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Embedding Librarians in a World of Dirty Data: the Information Online Conference 2007

By Paul Bentley


This article was first published in the (2007) Vol 21 Online Currents, a publication of the ©Lawbook Co, part of Thomson Legal & Regulatory Limited, 


A conference triggers the search for a headline to encapsulate trends and moods. My perceptions of recent ALIA conferences have chronicled the uncertain, shifting sands of 2001, the search for the next sigmoid curve in 2002, the paranoia surrounding stinking libraries, disappearing librarians and the invisible web in 2003, and the anxieties of librarians as sorcerers’ apprentices, fighting digital bush fires, in 2005.  

Since 2005, curiosity has been kept alive by the newswire. Mass digitisation has joined other competitive forces to challenge the role of libraries. The phrase, the long tail, has become a popular metaphor to describe the evolving impact of the Internet on libraries. The Australian Government has established a new body to lead the converging interests of libraries, archives, museums and galleries. 

What patterns would emerge at this year’s Information Online conference? About 1,000 delegates from a wide range of Australasian enterprises, from BHP Billiton to Boystown, rolled up to find out.

Opening the conference, the Hon Gary Nairn, Special Minister of State in the Australian Government, lauded libraries as “a liberating force in disseminating information.” They have been innovators in developing online services. They are now presented with tremendous opportunities for transforming online services in a Web 2.0 world.  

The Australian Government, he said, places great store on the potential of online technology and social software for “citizenry interaction.” The Australian Government Information Management Office’s agenda for implementing ‘an e-Government 2.0 strategy’, centring on the “two-way portal” and a “many-to-many mindset”, is outlined in its strategic plan, Responsive Government, and an accompanying Australian Government Interoperability Framework. Those prompted to check the latter will no doubt reflect on the absence of a library representative on the Information Interoperability Working Group. 


The main attractions of any conference are the agents provocateurs, entertainers and well-credentialed professionals who occupy the plenary hall.  

Where’s the Web heading?

Ross Ackland, research manager at the CSIRO ICT Centre and Director of the Australian Office of the World Wide Web Consortium (, after providing an outline of the goals and workings of W3C in making the Web a trustworthy and accessible place on everything for everyone, turned to a trinity of Internet destinations — the Semantic Web, the Mobile Web and the Sensor Web.

Progress towards the Semantic Web — employing machine understandable information, software agents, controlled vocabularies, knowledge representation tools and embedded reasoning — is about to accelerate. Web 2.0 paves the way, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Work by W3C on OWL (Web Ontology Language), SPARQL Protocol and RDF Query Language, and RIF (Rule Interchange Format) are recent, small successes. With growing cultural acceptance of placing information on remote servers, encouraged by services such as YouTube and Myspace, and with a bottom-up, participatory approach to information integration, the prospect of a Semantic Web needs to be tempered with patience in securing the building blocks. 

The Mobile Web is unchaining workers from their desktops. Developing the Sensor Web — exemplified by applications for environmental monitoring, building and home automation, security and surveillance — creates a new challenge for managing real time data.

Possibilities for harnessing these technologies can be found in Australia’s water crisis. Success in implementing Australia’s $10 billion “ten point plan” for managing water resources will depend on the availability of good data to support decisions. Better information could flow from the development of a kind of collaborative executive information system with visual reporting functionality and capacity to drill down to lower levels of data. We need to move beyond the portal approach in managing information, develop more intelligent search mechanisms, move from human readability to machine readability, employ collaborative tools not competitive tools, and adopt standards to ensure interoperability. The Water Resources Observation Network ( amplifies these possibilities.

Disruptive technologies and digital convergence

Damian Conway, from the IT training company Thoughtstream, gave his take on contexts in an entertaining and speculative presentation Four Funerals & a Wedding.

He anticipates four funerals from the advance of disruptive technology and digital convergence. The first, in 2012 or thereabouts, will be for scarce information, when desktops will be able to accommodate 300 terabytes of information or the equivalent of the Library of Congress. The second will be for publishing, when the current model of a limited catalogue, limited distribution and limited duration will be replaced by a model without limits. The third will be for Dewey, which could be replaced when the Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) network layer protocol for packet-switched internetworks supersedes IPv4, thereby dramatically increasing the number of addresses available. Under this scenario there could be a unique ID for every word on every page of every copy of every book. The fourth funeral will be for the “infostocracy,” as print newspapers, which have been losing 2% circulation per year over last 27 years, will give way to “communal information gathering and citizen journalism” and a "collaborative semantic search framework."

