known about the political views, tastes, friendship circles, basic lifestyle preferences, and daily activities of individuals than ever before.


The online world is as varied as people who inhabit it. It is composed of a number of cultures or classes, who are driven by technical, social and entrepreneurial interests. There is also a participatory class, consisting of people who “move across, undermine and go beyond the boundaries of existing institutions.” Amateurs participate in many of the arenas that used to be limited to experts. Online mobs influence government policies and marshal forces against evil-doers. Committed individuals create powerful online resources without any thought of making money from the exercise. Public and private universes have become more entwined.  


This new world of user-generated content is changing the media landscape. Evidence of this change has been pinpointed by the Pew’s Excellence in Journalism Project. The social media world is built on reaction to the traditional media world and it often focuses on special, small corners of that world rather than the weightier subjects that are covered by the traditional media.  


This information ecology, Rainie writes, requires vastly different survival traits for information users and the librarians who help them. These traits include reviewing traditional services, exploiting new media networks to become more vivid “nodes”, and acquiring the skills demanded by the new world.


Librarians reading these suggestions may be left wondering why there is a perception their mindset is in need of renovation: the advice does underline the direction in which they are moving.

The changing economy

McKenzie Wark’s story was about the contradictions of working in the gift economy, based on his experience of writing books. His talk coincided with his essay on the same topic in Meanjin.[ii]


Walk first started thinking about the contradictions when writing The Hacker Manifesto. Although he gave a digital version away, people still bought copies of the book. Although he owned the copyright, he only wanted people to seek his permission to use it. Observing the letter of the law was less important than the relationship with the readers. The Hacker Manifesto was both gift and commodity.


When he began to write his later book, Gamer Theory he decided to push the boundaries further. Working with the Institute for the Future of the Book, he made the book available on a website before it was finished and invited readers to comment.[iii]  What the readers said informed the revised editions, including the final printed version published by Harvard University Press. The process demonstrated two complementary forms of knowledge at work — consensus knowledge and critical knowledge. Although this form of collaboration is not democratic, the reader’s voice matters and it does improve the process of writing and proofing. The reader-writer relationships may not work for everyone, but special kinds of knowledge are open to connection. The right time for interaction is during the experimental stage.   

Working towards the semantic web

Tom Tague is also someone who has gained from the experience of giving something away. He said he knew little of what libraries do. As leader of the OpenCalais initiative at Thomson Reuters [iv], his universe was the semantic web and the linked content economy.  


OpenCalais offers free metadata generation services, developer tools and an automatic connection to the Linked Data cloud. Users of the service feed their content into an extraction engine. This categorises each document, finds people, places, companies, facts and events, and then returns the metadata to the user. Along with the extracted metadata, it returns links to free data on the open web – such as Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook, and the Internet Movie Database. The metadata is then used to improve the reader experience through additional information, better search navigation, and other enhancements.   

Some great work is being done by users of the service, he said. The Powerhouse Museum uses it to generate tags for items in its collection. Media Cloud uses it to explore trends in media coverage, blog posts and other information. Document Cloud, an online resource offering public access to reporters’ original source material, uses it to highlight hidden connections, thus reducing the cost of investigative journalism. Large daily newspapers are using OpenCalais to expose scoundrels. More and more metadata generation tools are being created.

Linked Data, a standard promulgated by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is going to take over the world, he promised. By embracing the standard Thomson Reuters has built the scaffolding that enables websites, social networks and other content-rich applications to navigate between previously separate silos of data and information. Publisher sites will be able to dynamically mingle and deliver additional content based on user preferences, profiles, friends’ selections and breaking topics. Media Monitoring tools will deliver slices of information from websites and blogs. Plug-ins will bypass searching by integrating social networking and blogging sites.

His next comments may have been the most interesting of the conference. The web is now a big mess. We need to overhaul the human knowledge system. The new form of democracy brings cacophony, many voices, many truths, noise in an echo chamber. This makes it harder to find what we are looking for. Web 3.0 will arrive when we’ve cleaned up Web 2.0. We’re in the wild ride of our lifetime.

The web may be a disaster but structure is emerging. Mega-scale interoperability is on the horizon. We’re getting close to the “ipod moment.” There will be a Semantic Web and it will be fantastic. But, in its current state, it is struggling to catalogue new content types, to reconcile consistently tagged content, to offer federated search against diverse content. It needs to address ambiguity, automate tagged content in a consistent way, detect connections, provide contexts, deliver insights, and chunk content so it can be mashed-up in new ways. In this universe, the aggregated metadata of libraries will be extremely valuable. The knowledge of librarians, their experience and expertise, their commitment to truth, trust, authority and their keen understanding of the user, are needed.

