Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Information Landscapes

Rosemary Russell, Sally Criddle and Sarah Ormes report on the UKOLN conference held in June 1998.

The third UKOLN conference in the series Networking and the future of libraries was held at the University of Bath, 29 June-1 July. There were around 240 delegates, nearly a third of whom were from overseas. Its central theme was the construction of information and learning landscapes. The programme ranged from the exploration of distributed library architectures now being developed, to future gazing with the help of some visionary speakers.

The conference was opened by Brian Lang of The British Library, who welcomed the delegates to Bath. The opening keynote address was then given by Richard Heseltine, University of Hull. His multimedia paper saw the future of libraries not as ‘digital libraries’ but facilitators in an ‘information landscape’. Library users will no longer compartmentalise their information needs into specific areas e.g. work, study, leisure and expect to have to use different resources and services to fulfil each need. These users will want to operate in a seamless information landscape which allows them access to electronic information and resources from a single interface. Libraries need to come to terms with these new user needs and their new educational demands.

The first session addressed Information architectures: constructing the digital library and was chaired by Lynne Brindley of the University of Leeds. Perhaps suitably, the first paper, on Moving to distributed environments for library services, was presented by Lorcan Dempsey of UKOLN. The current situation was sketched, where information services exist as unconnected islands and users face a variety of problems in separately accessing heterogeneous resources. The adoption of ‘broker’ architectures has been identified as one way of providing an integrated, managed service. The MODELS Information Architecture approach is not library-specific, having equal relevance for archives and museum services.

Recognising that research is increasingly inter-disciplinary, Dan Greenstein of the Arts and Humanities Data Service then described their broker implementation which will provide integrated discovery, delivery and use, for five diverse services. The ‘gateway’ service is based on the use of Dublin Core (for mapping local attributes to a common set) and Z39.50; even so, some unexpected search results can be returned, due to differing practices. Delegates were privileged to see one of the first demonstrations of the working service.

Mike Stapleton of System Simulation provided a view of architecture developments in the museums world, where ownership of resources can be problematic. Similarly to other domains, common semantics are an issue. A number of the required technical building blocks are now in place (eg database repositories, gateways, brokers, protocols), but sound project management is recognised as a key enabler in networking cultural heritage services.

Finally David Kay of Fretwell-Downing Informatics looked at their experiences of implementing a general architecture in multiple domains. The most important lesson learnt is that metadata is king! The idea of ‘repurposing’ information to serve different needs was introduced. There is an overall ‘big picture’ that needs to be addressed, but while a number of programmes and bodies are taking this forward (e.g. eLib Phase 3, WC3, IMS) individual services must ‘think global, act local’, since the issues are too broad for any single group to resolve.

Session 2, Information landscapes: the accommodation of knowledge, was chaired by Bruce Royan of SCRAN. Peter Lyman of the University of California Berkeley pointed out that landscapes may devolve into wildernesses, and vice versa. The distinguishing feature of a landscape, is its sense of place; the challenge is to create this in libraries, by harnessing both technical and social architectures. We should abandon the concept of user, in favour of learner; the focus should be on fostering ‘communities of learners’, since the creation of knowledge happens within groups, and not via individuals.

Hilary Hammond from Norfolk County Council discussed regional and cross-sectoral cooperation, in the context of non-traditional entry to HE, and the resulting increased demand for learning resources. Partnership is seen as vital for building the required information landscape and involves public, HE and FE libraries, as well as archives and other information repositories.

Ray Lester of the Natural History Museum looked at the question of who is in command. A variety of network architectures exist, since there is no-one directing strategic development, either within communities, or amongst funders. It was argued that ‘leaving well alone’ is not advisable – the panoply of access and management issues will not solve themselves: a commander is needed.

The final landscapes paper was presented by Cris Woolston of the University of Hull, using film clips to illustrate the challenges to be addressed in creating learning environments. He maintained that if emerging networked ‘places’ are to support rich learning experiences, then they must be designed, organised and managed in ways that make users comfortable. HE currently only addresses reflective learning styles and not active.

Session 3, Information and the public sphere: an informed citizen, chaired by Chris Batt, the Director of Leisure Services for Croydon, moved the debate into the public library sector.