However, for librarians, a wedding looms. As opportunities grow for knowledge navigators, guides, architects, strategists, critics and police, they “will rule the world.” This was probably a clever way of encouraging a hall full of librarians to tell their children to look for jobs outside the library.  

Listening to what we’re seeing

Diana Oblinger, Vice President at EDUCAUSE and co-editor of The Learning Revolution, focused on the user in her presentation on the Net Generation as harbingers of social change and as shapers of library services.

An “Alice in Wonderland, multi-user virtual environment” is re-shaping the way education is delivered. Students are now part of a “do-it-yourself culture.” They are action-oriented —  they tend to learn by doing rather than by listening to talking heads and they communicate on several fronts simultaneously. However, their level of maturity shouldn’t be assumed — their understanding of technology may be shallow and they may be naïve about personal and professional risks. To locate information, most college students in the United States (72%) turn to search engines as their first choice. Only 2% use a library web site as a starting point, although 36% consult a librarian at some point. They are media creators and users — over 50% of American teenagers have created a blog, a web page, posted art work, photos, or remixed content into their own creation. Librarians need to be aware of these changes, review all the options and respond accordingly.

The changing face of service

David Lankes (, Executive Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse and an Associate Professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, promoted the need for a more integrated world of libraries, which need to organise themselves more effectively around a single entry point —

Traditional services – cataloguing, reference, preservation and instruction — don’t fit together well. Library catalogues, in particular, “stink.” They are no more than inventories. The information business is moving too quickly to worry about order. Catalogues need to become more effective finding aids. Reference services are not the only public service. Every part of the library must be focussed on service. The customers are part of the library, not something of peripheral interest. 

Knowledge is created through conversations. Libraries are therefore in the conversation business. They need to engage in broader and deeper conversations about participatory librarianship, create a participatory library test bed, involving pooled effort in library system innovation, adoption of real Web 2.0 services and a well-directed educational program.

The future of libraries

Joanne Lustig, Vice President & Lead Analyst at Outsell, focussed on services in government departments and the business sector. 

In a period of exponential change, the compelling forces are disruptive, consumer driven technologies, changes in behaviour influenced by the rise of individualism and a glut of information from a variety of competitive sources. 


Outsell has been tracking the changing information seeking behaviours of knowledge workers since 2001. More emphasis is now being placed on intranets and less emphasis on the Internet as a source of information. Significantly, knowledge workers now spend more time gathering information and less time actually analysing information. A failure rate of 31% in searching for information pinpoints a major productivity concern.

Information management functions in government agencies and businesses are sticking to tradition in managing information  — they are mainly focussed on the typical duties of an information professional or librarian, with slow uptake in areas such as business intelligence, knowledge management, vendor relationships, and systems for content management and records management. Information management budgets are not keeping up with inflation, there have been minimal staffing increases, and there has been a slow shift from print to virtual information. There is a lag in the adoption of library technology. RSS and e-learning tools are more widely adopted by libraries than other kinds of technology. 

New service delivery models are required — where place is transformed or gone, users have it their way, information is embedded into workflow, and libraries “are embedded into the enterprise.”  


The concurrent sessions offered responses to the compelling forces existing in individual organisations. This summary highlights some that caught my attention and points to topics that both of us may want to explore in more detail on the conference website — or in other places, after sketchy Powerpoint presentations have been translated into a less ambiguous form. 

Wikis, blogs and podcasts

In the year that Time Magazine made all of us the person of the year, presentations on social software off-shoots —wikis, blogs and podcasts — attracted considerable attention. 

According to Kate Watson and Chelsea Harper, based on their recent literature search and survey, 18% of Australian libraries — mainly public and special libraries — now use blogs and about 11% use a wiki — chiefly for internal consumption. These tools are used for communication with customers, internal workflows, marketing, organisation of specific events, professional development, reference services and a number of other purposes. Somewhat alarmingly, most libraries don’t keep statistics about blog or wiki usage and a large number don’t have policies or guidelines. The main reasons for not adopting them are a lack of conviction about the need, financial and time constraints, and lack of technical knowledge and support.   

