Number 81 • May/June 2011 2011
ISSN 1944-7639 (online version)
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An Enclosure of Spirits
by Chuck Henry
The project to develop a Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) has become more widely publicized in the past several months, understandably accruing many different interpretations and perspectives about what it might be, what it should not be, and what it might become over time. As a concept, it has a history that goes back a few decades, when the promise of digitization and the possibility of a large repository of content that represented our cultural legacy were intuitive: digital books, images, newspapers, historical records, archives, and moving images that could be accessible to scholars, students, and interested citizens defined a public good in the most democratic sense. Today, building a digital public library for America is no longer theoretical; it has become feasible. This explains the number and diversity of current perspectives concerning the appropriate audience, potential uses, and general efficacy of such an undertaking.
In May, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded CLIR a grant to construct a prototype for the DPLA, to be submitted to the beta sprint this fall. Since then, our staff have been asked many questions about the assumptions that will structure the prototype build-out. For example, what architecture will be adopted? What communities will it serve? What content will be privileged as this “working draft” of the DPLA is developed, and to what extent will the prototype influence the project’s evolution? It is premature to speculate on the eventual scope and user population of a DPLA, and several technical platforms will be a focus of the research that is part of the grant. Nonetheless, some general assumptions can be articulated as the prototype is planned.
One paradigm that can be useful in defining what the DPLA will not mirror is embodied in the conundrum of Meno’s paradox. In an exchange between Socrates and Meno in Plato’s dialogue, Meno wonders how it is possible to ask a question about a topic you are completely ignorant of: i.e., how do you know what you don’t know? Socrates’ reply sets up the formal paradox: you can’t search for something you know, because you have knowledge of it, and thus searching for it is meaningless. Analogously, you cannot seek what you do not know, because you will not recognize it if you find it. The puzzle requires that knowing and unknowing be conceived as well-defined containers—tightly demarcated boxes that do not allow for nuance or shading. A “boxology” of knowledge, and by extension hard-and-fast categories of users and content boundaries, would impede the potential of a DPLA.
Contemporary research in cognitive science posits a much different map of the human mind, namely, that we are neurologically wired through billions of connections, an astonishingly complex network of linkages that give rise to nuance, ambiguity, and our metaphor-rich expressions. In Terrence Deacon’s term, we are a “symbolic species,” and the sophisticated questions we ask often reflect this dynamic cognitive structure. Pieces of the puzzles we seek to solve are known, if imperfectly, some facets are more tenuous than others, and sometimes we stumble upon a revelatory insight through unexpected paths or wildly unfocused poking.
A Digital Public Library of America would be most useful if it were modeled as a service that effectively and creatively responds to our ever-mutable and polysemous questions. The DPLA would aggregate, but not own or maintain, vast amounts of digital content of the widest-possible variety of media, formats, and historical sweep. It would provide standards and protocols for ongoing development and refinement of applications that help us find information pertaining to our questions. Fundamentally, the DPLA would accommodate the voices, experiences, and organizations we know and, at the same time, make it possible for us to transcend them.
In thinking about the DPLA, an ancient construct from Indo-European, a source of many of the languages on earth, comes to mind: the combination of ansu and gher, an “enclosure (gher) of spirits (ansu).” While the notion of “enclosing spirits” seems paradoxical, it speaks to our need to surround or otherwise sequester in order to understand and create new knowledge. Defining a wide boundary that encloses but makes accessible what we might term a virtual reality, an ethereal ambit within which vigorous, animated storytelling unfolds, is fundamental to our interpretation of the world. Asgard is a more recent expression of this concept; gher informs the English “garden,” with all of its semantically rich connotations. However it evolves, the DPLA prototype must not only respond to our curiosity, our myriad intellectual interests, and our drive for information and discovery but also reflect the complexity and transformative power of our cultural heritage.
Why is Everyone Talking about Linked Data?
by Rachel Frick
Efforts and interest surrounding linked data and the semantic web are growing rapidly in the digital library community. I am often asked, “What is DLF doing in relation to linked data?” As a community-driven organization, we need to identify where it makes the most sense for the Digital Library Federation (DLF) to engage, and where we can contribute for the greatest benefit.
Linked data is about “using the Web to connect related data that wasn’t previously linked, or using the Web to lower the barriers to linking data currently linked using other methods,” according to Linkeddata.org.
I have recently attended several meetings where linked open data was the focus of the conversation. These meetings have provided valuable perspective on some of the key issues and needs in the community, and have helped point the way to next steps for DLF.
Linked Data to Support Global Sharing
On May 16–17, the Berkman Center, together with Open Knowledge Commons and the Institute for Information Law at the University of Amsterdam, convened a group of technical and legal experts from public and research libraries and government agencies in the United States and Europe for a workshop on global interoperability in digital libraries. The goal was to identify lessons learned from existing projects and to apply these lessons to the developing Digital Library of America effort.