To be a more effective player in the linked content revolution, he said, librarians need to move from cataloguing to knowledge engineering and build domain-technology partnerships. “Don’t just talk about end users, talk back end.”


The voice of librarians was well served by three prominent Americans with outstanding credentials. They also urged us to be part of the revolution and to look at things with fresh eyes, but without jettisoning what we now do.

Be part of the cloud revolution

Roy Tennant, Senior Program Officer at OCLC, owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib e-lists and creator and editor of Current Cites, underscored the components of the future laid out by Tom Tague. We are actually part of a third revolution, he said. The first revolution was the creation of the Internet. The second was the arrival of the World Wide Web. And the third, revolving around cloud computing, draws on structured data, which are revealed through the use of APIs and Linked Data. Tennant gave the lesson on this revolution to those who needed it.    


An API (application programming interface) is a method for one software application to communicate with another. To learn more about it, Tennant recommended  Programmable Web ( and (http;// Research underway includes terminology services at Indiana University’s Digital Library Program (, where a demonstration site searches descriptions of images in three of the Program's collections and offers term expansions and suggestions using the experimental OCLC’s Terminology Services ( Other experiments have involved the use of the WorldCat API and the WorldCat Identities API to deliver information to the iPhone.


Linked Data involves use of Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) as the names for things, the use of HTTP URIs to enable people to look up those names, the provision of useful data when someone looks up a URI by using relevant standards such as RDF and SPARQL, and the inclusion of links to other URIs so they can find more things. See, for example, DBpedia, the linked data version of Wikipedia (,  GeoNames (, and OpenCalais. In the library context, Tennant recommended we check out LC authorities and vocabularies (, Media Spaces ( and Dewey Decimal Classifications at Dewey Info (


Cloud computing, to use the Wikipedia definition, is “a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet.”  In offering low barriers to entry and pay-as- you-go mechanisms it avoids the need for capital investment. It avoids the need for local server capacity. It takes advantage of automatically distributed software upgrades. And it saves staff time. Its drawbacks include the lack of complete control and the reliance on network connectivity and speed. For examples of cloud computing, see Amazon Web Services ( and, Xerxes (, Worldcat ( and  Ex Libris MetaLib (


“The revolution will not be televised,” he concluded. “It will happen in the cloud led by individuals doing creative things with structured data.”

Look at things with new eyes

Karen Calhoun, Vice President of OCLC WorldCat and Metadata Services, called on the authority of groundbreakers from Copernicus onwards in urging librarians to look at things afresh. As Marcel Proust wrote in À la Recherche du temps perdu: "The real act of discovery is not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes."   

Recent technological developments have had an incredible, disruptive impact on libraries and other enterprises. Traditional practices have been upended. We need to adapt to new conditions by strengthening cooperation on four fronts.  

Cooperative front number one is embedding collections in discovery spaces to enable readers to “find it on Google, get it from my library.” Her 2006 study of library cataloguing proposed a number of strategies for revitalising library catalogues[v]. Leadership is needed to encourage outward integration into the wider Web. Today’s separate library systems could be independent but loosely connected, or we could have many more shared systems, or we could rely on the cloud and “not care what’s up there as long as it works,” or some combination of solutions. WorldCat creates one form of outward integration through the use of lightweight but deliberate cooperative management of metadata from thousands of loosely coupled systems. The key features of this system are frequent synchronisation of data, use of identifiers for information objects and people, use of configuration profiles that automate information sharing among separate organisations, accurate linking of data and syntax, and the application of standards. The more we pay attention to these details, the better will be the experience of users in discovering material and getting hold of it from library collections.

Cooperative front number two is enabling discovery and delivery of a wider range of information objects. The public is interested in a wider range of information objects. The library collection is being redefined. Digital library collections are greatly increasing in popularity. There is rising Interest in the digital collections of national libraries. Open access repositories are gaining visibility and impact.. 

Cooperative front number three is engaging with communities. The library sector has achieved much through cooperation, but we can push engagement with local communities much further.  

Cooperative front number four is cultural change. “It is not enough to do your best; you must know what to do, and then do your best”, she said, quoting W. Edward Deming. We need to collectively embrace a culture of assessment, evidence-based decision making, and a commitment to continuous improvement. Good intentions, hard work and an old blueprint for service are insufficient.