Gerard Egan gave an instructive presentation on podcasts and vodcasts (media files that are distributed through RSS feeds with attachments for playback on mobile devices and PCs). Podcasts are used for library news, tours, database tutorials, distributed learning, professional development, and as alternative access points. Tools and techniques for their use were illustrated by snapshots of applications at Yarra Plenty, the Powerhouse Museum, Flinders University, and Curtin University, in Australia and, overseas, at Columbia University Libraries. Krege Business Administration Library, SirsiDynix, Orange County, and the University of Washington’s Information School, among many other sites and services.     

Experiences in particular organisations were presented by Sue Grey-Smith and Luke Padgett (Curtin University Library), Peter Blake (Australian Catholic University) and Christine Mackenzie (Yarra Plenty Regional Library). 

Portals, websites and intranets

The pragmatic James Robertson, from Two Step Design (, urged those in charge of intranets to develop them as a valuable business tool rather than as simply a dumping ground for second-hand documents.  

Intranets in many organisations, he said, have been through five phases. They have “grown like fungus.” Iterations have involved “putting lipstick on a pig.” Although organisations put a lot of effort into maintaining their current sites, they are “running on the spot.” Too often those responsible for intranets become fixated on constraints, waiting for the right conditions, and hence they go nowhere. Phase 6 awaits.  

How do we create phase 6? Shift the metaphor to the process of delivering new functionality and exercise common sense. Examine the purpose of the intranet. Prioritise constraints. List the things that are worth doing. Rank them as version 2.0, 2.1, 2.2, 3.0. Target activities to deliver greatest value and “forget about the future.” Deliver a little, gain support, deliver some more, and so build momentum. 

Cathy Slaven, Piero Colli and Swarna Upadasa focused on web design and usability. Ben Reese and Hans Zerr outlined an approach for creating a low cost portal from their experience with the Australian Development Gateway ( John Roots proved that knowledge management hadn’t entirely slipped off the radar in his talk on the implementation of an intranet at Rockdale City Council.   

Searching and metasearching

The conference offered a number of perspectives on metasearching. Dennis Warren said that, so far, solutions have failed to deliver on their promise. Marie Anne Slaney talked about the limitations of federated search tools and how to exercise judgement in using them. Vanessa Craven provided a case study on the implementation of a federated search engine at Western Health Library. Edmund Balnaves’ focus was on the integration of federated searches in an inter-library loans system.  

On a wider front, Paul Nieuwenhuysen and Hanneke Smulders reported on an investigation into the practice of de-duplication by search engines and its implications for searchers. John Dove described Diversity Preferent Ranking (DPR) in Xreferplus and its possible application in other query systems. Amanda Spink reported on recent Web search trends, based on studies of user data provided by commercial Web companies.  

Cataloguing and metadata

Tony Boston and Alison Dellit unveiled plans for enhancing Libraries Australia. Influenced by Karen Calhoun’s report for the Library of Congress in 2006, and other commentaries, that the catalogue “is in decline, its processes and structures are unsustainable, and change needs to be swift,” the National Library has established an unrestricted Library Labs prototype website at to develop, test and roll out enhancements in 2008.  

Calhoun’s report presented 32 options for leading, expanding and extending library catalogues. To attract new users and improve the search experience, the National Library is investigating the use of FRBR, clustering, “did you mean” questions, citation links, annotations, tagging integration, links with holding repositories, ranking of bibliographic records (implemented in late 2006), and other techniques to leverage the value of the catalogue record.  

Boston and Dellit gave a taste of what is to come, using to produce targeted  hits on the term Dame Nellie Melba from Wikipedia, Libraries Australia, PictureAustralia and the Powerhouse Museum, and using OpenSearch to aggregate search results. 


Those in charge of services using integrated library management software and separate systems for archives, corporate records, digital assets and other forms of content, will be interested in Katie Wilson’s paper charting the development of a metadata application profile and accompanying processes and standards for their integration at the State Library of NSW. 

Anna Gifford delved into the use of thesauri in the online space, using Victoria Online's experience in developing a thesaurus for the main Victorian Government portal. 