In his paper Floods won’t build bridges: rich networks, poor citizens and the role of public libraries, Andrew Blau, from the Benton Foundation in the US, argued that in a richly networked society the existing ordered information world will become re-chaosised resulting in a changing public sphere. The traditional stable relationships between information providers and users will be undermined and new forms of social organisation will necessarily emerge.

In, Up hill and down dale: citizens, government and the public library, John Dolan, Birmingham Central Library suggested that new technology could assist in democratic renewal by making government more accessible and recognised the potential for public libraries to shape the communities they serve.

Having described the present distributed system of the national archive, Sarah Tyacke of the Public Record Office, in her paper Everybody’s Archives? went on to describe how the PRO are taking advantage of technical and organisational developments to repurpose their service to meet future anticipated needs of both their present users and potential users.

In Joined-up thinking: strategic partnerships for lifelong learning, Andrew McDonald, University of Sunderland, provided a practical happening example of the successful cross sector partnerships between the University, City College and public library in Sunderland ‘a learning city’. That this project was a success despite having to overcome many difficulties relied to a great extent on the attitudes of those involved. They learnt to think ‘learner’ not library, an attitude of ‘just do it’ and ‘don’t look and wait for perfection’, prevailed.

Bob Fryer, the Northern College and Chair of the Government’s National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Life long Learning, presented the range of challenges that we face if we are truly to enter the learning age in Creating the learning age: challenges and opportunities. He urged us to regard learning as truly lifelong, and not neglect the pre-16 or post-55 population or those that are not in paid employment but contribute to society by working, for example, in the community or voluntary sector or as carers. He challenged us to produce reality not rhetoric.

The final session of the conference started with an exploration of the current issues that need to be addressed to ensure that library staff are trained to meet these new challenges. The session was chaired by Monika Segbert, The British Council and DG XIII European Commission, and included papers by Lars Børnshauge, Technical Knowledge Centre of Denmark, Biddy Fisher, Sheffield Hallam University and Grace Kempster, Essex County Council. Libraries will need to reassess both the roles of their staff and the way in which they provide their services. There will need to be a greater emphasis on taking learning out to the user and ensuring that staff are prepared to meet the needs of lifelong learners. Public libraries, it was suggested, will soon become the institution of choice for the general public for access to learning and education.

The final session of the conference was chaired by Richard Heseltine and looked to the future of libraries in this area. David Bearman, Archives and Museum Informatics explored some of the issues involved with developing one-stop access to cultural resources currently held in institutions with different collection, provision and cataloguing traditions. By developing an electronic common ground that could negotiate these differences it would allow our fractured cultural memory to be electronically unified. The following paper by Frank Webster, Professor of Sociology at Oxford Brookes University was somewhat controversial. He debunked the notion that the development of the ‘New Library’ would lead to a more democratic society. He pointed to the lessons to be learnt from the early days of television and radio when they too were expected to lead to a more democratic society through public access to greater information. He called for public librarians to assess the information value of the Internet carefully and wondered whether a more useful information source was not simply government institutions.

Clifford Lynch of the Coalition for Networked Information presented the closing keynote address which looked at libraries as mediators in the digital culture. He argued that ecologies, rather than landscapes, are more characteristic of the information world; a rich ecology or landscape is populated not just with resources, but also with business interests. Strong expectations about information include the ability to ‘repurpose’ it and use without being tracked. He suggested that there could be a higher degree of referral in future between libraries and commercial services such as bookshops – e.g. if a user discovered an item of interest in a catalogue, they could be offered the opportunity to purchase it from an online bookshop (with some remuneration for the library as a result). Services could be converged in novel ways, taking advantage of synergies.

A civic reception was held at the Roman Baths on the second evening, followed by the conference dinner at the Guildhall - a very enjoyable evening, despite certain parallel World Cup events…

Author Details

Rosemary Russell
MODELS Project Manager, UKOLN
Email: r.russell@ukoln.ac.uk
Sarah Ormes
Public Libraries Officer,UKOLN
Email: lisslo@ukoln.ac.uk
Tel: 01225 826711
Sally Criddle
Resource Co-ordinator, UKOLN
Email: s.criddle@ukoln.ac.uk