To wrap up her talk and to stimulate thinking after VALA 2010, she offered a series of what-ifs about library cooperation at global, national and regional levels. What if libraries could more readily share the effort and costs of collection management, including analysis, collection development, offsite storage, preservation, e-resources and networked knowledge bases? What if they could manage collections in the cloud? What if they could take this current picture of many systems to support locally and move these systems up to a Web scale solution, or cloud computing? What if they  could cooperate to move from isolated digital collections to interoperable digital libraries? What if they could turn the world’s largest aggregation of bibliographic and holdings data into the world’s largest aggregation of information about authors and other creators?

Some of these what-ifs have become more than mere speculation. Three projects at OCLC serve as examples. The OCLC Digital Collections Gateway is a web-based, self-service tool to assist libraries and other cultural heritage enterprises using CONTENTdm to contribute digital repository metadata to WorldCat. WorldCat Identities, a larger, beta version of People Australia, is an example of the kind of things that can be done if you have enough aggregated data. It gives an overview of the person, lists the most widely held works by and about a person, and links to the LC authority file, Wikipedia and other sources. VIAF, the Virtual International Authority File is another global cooperative venture to support multilingual searching and provide better value of services at national, regional and local levels.

The prize of achieving new levels of library cooperation, Calhoun said, is nothing less than commanding a much larger, more visible and effective presence for libraries in our societies. Library cooperation is an effective adaptive behavior that has the potential to keep libraries strong and vibrant in the communities they serve.

Blend evolution with revolution

Marshall Breeding, Director for Innovative Technologies and Research at Vanderbilt University Libraries, Nashville, and creator and editor of the Library Technology Guides[vi], focused on systems in his presentation, Blending Evolution with Revolution.


Headlines for his annual reviews of the automation marketplace for the ALA Library Journal’s Automation Marketplace tell a story of constant marketplace fluctuation, underscored by sales figures for individual systems.   


The Library automation scene is in a period of transition.  


Libraries are in transition. There is a shift from print to electronic. There is increasing emphasis on subscribed content, especially articles and databases. There is a strong emphasis on digitising local collections. There is demand for enterprise integration and interoperability.  


Users are in transition. The Millennial generation is self sufficient and is reluctant to seek assistance. This generation perceives itself as competent to use information tools without help. It is Web savvy. Collaborative work styles are its modus operandi.


Technologies are in transition. XML, Web services and service-oriented architecture define the landscape. They are moving beyond Web 2.0 by integrating social computing into core infrastructure. Local computing is shifting to cloud platforms, such as SaaS, the private cloud and the public cloud. Mobile technology is the current focus, but is only one example of the range of devices and interfaces.


The evolutionary path is characterised by gradual enhancement of long-standing integrated library system (ILS) platforms, wrapping legacy code in APIs and Web services, and continued development of particular systems  (as exemplified by the work of SirsiDynix,  Innovative and Civica). The library automation market has a long-standing preference of evolved systems. It is a very difficult and lengthy process to build a new library automation system from scratch. Legacy systems bring forward both rich functionality as well as concepts tied to the past.


But we are also seeing developments along a revolutionary path. There are now competing models of library automation. There are traditional proprietary commercial systems, as represented by Millennium, Symphony and Polaris. There are traditional open source systems, as represented by Evergreen and Koha. There are clean slate, service-oriented architecture (SOA), enterprise-ready automation frameworks, as represented by Ex Libris URM and the OLE Project. And there are cloud-based automation systems, as represented by WorldCat Local.


There is now a fundamental assumption about the need for hybrid libraries comprising print and digital materials. The traditional ILS model is not adequate for hybrid libraries. Libraries are currently moving towards surrounding core systems with additional modules to handle electronic content. New discovery layer interfaces are replacing or supplementing ILS OPACS.


Do open source products have the potential to transform library operations? At the moment, reviews are mixed. Open source companies are struggling to meet expectations. Two open source systems lag behind proprietary systems in terms of extending functionality and interoperability. “The APIs available to library programmers continue to be quirky and less than comprehensive, even from the vendors with the strongest offerings in this area.”[vii]


Libraries are moving beyond an automated version of the old card cataloguing, but there is still a disjointed approach to information and service delivery. Silos prevail, even in the delivery of books and journal articles online. There is a lack of a lack of a unified web presence. Users don’t understand the distinctions we make.  