Derek Whitehead gave a stimulating paper on today’s confusion about the word publication. After outlining the range of definitions from legal and industry sources, he posed several questions. Can I be online and unpublished? Is nothing out of print any more? Do we need a word for online but unpublished?  

Although Web 2.0 is here, Copyright 2.0 is a long way away. Action is called for on three fronts. Change the laws. Change the language associated with the words published and unpublished. Change our behaviour. “Treat the rights to what you say and write in the same cavalier way you would in conversation or informal communication.” 

Among other papers on the topic were Vanessa Tuckfield’s, on copyright issues in the education environment, with particular reference to the Australian Flexible Learning Framework's Project’s Copyright Kitchen (, and Vicki Bates’ update on implementing Digibank at the Southbank Institute to track intellectual property.

Customer service

Business research services were established as commercial or semi-commercial enterprises in Australian state libraries during the 1990s. At least one was sold off and became a successful private enterprise in the hands of someone with business acumen, unshackled from the constraints of the state library. I’m not sure about the status of the others. It was therefore interesting to hear keynote speaker Neil Infield speak about the development of the Business & IP Centre at the British Library. Inspired by SIBL, the Science Industry & Business Library at New York Public Library, the British version has faced the challenges of operating in a “schizophrenic environment,” of accommodating new types of customers in a traditional library setting. Developing the service has involved the provision of workshops and events involving high profile entrepreneurs to complement access to online databases, redesigning spaces to reflect a new image and functionality, more dynamic marketing, training staff as business advisers, and new partnerships with other organisations. Generalising about these lessons for other types of libraries, Inman said “we need to move from disintermediation to re-intermediation by adding value.”  

Leanne Perry & Kerrie Burgess took stock of Asknow!, the online reference service run collaboratively by national, state and territory libraries in partnership with public libraries, and future opportunities for the service. Leona Jennings described the implementation of  RFID at Gold Coast City Council Library Service. Alison Rigby and Amanda Smithers provided insights into the development of performance indicators for digital reference, involving University Librarians in New South Wales. Peter Smee and Ian Stubbin described the development of centralised management of health information using Trimagic at Illawarra and South Eastern Sydney Area Health Services.  

Other presentations were devoted to improvements to inter library loan and serials management systems (Diane Dougall and Lisa McIntosh), the use of Wireless Tablet PC at Thuringowa Library Services (Warren Cheetham), virtual information services at the University of Western Sydney (Margaret Pavincich), improving research capability at the Australian Tax Office (Michael Aulich and David Feighan), and implementation of the EBL ebook nonlinear lending model at Swinburne University of Technology (Gary Hardy and Tony Davies). Shauna Hicks described changing approaches to delivering services in state archives, using the example of the Public Record Office Victoria. 

Services in educational environments

Evidence of the widening role of university libraries was underscored by Sten Christensen, who reported on the Sydney eScholarship Repository (, encompassing a suite of digital library and publishing enterprises. Howard Amos considered new imperatives in e-learning and e-research, based on the experience of the University of NSW Library. Markus Buchhorn concentrated on issues surrounding the preservation of research data in Australia. Mark Sutherland and Peta Hopkins provided advice on establishing an institutional repository for a small institution, using the example of Bond University. Julia Bale explored collaboration between teachers and librarians in secondary schools.

Information literacy

Those who have tended to side with GE Gorman’s 2003 assessment of information literacy as an overblown concept, will be interested in Janet Fletcher’s presentation, Is Information Literacy Dead?, the presentation by Colin Bates and Bernie Lingham on Deakin University’s efforts to develop a more interactive approach to information literacy training and support, and advice by Sevilay Esat and Lyn Christie on the use of Macromedia Captivate to create videos on database searching, and using specialised software at the Australian Defence Force Academy. Helen Hobbs presented a paper on engaging distance learners at the Queensland University of Technology, while Lea Beranek, Graham Walton and Ruth Stubbings outlined the use of computing facilities in the library and in other university facilities.

