Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Leona Carpenter gives a personal view of the 'Logged into Economics' conference in Barcelona in June.

The Decomate II project produced a working demonstrator system and service providing access to distributed, heterogeneous Economics information sources. The conference was held at the Casa de Convalescència, part of The Hospital Santa Pau, one of Barcelona’s great "Modernista" architectural monuments.

Following a warm welcome from Carme Picallo, Vice-Rector for Research of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), Hans Geleijnse of Tilburg University and Decomate II Project Director, gave the keynote speech. Key challenges for project management resulted from underestimation of complexity (especially in integrating products of distributed development) and the amount of time in person months required, as well as dealing with personnel changes. Key challenges in providing content were the difficulty of getting publishers (outside Elsevier, Kluwer, and Silver Platter) to agree to access arrangements that are discipline-based and international, as opposed to national or institutional licenses covering a range of disciplines. Nevertheless, the project had just come through its final EU review with commendations for excellent technical results, methodology and partnership; and for exceeding expectations. Issues beyond Decomate are:

Geleijnse’s live demonstration of Decomate substantially supported his claim that the project had proved a European Digital Library for Economics is possible.

Xavier Vilà, Professor of Economics at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, provided a user’s view of systems like Decomate, while expressing some concern that such systems might lead to neglect by students of classic library-usage skills. As a typical user, he wanted: speed, easy and nice to use, an "all databases" button, a browsable index of journal titles covered, spell-checking of input search terms, a profile-based option to show which items in the results of a search have already been visited, content to have broader coverage (titles and time-span, teaching resources as well as publications, other disciplines closely related to core subject); an option to search in "article references". It came out in questioning that he did not know about the keyword thesaurus that is included in Decomate, although keywords were an important search strategy for him - an indication that this functionality might not be sufficiently visible to users.

Pedja Pavlicic, who provided the supplier’s view, is Technology Product Manager for SilverPlatter Information LTD, and responsible for SilverPlatter’s contribution to Decomate project. He revealed that in exchange for content, technology and expertise, SilverPlatter had gained market and standards research, input to current in-company product design and development, and market visibility. He was particularly impressed by the authentication module, which he described as "very good, one of the best in library software". Long-term implications he drew were that companies need to back off from brand recognition as a marketing strategy when you don’t control the user interface and concentrate on data provision and new value-add in areas such as metadata (other than table-of-contents information, which is likely to be provided free), linking, and quality control.

The morning session concluded with a lively open discussion, which kept bringing up practical issues which were more fully addressed in the afternoon sessions on software architecture and modules. After lunch, Thomas Place, Deputy Librarian at Tilburg University Library and Decomate II Project Manger, explained the technical architecture, which is based on a client-broker-server model. The client is a browser-based application. The broker is modular, consisting of an XML template resolver that handles communication among other modules, an authentication broker, current awareness robot and server, multi-protocol server (for FTP, Z39.50. Pica3, HTTP), document requester, and action logger. Of particular interest is that the broker is distributed; that is, it is implemented in a localised form for each consortium member, providing access to core services and databases at every member site, and to other services and databases locally according to local subscriptions. John Paschaud, Information Systems Engineer at the LSE Library spoke about the authentication broker module, which has already been reused in other projects and services, and looks very promising. It takes advantage of pre-existing authentication and directory services maintained by the consortium members, for example network login tables, thus avoiding the need for a dedicated registration service solely to support Decomate.

Ferran Jorba of UAB described the Current Awareness Service (CAS) module. CAS notifies users of additions to databases which match an interest profile defined by the user. Profile definition is also provided by this module, is based on searches carried out by the user, and gives the user control over aspects of the service including frequency of notification. Jeroen Hoppenbrouwers of Infolab at Tilburg University demonstrated the four elements of the Decomate Result Optimizer: result set merging, de-duplication, ranking and document tracing. Interestingly, de-duplication preserves the discrete records, but groups them together for display purposes. Ranking consists of two approaches, a standard alphabetical-lexicographical ordering algorithm applied to author title or date fields, and experiments with a "Concept Browser" using a thesaurus and user relevance feedback. Document Tracing looks for full-text sources of a document in databases other than the one(s) chosen for searching, when the search turns up a record of an item but not a full-text source. The Decomate II modules are likely to be "open sourced" soon, and show great potential for reuse and further development.

The second day of the conference covered user studies, a general paper on international collaboration, and envisioning possible futures. Fraser Nicolaides of LSE Library introduced the Decomate User studies, with a concentration on methodology as results were not yet fully collated. Nevertheless, he was able to demonstrate how the partial results were already being applied to improvements in the design of the user interface. Thomas Krichel, an economist at University of Surrey, talked about what could be deduced from the usage logs of an economics digital library which he started I April 1993 from a gopher server at Manchester Computing Centre. He argued that it is more important than most digital library projects have thought to consider the needs of contributors as well as users, while conceding that in concentrating on content and contributors a confusing (as well as rich) multiplicity of user services had grown up around his document collections. His log data suggested that speed of search was more important to users than sophistication of search facilities provided. Nathalie Bailhache used the Italian experience to explore the issues of "Working together internationally". A crucial point was that without a funded central budget, any international consortium is faced with severe difficulties and limitations.

Jean Sykes outlines a vision for the future of Decomate

Jean Sykes, Librarian and Director of Information Services at LSE, brought the conference to a close by outlining the Decomate consortium’s vision for the future. Alternative future scenarios to carry forward development of software and services include continuing with the current consortium, finding a commercial partner, or one or more non-commercial partners. Current partners need to commit to maintaining the software modules they have developed, and to continue to promote Decomate II to their own users. They may also use the software to support services for their own users in other subject areas, as Tilburg and AUB are already doing. To turn Decomate into a truly European Digital Library for Economics, the consortium should try to extend to cover at least one major Economics library from each of the European countries, with Kiel in Germany and Paris 1 named as desirable examples. This would add valuable OPACs and any free services to the core Decomate content, as well as bringing on board the expertise of their staff to contribute to the development of future content. More funding will probably be required for this expansion, and the consortium may apply for this under EU Accompanying Measures funding.

Overall, this conference provided much of interest, and not only for those in the field of economics. The lessons learned and the software modules developed have potential for application in other disciplines and other digital library developments.

Further information

The Decomate II project web site is at: http://www.bib.uab.es/decomate2

Conference documentation is at: http://www.bib.uab.es/project/eng/decopape.htm

The project partners are: Tilburg University Library (coordinator), London School of Economics (LSE) Library, and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) Library Service. European University Institute Library, and SilverPlatter Information participated as associated partners to the coordinator. Bibliothèque de l’Université Libre de Bruxelles, Bibliothèque électronique économique, Maastricht University Library, and Erasmus University Rotterdam Library participated as test sites.

The project was partially funded by the European Commission DG XIII Telematics for Libraries programme, and sponsored by Elsevier Science, Kluwer Academic Publishers and Swets & Zeitlinger.

Author Details

Leona Carpenter
Research Officer
University of Bath

Email: l.carpenter@ukoln.ac.uk
Web site: www.ukoln.ac.uk