Breeding has a simple vision. “We need a single point of entry to all the content and services offered by the library, but with precision, nuanced sophistication, and multiple dimensions.”  To support this vision, the online catalogue will need to be replaced by a discovery layer that utilises a range of products, decoupled from integrated library systems. It will need to leverage social networking interactions. It will need harness deep indexing; metadata will no longer serve as the only basis for discovery. There will need to be more opportunities to search for content using improved, high-quality metadata. There will be a need to move beyond the limitations of federated searching. There will be a need to move beyond local discovery interfaces. There will be a need to use mobile technologies, the new front for library discovery. And there will be a need to shift to cloud-based computing platforms.


If the well-chosen keynote presentations were weathervanes, those who had been given slots in the concurrent sessions revealed the extent to which librarians and others were responding to necessity and opportunity. The peer-reviewed papers are available on the VALA conference site. The following summaries will assist navigation to the details.   


Australia’s flagship service, Trove (, launched in December 2009 by the National Library, exemplifies the drive towards a simpler path to the wealth in Australia’s libraries. Warwick Cathro and Susan Collier describe the policy and technical challenges of creating Trove and plans for its development. These include continued decommissioning of standalone services such as Libraries Australia free search, Register of Australian Archives and Manuscripts, Australian Newspapers service, and Picture Australia. It includes enhancements such as RSS feeds, improved sorting of results, and more external targets. In the second half of 2010, public access to more full text journal articles is expected and the Library aims to strengthen the coverage of content held by archives and museums. In a separate presentation, Jane Hunter and Anna Gerber describe the Aust-e-lit project, which aims to address the e-research needs of researchers involved in the study of Australian literature and Australian print culture and to enhance and extend the existing AustLit Web portal with data integration, searching, reporting, and publishing services.[viii]   

Data curation

Increased interest in data curation and the role of libraries and librarians in managing and providing access to research data was reflected in two papers on the Australian National Data Service (ANDS,  The $72 million Australian Government-funded service operates as a collaborative enterprise of Monash University, the Australian National University and CSIRO and aims to “transform the disparate collections of research data around Australia into a cohesive collection of research resources.” Achieving this will draw on a range of activities from data management policies and plans through to discovery service. At the centre of its services will be a research data commons to encourage publication of data and access to it. Adrian Burton and Andrew Treloar outline plans for the development of the   Publish My Data service. David Groenewegen, in his paper, focuses on the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research and the necessity of creating a compliance regime in the higher education sector. Librarians, record managers and archivists and their employers have a potentially useful role, based on the experience in managing institutional repositories and metadata.  

Institutional repositories

Data curation, as an opportunity for institutional repositories, also percolates to the surface in papers by Jean-Gabriel Bankier, Tim Tamminga and Courtney Smith, from Berkeley Electronic Press in the United States, by Andrew Harrison and Sam Searle, from Monash University, on the ARROW Repository, and by Danny Kingsley, from the Australian National University, on Australian and international techniques for promoting institutional repositories. The message from these papers is that digital repositories are at the crossroads. To succeed, they need to increase the scope of content, become more effectively integrated with university programs, and deal with quality control on expert-created metadata.

University libraries

The impact of technology on buildings and services are considered thoroughly in two papers. Mal Booth, Sophie McDonald and Belinda Tiffen from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) explore technology issues raised by the keynote speakers. Additional concepts driving library structures and design specifications for a new building in 2015 include a more ubiquitous presence, personalised and customised service, integrated physical and digital spaces, provision of ‘always on’ services, the development of a new green building and green work practices, and, in essence, developing the library “as a vital part of a new creative digital ecosystem.” The vision for the UTS is underscored in the paper by Rachel Chidlow and Hester Mountfield about the experience of the Information Commons Group at the University of Auckland, which already has runs on the board.

Systems management

The integration of different databases within libraries has been a real challenge for the last couple of decades. Simon Huggard and Michele Hosking describe data modelling and other work undertaken in synchronising systems within the State Library of Victoria (Ex Libris’s Primo, DigiTool, Metalib,  SFX and Voyager systems, Relais international’s Interlibrary Loans system, and smaller systems such as EAD XML documents and the open source system Archivists Toolkit). John Garraway writes about business models and other issues affecting the development of integrated technology solutions in universities. Shirley White, Roxanne Missingham and Rina Brettell describe the experience of developing ParlInfo Search, which provides integrated access to bibliographic and full text information to the Parliament of Australia and the general public. Carolyn McDonald and Kate Davis comment on the possible impact of cloud computing, open source software and other developments on ICT support for library services. And May Chang, from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, describes the Agile project management approach and the Crystal Clear method in managing IT solutions.