Roles and directions

Several speakers explored the relationships and opportunities for those working in the broad field of information management. Lisa Tyson’s focus was on librarians and IT workers in library settings, based on her experience at the University of Western Sydney. Chris Colwell commented on the converging worlds of librarians and records managers in government and business organisations. Glenda Browne’s emphasis was on indexers and the opportunities for continuing work in vocabulary control. Gillian Hallam presented preliminary findings from the Nexus census project, which is being undertaken by Queensland University of Technology and ALIA to gain a better understanding of library workforce planning issues. This exercise is complemented by similar overseas studies, such as the one being led by US Institute for Museum and Library Science (   

In the final session, Macquarie University Librarian Maxine Brodie challenged a panel of keynote speakers to produce lasting takeaway messages.   

David Lankes said that we live in a world of “dirty data,” but it is far from “our problem.” In order to engage with other players, we need to recognise that librarianship is a technical profession — we need to be immersed in the information, be technically literate, and serve people within the applications. Participating in the search for the right metaphor, Diane Oblinger supported the notation that librarians need to be “embedded in applications”, while Joanne Lustig suggested that information services need to be “more like electricity” — a separate library is no longer applicable, they need to provide invisible intermediation, involving new business models and “embedded skills.” Neil Inman urged delegates to think about being part of the next step in the information value chain. Local panellist Brenda Yarker, from TAFE’s Western Sydney Institute, struck a cautionary note with a reminder that not everyone is necessarily on the same page and that users are a diverse lot.     

Brodie posed three final questions. Where will you be when the library fits into your pocket? Where are you in your clients’ minds. Are you there in your clients’ conversations? Sensing, perhaps, that ideas reverberating at the conference won’t necessarily lead to action on a grand scale, she urged delegates to pick one idea, converse with the presenter, and take action.

Accolades for action came in the form of two awards at the conference. The Gold Coast City Council received the inaugural ALIA Information Online Group’s Award for Excellence for its implementation of an RFID system. And Elizabeth Swan, one of the founders of the Information Online Conference 25 years ago, and its constant force, received an ALIA fellowship for “extraordinary drive, commitment and passion for the role of the special librarian.” 


Do we really need to worry too much about exponential change?  

Several speakers used the steeply rising smooth curve of exponential change to galvanise delegates out of their assumed lethargy. It was again popular to call for paradigm shifts of one sort or another. The new recipes for change were recycled old ones — good business planning and marketing.  

Exponential change has been experienced through the ages. Each generation has had to absorb new information and adjust to rapidly changing circumstances. Abraham Lincoln told the US Congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” In calling for his congressional colleagues to “disenthrall” themselves as a way of moving ahead, he may have been anticipating James Robertson’s suggestion to take it one step at a time.  

The call for dramatic change has its detractors. Walt Crawford wrote in his recent essay on Library 2.0, assessing the opposing views about the future of libraries and librarians, that there’s no need for a revolution. He urged librarians “to relax and take a deep breath.” He questioned whether public libraries have ever been most people’s primary source of current information and expressed bemusement at the need to make libraries the heart of the public’s everyday information usage. Library 2.0 “encompasses a range of new and not-so-new software methodologies that can and will be useful for many libraries in providing new services and making existing services available in new and interesting ways…With luck, skill and patience, these new services and ongoing changes will continue to make libraries more interesting, more relevant and better supported.”  

In calling for more effective organisation and broader and deeper conversations as necessities for transforming libraries, David Lankis emphasised a point made by Lorcan Dempsey in his article Libraries and the Long Tail: libraries need new services that “operate at the network level above the level of individual libraries” — services that go “far beyond sharing of cataloguing records and ILL infrastructure.” Libraries need to “get to the heart of aggregating supply and demand.”  

It is a message that has been voiced in a variety of ways at past conferences, and it is one that seems to have slow traction in a sector that has limited control over rapid technological advances. The focus on digitisation in previous conferences gave way to questions about interoperability in this one. The convergence of libraries, archives and museums did not occupy any space, except by implication, in the presentation by Tony Boston and Alison Dellit. Further discussion on this topic awaits the delayed release of a report from the Collections Council of Australia’s summit in August 2006. 

Convincing macro strategies are often dependent on confidence generated by early experimentation. At a time when we seem to be in a world of constant experimentation, a suggestion by David Lankes is as good as any: “Aim high and hope, but exercise caution.” Jacques Barzin, in The House of the Intellect, offers solace: “Great cultural changes begin in affectation and end in routine.”  

Paul Bentley is Director of Paul Bentley & Associates and the Wolanski Foundation

Conference Website

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