Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Bringing Coherence to Networked Information for the New Century

Gillian Austen reports on the JISC-CNI conference at Stratford, UK, 14-16 June 2000.

The conference was opened by Professor Maxwell Irvine, Chair of the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), who extended a familiar transport metaphor to talk of the route maps and driving instructors needed to ensure the effective use of the information superhighway, observing that the JISC's DNER (Distributed National Electronic Resource) can be seen as the "overall integrated transport policy". He went on to highlight the international collaboration and partnerships which will be needed to bring true coherence to networked information. He was followed by Mike Lesk of the National Science Foundation (NSF), who emphasised the importance of international digital libraries, especially now that statistics show that there are about 20 web searches made for each visit to a library.

The JISC/CNI conference followed a two-day meeting of the US Digital Libraries Initiative 2, within which six DLI2 projects jointly funded by the JISC and the NSF. The NSF has similar calls for tender out in Asia, Germany and with the European Union, with plans for others such as Japan and France. Concluding the opening session, Reg Carr, Bodley's Librarian and Chair of the JISC Committee for Electronic Information, focused on the UK HE international agenda. Acknowledging the economic pressure to sell UK HE in the global marketplace, he described the types of international JISC activity as: promoting UK know-how; making common cause; formal programmes and alliances; developing standards and interoperability; and buying in content for the DNER.

The opening session was followed by a range of informative presentations over the subsequent two days. Highlights included Ken Klingenstein, Project Director of the Internet2 Middleware Initiative, who spoke on "Middleware and Advanced Technologies". In a lively talk which, as promised, relied heavily on well-chosen cliches, he talked of the basic amorality of technology and the need for us as humans to question it. In particular, he asserted that the passive protection of privacy we currently consider adequate is failing and that there is a need to be more active in that area. Citing a recent article in the Boston Globe, he pointed out that it was possible to identify individuals by taking publicly available datasets and throwing them against "sanitised" (ie purportedly anonymous) medical records. As some of these individuals are in public office, the rethinking of privacy policies is now likely to be a matter of some urgency.

Further highlights were the presentation by Kevin Guthrie of JSTOR, the electronic journal storage project, who described the challenge of meeting the need for both preservation and access over time. To date, JSTOR provides access to more than 831,000 articles under 117 titles in 15 disciplines, totalling 5 million pages. Six hundred of the 748 participating libraries are in the US, making it a very successful exemplar for international collaboration. Another interesting presentation was given by Lynn Norris of ingenta, who described EASY, the new pilot for interlibrary loans which is due to go online in September. The draft EASY licence is similar to the current understanding of "Fair Use", being based on the JISC/Publishers' Association licence (as is NESLI, the National Electronic Site Licence Initiative), but with the ability to retain an electronic copy. Copyright was a recurrent theme, and Professor Charles Oppenheim described the new draft EU Directive on Copyright, which had reached a "common position" (the most important stage in a directive's progress) only a few days before the conference. This directive has been controversial, since its original wording would have created a situation where licence agreements would have become the norm in a quite crippling way and so it has generated much lobbying on both sides. The draft, which is likely to be approved in the European Parliament in the autumn or winter, includes a brand new law which makes it a criminal offence to bypass or eliminate technical measures (ECMS) or copyright management information, which is sure to be good news for electronic archivists and rightsholders alike, without restricting the rights or practice of legitimate users.

A plenary session concluding the second day brought together all the delegates to hear an address by the incoming Chief Executive of the British Library. Lynne Brindley, whose appointment has been warmly welcomed across the electronic library community in the UK, talked of the context in which the British Library will operate: of the importance of collaboration and international developments and especially of coherence in its strategies for digitisation and related initiatives. The main themes emerging in her early considerations are developing an "e-strategy", supporting the changing role of curators, widening public access, increasing collaboration and partnership and the British Library 's potential contribution to the DNER.

At the core of the British Library's mission is legal deposit, and Lynne Brindley outlined her concern for developing a framework for this, as well as practical solutions, as a part of the British Library's "e-strategy". Observing the need for legislative time in Parliament to deal with some of the issues around legal deposit in the electronic age, Lynne Brindley was nonetheless able to outline an inspiring vision for the British Library. The issue of procuring a digital infrastructure is a vital first step, and the successful tender for this will be announced shortly.

In relation to digital preservation and an overall digital strategy, new collaborations with scholars and teachers will be a necessary part of renewed efforts to repurpose content on an international scale. She observed that such an expansion of its role would not in any way compromise its standards, but would help to make the British Library a "library for all UK citizens."

Lynne Brindley paid tribute to the Research Libraries Group in raising awareness and helping to redefine the role of curators. They have an important contribution to make to the "e-strategy" and to supporting widening access, but also to international scholarship and research partnerships. She particularly noted the ECAI (Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative), which uses geographical systems as a major form of the display of information. In its third year, the ECAI is now a global collaboration on visualisation producing very rich content. Another new partnership is FATHOM, providing access to e-course content and similar materials. In its very early stages, FATHOM is working on a range of business models and could be an early model for an e-university.

The British Library's digital strategy will provide high quality content as part of its potential contribution to the DNER and Lynne Brindley was able to announce an important step forward in relation to this. From September, all UK HE and FE institutions will have free access to the British Library's Electronic Table of Contents (ETOC) database, which lists the titles of almost 15 million journal articles and conference papers. From today, UK students and staff are able to use its inside alerting service free of charge, using the web or Z39.50. Funded by the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), the ETOC database will be made available through MIMAS at Manchester University. The ETOC database complements the British Library's Online Public Access Catalogue OPAC, which is also available on the web free of charge.

On the final day Lorcan Dempsey the new Programme Director of the DNER, gave a glimpse of the overall shape of this major initiative. The DNER is both a managed collection of resources, in order to ensure its relevance, and an integrated environment for service delivery, to ensure what he called "systemic coherence". The DNER "collections" are informed by the JISC Collections Policy, which is in process of being revised, to ensure its relevance to FE and the National Learning Network. Lorcan acknowledged the challenge facing the DNER: it is a difficult task, especially winning over hearts and minds to new ways of doing things, but the DNER promises to be the "real service environment" that UK HE and FE and the research community require.

The conference closed with an informal talk by Clifford Lynch, Executive Director of the CNI. He noted the differences in the JISC and CNI agendas since the last combined meeting in 1997 and spoke of new themes, paralleled in the UK and the US: the new focus on coherence, following rapid and experimental growth; of the importance of international links; of the strong reconnection of networked information to teaching and learning; and of archiving, which is now a large area for international effort. Specific challenges will include the move from research into practice ("if everything works, we're doing bad research!") and the need to assess and understand the impact of the new environment. One of several interesting observations was the prevalent focus on arts and humanities, which prompted the thought that science might be going its own way, independent of librarians and information scientists. In an age of interdisciplinary science, extending to combinations of science and social science, this is striking. Finally, he applauded the success of the conference, highlighting the importance and benefits of the dialogue it promoted throughout the week.

Author Details

 Gillian Austen

Email: gausten@impresa.u-net.com
Web site: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/