Open source software

To add to Marshall Breeding’s keynote address, Kathryn Greenhill trawls through the territory of open source library software, including Scriblio, SOPAC2, VUFind, Blacklight, Koha, Evergreen and the Open Library Environment. Among her conclusions: don’t expect to save money; ensure that project management fundamentals are observed; reassess existing in-house procedures before adopting any an open source solution in case there are workarounds for existing software; make sure that decisions for change are based on necessity; make sure that staff understand the nature of software development.

Website management and usability studies

User behaviour continues to information website development. Bobby Graham and Paul Hagon report on a review of user behaviour and usability at the National library after the implementation of VuFind, an open source library resource portal, as its new online catalogue. Kat Clancy and Michelle Watson report on usability testing at Deakin University. Karen Joc and Kayo Chang, in their paper, explore the impact of discovery platforms on the information seeking behaviour of English-as-a-second-language undergraduate students at Zayed University in the United Arab Emirates. While, Michelle McLean and Linda Burridge give us the benefit of their experience in using the free Drupal content management system at Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation,

Search engines and discovery layers

The front end continues to depend on the back end. Jane Burke explores search technology broadly, including discovery layers, federated search, and Web-scale discovery as tools for attracting researchers to the library. Michael Gonzalez highlights issues for libraries choosing to make federated searching, based on the experience of the University of Western Sydney. Paul Hagon describes investigations into searching audio material and images at the National Library of Australia and possible impacts on traditional cataloguing methodologies.

Using Web 2.0 technology to provide services

Web 2.0 tools are all the rage, but are they effective or do they just generate activity? Michelle McLean and Paul Mercieca attempt to answer the question based on the experience of five library blogs at Casey-Cardinia Library Corporation. Paul Sutherland reports on the use of a range of technologies at Christchurch City Libraries. Fiona Salisbury and Sandi Monaghan looks at the experience of La Trobe University Library. Majella Pugh reports on the use of wikis for a virtual health hub at the University of Queensland. Ellen Forsyth reports on their use by the New South Wales Public Library Reference and Information Services Group. While Zaana Howard and Darren Ryan consider Yammer, an enterprise microblogging application at CPA Australia. Amirhossein Mohtasebi and Parnian Najafi Borazjani raise privacy concerns about the use social networks and online communities by students in Malaysian universities

Using Web 2.0 tools for professional development

And, for librarians, what’s the best way of keeping ahead of the game now? Sue Cook and Constance Wiebrands provide advice on using online social networks, such as Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed. While Michael Stephens, Richard Sayers and Warren Cheetham report on the CAVAL 2009 Visiting Scholar Research Project, Measuring the Impact of Learning 2.0 Programs in Australian Libraries, as a tool for training library staff in emerging technologies.  

Mobile technology

In reflections on the new hot topic, Patrick Gregory describes the pros and cons of implementing the Vocera wireless communications system to support mobile customer service at the State Library of Victoria. Sarah-Jane Saravani discusses standards under development for mobile learning services and the methodologies used to change the Waikato Institute of Technology Library's search interfaces as a result of the studies of the nomadic learners. And Alan Butters, from Sybis, gives an update on the development of the RFID standard ISO/IEC 28560 and comments on its implications for libraries.


Mal Booth, in a blog about the conference, lamented Australia’s lack of a digitisation strategy.[ix] At VALA 2010, surprisingly, digitisation and digital preservation wasn’t represented as a major issue. Anna Shadbolt, Joe Arthur and Silvia Paparozzi describe the experience of digitising the University of Melbourne calendar. Robyn Van Dyk explores the experience of publishing private records online, the notebooks and diaries of CEW Bean at the Australian War Memorial. And Cathie Jilovsky, George Panagiotidis and Janette Wright describe processes used by CAVAL to convert content into digital form, using a Kirtas 2400 RA Book Digitising device.  


Number crunching as a management necessity is represented by at least three papers. David Wells and Petra Dumbell analyse the relationship between e-book usage statistics and acquisition approaches. Lynne Horwood and Sabina Robertson provide an update on bibliometrics as a tool for librarians to engage with their academic communities, focusing on visual representation features of Scopus (Elsevier) and Web of Science (Thomson Reuters). Carol Tenopir and Donald King explore measures of value in supporting the worth of the library. And Les Firth writes about tools used to inform management of Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Exhibitions and multimedia experiences

Museums and galleries have been playing with high-tech displays for the best part of twenty years. Stephanie Orlic’s multimedia presentation on the Louvre Museum Lab project ( was therefore of special interest at VALA 2010. The Lab is a joint effort with the Japanese firm, Dai Nippon Printing, and explores new approaches for providing “an exceptional encounter with works from the Louvre collection.”  Experimental efforts include tools to bring the geographical and historical backdrop into focus, and blending filmed and digital images to highlight details of interest in artworks, among other projects.


