Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Editorial Introduction to Issue 29: Key Technologies for the Development of the Digital Library

Philip Hunter with the editorial for Ariadne 29.

As we suggested in issue 28, we have the first detailed information on the new post of Collection Description Focus, in the form of a short article by Pete Johnston and Bridget Robinson. Launched on 1 June 2001, the Focus will provide support both for UK projects actively involved in collection description work and for those investigating or planning such work. The Focus is located within UKOLN, which is based at the University of Bath. The post is jointly funded for a twelve-month period by the Joint Information Systems Committee/Distributed National Electronic Resource (JISC/DNER) , the Research Support Libraries Program (RSLP) and the British Library. The Focus aims to improve co-ordination of work on collection description methods, schemas and tools, with the goal of ensuring consistency and compatibility of approaches across projects, disciplines, institutions and sectors.

The lead article in this issue is by Tracy Gardner, who gives the IBM perspective on 'Web Services'. Those who have been running Web Services for years might be disturbed to find that the phrase now means something else in addition to the running of institutional Web pages. Tracy gives a clear description of what is now meant by this phrase: boiled down to a single sentence it signifies 'self-describing applications which can be discovered and accessed over the web by other applications'. 'Web Services' covers both the architectures and technologies necessary to make the fully tailored and personalised delivery of accurate, up-to-date information efficient, practical and user-friendly.

Related to this, Paul Miller supplies an article titled: 'Architects of the Information Age'. This is a report on an event (a one-day colloquium) held at the office of the e-Envoy in the UK, the Cabinet Office unit responsible for driving forward the UK's e–Government initiatives. As he points out:

Across an increasing number of initiatives and programmes, there is a growing recognition of the need for common 'architectures' within which truly useful applications and services may be constructed. Partly, these architectures form a philosophical basis within which developments may be undertaken. Further, ... such architectures in their broadest sense may include the specification of a common technical basis for working ..., [and] consideration of shared middleware services ..., as well as often detailed technical specifications. It remains important that such architectures not be driven forward solely in a technological context, but that their design, implementation and evolution continually be informed by institutional and user requirements and aspirations.

Paul also writes that:

Many of the problems facing those building the DNER are also faced by the architects of the Government Portals, or of Culture Online, or the National Grid for Learning. There are also similarities with commercial service developments, and the different communities have a great deal to offer one another, and a great deal to learn, assuming we can weaken the barriers of language, working practice and financial model which keep us apart. Interoperability Focus and others already work to actively cross some of these barriers, especially within the relative familiarity of the public sector. There is certainly scope for more to become involved in this work, and for its active extension into the commercial sphere.

One of the technologies which might be used to make educational and research resources visible in the first instance, and which might provide a suitable way to cement the architecture of distributed electronic services is open archives compliant metadata. Ariadne 29 features a report on a meeting held in London in July, 'Developing an agenda for institutional e-print archives'.Catherine Grout, Director of Development at the DNER gave the opening presentation at this one-day event, and outlined the JISC/DNER interest in this area:

The DNER investment over the next few years will be dedicated to building an Information Environment appropriate to the needs of learners, teachers and researchers in UK HE and FE. There is considerable investment which needs to take place in a range of middleware, fusion and portal services to support this development. At the moment we have a number of different services delivering content and presenting them to end users by a variety of different interfaces. Our challenge is to develop the Information Environment in such a way that we considerably advance the coherence with which these services are offered to end users. Our ultimately goal for this development is the seamless searching of rich relevant resources which the DNER vision enshrines. The JISC also has an interest in exploring the use of Open Archives as a key way of disclosing metadata about the resources held by our services, and of particular significance here, by members of the higher and further education community. Some JISC Services, for example RDN and MIMAS, have already been working to look at making their metadata OAI compliant

Judith Clark, in her article on 'Subject Portals', describes part of the DNER development programme (the RDN portal projects). She suggests that, implicit in the description of the Web by Lorcan Dempsey as a 'pervasive social, research and business medium, home to the full reach of intellectual product',

is a complexity driven by a whole range of emerging uses of information resources. User-driven activity ultimately defines what the portal does, but what makes any portal project so unpredictable is that as the content and context are changed, new behaviours are enabled. The RDN portals are primarily concerned with technologies that broker subject-oriented access to resources. Effective cross-searching depends on consistent metadata standards, but these are still under development and although the RDNs collection is governed by sophisticated metadata schemas, this is not the case for many of the other resources targeted by the portals. .... Further portal functionality is being developed using RSS (Rich Site Summary) and OAI (Open Archives Initiative)...

'User-driven activity ultimately defines what the portal does' equals 'the user is king'. Otherwise the technology doesn't make any sense. The technology has to support what the user wants to do; and the standards have to make that possible. And, to make 'the full reach of intellectual product' available to the user, the standards in place have to be interoperable. As Paul Miller says, 'the architectures [must] ...continually be informed by institutional and user requirements and aspirations.'

Ariadne also features an article by Stephen Pinfield on key issues for electronic library services: 'Managing electronic library services: current issues in UK Higher Eductation institutions'. This is a thorough overview, which should be read by everyone with an interest in the subject. Also in this area, we have an article by John Kirriemuir, former Ariadne editor and sometime manager of the OMNI eLib project, who outlines some of the issues for the actual establishment of digital library centres in UK Higher Education institutions.


Lorcan Dempsey at his leaving party, London

Lorcan Dempsey being digitized during a presentation at Strand Bridge House in London

And so much more in this issue! Rather than delay Ariadne any longer, you will have to find the other treasures for yourself. Just time to note Lorcan Dempsey's move to OCLC in Dublin Ohio, where he has become Director of Research. Ariadne and UKOLN wish him well. Ariadne draws the attention of interested readers to the caption competition, which features a photograph taken after the dinner marking his departure from the DNER, in a small side street just off the Strand in London.

Finally, Ariadne notes the departure of UKOLN's events manager, Joy Fraser, to pastures new. Joy is not leaving Bath however, and UKOLNers will still see her at the informal reading club established some time ago. Ariadne never saw Joy in anything resembling a flap (even when her mobile phone looked as though it was about to enter meltdown :-). Always good-humoured, calm and collected, and thoroughly practical. Joy has Ariadne's and UKOLN's best wishes: she will be a tough act to follow.

Joy Fraser at her presentation

Joy Fraser finds that long-lost string of pearls inside her palmtop computer

Thanks again to Shirley Keane (for assistance with the Newsline section), and to Marieke Napier for help with important bits and bobs along the way. Thanks also to those who supplied trip reports from the summer conference season, enabling us to put together a substantial 'At the Event' section for this issue.

Suggestions for articles for issues 30 to 32 are now being considered. Article proposals should be sent to: ariadne@ukoln.ac.uk.

Enjoy the issue.

Philip Hunter
Ariadne Editor