Much of the discussion examined the opportunities for interoperability that linked open data offers. Ed Summers, from the Library of Congress, wrote a blog post that highlighted a key point from the meeting:
Dan Brickley [pointed] out that in fact it’s pretty hard to draw lines around Europe too … and more importantly the Web is a space that can unite these projects (Europeana and the DPLA). At this point Josh Greenberg jumped in and suggested that perhaps some thoughtful linking between sites like a DPLA and Europeana could help bring them together. This all probably happened in the span of 3 or 4 minutes, but the exchange really crystallized [the idea] that cultural heritage community could do a whole lot better at deep linking with each other.
Linked Data for Libraries, Archives, and Museums
Raising awareness of, creating an argument for, and demonstrating how to use linked open data in the libraries, archives, and museum (LAM) community is quite a challenge. But it is a challenge that excites and activates this community, as demonstrated by the overwhelming response to the International Linked Open Data in Libraries, Archives, and Museums Summit (LOD-LAM), held June 2–3 in San Francisco.
The LOD-LAM Summit brought together leaders in the humanities and sciences to develop practical approaches to publishing linked open data, specifically:
- Identifying the tools and techniques for publishing and working with linked open data.
- Drafting precedents and policy for licensing and copyright considerations regarding the publishing of library, archive, and museum metadata.
- Publishing definitions and promoting use cases that will give LAM staff the tools they need to advocate for linked open data in their institutions.
Jon Voss led the meeting, which followed an “unconference” format. Close to 100 people, representing many countries and types of cultural heritage organizations, attended. Notes from the sessions were posted on the Summit blog, and a Google group was created so that others interested in LOD-LAM can continue the conversation.
Participant David Weinberger, who posted video podcasts from the conference (June 6 and 8) , also did a great job of distilling the main messages from the meeting on his blog. I found three points especially compelling:
- Making data and metadata available as LOD enables maximal reuse by others.
- Doing so requires expertise, but should be less difficult than supporting many other standards.
- For the foreseeable future, this will be something libraries do in addition to supporting more traditional data standards; it will be an additional expense and effort.
The meeting made it apparent that there are many levels of experience and understanding of LOD in the LAM community. For those of us at the beginner level, or those wanting a primer to help educate colleagues, we started a rough draft LOD-LAM FAQ. This document is in process, and contributions are welcome.
Publication versus Use, and Intellectual Property Concerns
One point made at the Summit was the need to distinguish LOD services, tools, and conversations targeted for “publication” from those targeted for “use.” Determining how to publish data as linked open data requires a very different decision path than does determining how to use linked open data resources to enrich a data source (digital collections).
A related conversation focused on intellectual property rights and the licensing of LAM collections metadata to be reused as linked open data. This topic was discussed during two conference sessions and led to the formation of a working group that created a four-star ranking system for linked open cultural metadata. The rating system is described in a draft document proposing a new way to assess the openness and usefulness of linked data for the LAM community. It is a work in progress, and comments are welcome. Mackenzie Smith discusses this in her video interview with David Weinberger:
How we assign rights—or exert control over descriptive collections metadata—will determine how the LAM community can use LOD and how their published LOD will be useful and reused.
David Weinberger states, “The key point of resistance against LOD among libraries, archives and museums is the justified fear that once the data is released into the world, the curating institutions can no longer ensure that the metadata about an object is correct; the users of LOD might pick up a false attribution, inaccurate description, etc. This is a genuine risk, since LOD permits irresponsible use of data. The risk can be mitigated but not removed.” Paul Keller, of Kennisland Nederland, who participated in the licensing workgroup at LOD-LAM, discussed this idea extensively at the Berkman interoperability meeting in May, suggesting we need to frame the conversation about sharing metadata as one that focuses on “risk management.”
Jon Voss posted this recent comment on David Weinberger’s blog:
Looking at the genuine risk and justified fears … is a very important point for us to consider within the LOD-LAM community as this continues to grow and as we endeavor to educate our peers about the technology. Back then, we were sharing our documents on the web, not our data, but the idea was the same. What will people do with them? How will they use/misuse/steal our information? What if someone we don’t like or approve of links to our site, especially if we don’t condone of their activities? Ultimately, the utility and rewards of publishing documents on the web outweighed the risks, and it grew.
The same should happen with our data, but we need to continue the conversations and grow an appreciation and understanding about how LOD will affect the LAM community.
DLF Next Steps
The DLF is committed to helping continue the conversations started at the LOD-LAM summit and will be working initially with Kris Carpenter Negulescu and Jon Voss to identify ways to do this.
As a first step, we invite those who participated in the LOD-LAM summit, and others interested in LOD, to submit proposals to the 2011 DLF Forum. We are also seeking ideas from the DLF community about ways to support LOD-LAM efforts. We have created a Linked Open Data Interest Group Page on the DLF website to help gather LOD resources and information, and we are openly calling for ideas.
The more I participate in LOD conversations and learn from my colleagues, the more I realize that libraries, archives, and museums need to move forward in an open, collaborative, noncompetitive manner to facilitate the development of tools, workflows, and collaborations that advance LOD-LAM and make the most of our communities’ efforts.
Newly Accessible Civil Rights and Voter Education Collections Spur New Connections
Collections Processed and Cataloged as Part of Hidden Collections Grant
by Kelly Miller
As a result of the collaborative work of three major institutions holding archival collections documenting the civil rights and voter education movements in the United States, archivists and scholars are gaining new insights into one of the most transformational eras in our country.