Two panels were brought together to sum up major trends and challenges.   


In the first, chaired by Anne Beaumont, Karen Calhoun, Roy Tennant, Marshall Breeding and Tom Tague gave their views about the impact of user generated and social networked content on the next generation of information portals. Their views were not necessarily the same, but the messages that came through made common sense. We shouldn’t get too hung up about social media. In working out what to do with them, clearly differentiate types of information. Treat some social media content as conversations, as letters to the editor. Be prepared to blend things, to make the cloud better. Develop systems to answer questions not just to discover things.  


Another panel session, A Fireside Chat with Roy Tennant and Friends, was organised at the last minute to make up for the absence of the blizzard-bound Lee Rainie. Their focus was on the dynamics of the e-content marketplace. Publishers have major concerns about potential economic impacts. There is still a place for indexing and abstracting services, but these services will die unless there is an increase in links to full texts. Small publishers in the social sciences and humanities may be at risk. On the other hand, niche will be important – for example, in the provision of Australian content. Libraries and publishers are not really responding to the rising demand for ebooks. We need to start looking at producing books in chunks. Multimedia is challenging the nature of books. Libraries buy 4% of what is available, but to the bookselling business, 4% is a highly influential part of the market.    


If the members of the panel could be granted one wish for the future what would it be? Heather Crosby (RMIT Publishing) wanted simplification of rights management. Carol Tenopir (University of Tennessee) urged an emphasis on products and services. Teule Morgan (Swinburne University of Technology) wanted quicker responses to changing circumstances. Jane Burke (Serials Solutions) hoped for tools to generate high quality metadata more quickly. Ingrid Mason (Collections Australian Network) wanted more speed, more lateral connections, and more digitisation of unique materials. Roy Tennant’s thinking was revolutionary and evolutionary: create ferment, seize opportunities, and be relevant. As we left the auditorium after fireside chat, a crooner on the public address system sang the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song, Stormy Weather.


The underlying currents of the conference were that the Semantic Web is near and that cloud computing is a pearly path leading us towards that destination. Indeed, if you look at the Hugh Hefner professor in Apple’s Knowledge Navigator promo, you do get a feeling that the 1987 fantasy is now close to the reality.[x]  But the Semantic Web is still a promised land. Those driven towards it continue to wrestle with sceptics who doubt its feasibility. Semantic issues await answers to the challenges identified by Tom Tague. Some people look at cloud computing in the same way that some people look at bottled water. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, for example, has dubbed it a marketing hype campaign. "Somebody is saying this is inevitable – and whenever you hear somebody saying that, it's very likely to be a set of businesses campaigning to make it true."[xi]  At the conference, questions about ownership and preservation of information in the cloud were flagged, but not explored. 


The conference began with a YouTube clip of a pre-school digital native called Abby, who sympathised with delegates but asked for more rapid action: “I know you’re really busy working on this. But I’m a digital native and I want it now! So hurry up and get cracking.”[xii]


Well, Abby, life wasn’t meant to be easy: you’ve got to feel some pain on the path to heaven. The information revolution is one of de Tocqueville’s slow but sweeping transformations that will take several generations to bring about. It’s an evolution with innovative outbursts. An organic Web is leading us to a linked up future in which language is the impediment as well as the currency. If the Web is a wonderful disaster waiting to be cleaned up, librarians have had the experience to know that you can’t necessarily rush these things and that dealing with dirty data involves discipline in the back end at a time when the back end is an open office.


End notes

[i] VALA 2010 conference (viewed 18 April 2010)
[ii] Wark M. Love Your Work and Set it Free (The Weekend Australia 13-14 March 2010, an edited version of an essay in the March 2010 issue of Meanjin)

[v] Calhoun K The Changing Nature of the Catalog and its Integration with Other Discovery Tools. Library of Congress, 2006 ( Viewed 18 April 2010
vi] (viewed 18 April 2010)

[vii] Breeding M. Opening up Library Systems through Web Services and SOA: Hype or Reality? (Library Technology Reports Nov/Dec Issue 2009)


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