On April 9, more than 50 archivists, faculty, and students from major universities and several disciplines gathered at a University of Virginia (UVa) symposium to discuss the recently released records and finding aids of materials from Emory University’s Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, and Tulane University’s Amistad Research Center. These materials were processed and cataloged through a 2008 consortial Hidden Collections grant, which is administered by CLIR and funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. They include the personal papers of Andrew Young and Julian Bond as well as the organizational records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Titled “African American and African Studies at Work in the World,” the symposium provided an extraordinary opportunity for scholars in African-American Studies to discuss new areas of research, such as the role of women in the civil rights and voter education movements. Participants represented such wide-ranging fields as literature, religion, art, music, women’s studies, history, economics, political science, anthropology, architecture, law, and public health. The symposium is a good example of a program that connects archivists directly with scholarly audiences, thereby heightening opportunities for the creation of new knowledge.
Archivists Laura Thomson (Amistad Research Center), Cheryl Oestreicher (Auburn Avenue Research Library), and Sarah Quigley (Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library)—all members of the consortial grant project team—joined Petrina Jackson (UVa Special Collections Library) to participate in a panel titled “Documenting the Civil Rights Movement: New Research Opportunities.” While highlighting the papers of well-known civil rights leaders, the archivists also discussed the significance of collections relating to lesser-known but influential activists, artists, journalists, and photographers, including Tom Dent, the New Orleans poet and playwright, and Selena Sloan Butler, who organized the first National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers.
Discussion focused both on current research results and on potential new linkages. For example, Petrina Jackson spoke about how the collections are influencing undergraduate research. UVa undergraduates, she noted, are using the papers of Julian Bond, a history professor at the university, in a course on the history of the civil rights movement. Constance (“Connie”) Curry, an author, activist, and former member of the executive committee of SNCC whose papers are located, in part, at Emory University, spoke about the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of the founding of SNCC and her work with colleagues to preserve the legacy of that organization.
Audience comments touched on the contributions that scholars and others can make in suggesting corrections and enhancements to finding aids and the fact that the archival profession can be a viable, exciting career path for underrepresented minorities.
Kelly Miller, head of programs at the David and Mary Harrison Institute for American History, Literature, and Culture at the University of Virginia, organized and moderated the panel on documenting the civil rights movement. A former CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow, she is now leading a multiyear CLIR study, “Observations on Scholarly Engagement with Hidden Special Collections and Archives.” The study team is working to describe how librarians and archivists are structuring and developing relationships with scholars in the course of funded Hidden Collections projects. The study focuses on identifying and describing current practices and on encouraging conversation between librarians, archivists, and expert users about those practices.
Carter G. Woodson 30th-Anniversary Symposium Information:
Kathleen Fear Awarded 2011 Zipf Fellowship
Kathleen Fear, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Information at the University of Michigan, has been selected to receive the A. R. Zipf Fellowship in Information Management for 2011. She holds a bachelor’s in physics from Yale University and a master’s in information, with a specialization in the preservation of information, from the University of Michigan.
Fear’s research focuses on how scientific data can best be preserved, managed, and accessed. Recently, she conducted a major study exploring the use of provenance metadata in the ProteomeCommons repository, a major data archive for proteomics research. Her study found that “proteomics researchers rely on far more information than just the available metadata when finding and evaluating data for reuse: the repository structure itself is an important source of information, particularly the contextualization provided by linking datasets to the papers they were associated with.”
Named in honor of A. R. Zipf, a pioneer in information management systems, the $10,000 fellowship is awarded annually to a student who is enrolled in graduate school in the early stages of study and shows exceptional promise for leadership and technical achievement in information management. For more information and a list of previous fellowship recipients, visit https://www.clir.org/fellowships/zipf/zipf.html.
CLIR Names 2011 Rovelstad Scholarship Recipient
Timothy Thompson, a dual-degree master’s student in library science and in Latin American and Caribbean studies at Indiana University, has been selected to receive this year’s Rovelstad Scholarship in International Librarianship.
Currently, Thompson is in Brazil studying advanced Portuguese at the University of Brasilia and undertaking fieldwork for his master’s thesis. He is conducting a survey and meta-analysis of major digital library projects being developed in Brazil and their social impact on community development.
“My views on international librarianship are closely tied to my belief that libraries can play a key role in promoting democracy and fostering human development,” says Thompson. “As institutions that consolidate information, however, libraries can sometimes seem obsolescent or out of step with the decentralizing tendency of today’s information marketplace. In the developing world, the social capital of libraries is particularly precarious.”
Thompson also possesses advanced technological skills, which he put to use during an internship at Indiana University, where he created a search engine for “Researching Brazil,” an integrated platform for organized access to portals, full-text collections, and journal indexing in Brazilian Studies http://www.indiana.edu/~liblatam/researching-brazil/
The Rovelstad Scholarship provides travel funds for a student of library and information science to attend the annual meeting of the World Library and Information Congress in San Juan, Puerto Rico in August.