Hurrah! Users enter the Metaverse.......in their anoraks?
The third Electronic Library and Visual Information Research (ELVIRA) conference opened on 30th April. The conference was truly international with delegates and speakers from Japan, Australia and throughout Europe. The conference was as usual very well organised and in extremely comfortable surroundings.
ELVIRA is held in Milton Keynes and as De Montfort University is one of the leading UK electronic library research Universities (they have just established the Institute of Electronic Library Research) the venue is wholly appropriate.
I have attended all three ELVIRA conferences and looking back, I think there have been changes both in terms of the papers given and the knowledge of the delegates. I was conscious that in the first year there were a few "experts" giving papers and attending as delegates. The rest of us were left feeling inspired but conscious that much reading was required to catch up. I have not attempted to report back on all the papers. The abstracts are now available in electronic format at URL: http://ford.mk.dmu.ac.uk/elvira/fullprog.html.
In the first year the concept of electronic library research and theory seemed very new and without cohesion. Two years on there is a greater wealth of knowledge amongst the delegates, many of whom are running their own research or development programme into electronic library provision. This growth in the understanding of electronic library research ensured a lively and interesting conference overall and a greater sense of electronic library theory. I feel that the "sea change" in the UK is in part due to the JISC funded Electronic Libraries Programme which has managed to get participation from almost all HEIs in some way and to European programmes such as Telematics. Interestingly it also matches the theory posed by Hans Geleijnse that people (staff and users of the library) take about three years to fully absorb new technologies and electronic services.
The eLib movement was well represented at the conference with papers from MIDRIB, IMPEL2 and the Open Journals project, a poster session from SCOPE and representations from ERCOMS, ARIADNE and ResIDe. We also had a very interesting poster session from the DECOMATE project which is funded under the EU Telematics programme. Amongst the delegates there were a number of project managers including myself representing the ResIDe - electronic reserve project.
I was also struck by the speed with which electronic library research is being incorporated into library service provision. Last year at ELVIRA we had papers on the use of Z39.50 and WWW. Practical applications of this are still not common but are used for real in a number of places and the use of the Z39.50 protocol takes a high profile in the eLib projects. Academic Press were talking about providing journals in electronic format and investigating licencing issues, but this has been overtaken by the HEFCE site licence agreement. Similarly the use of electronic reserves has been developed as a theme by the Electronic Libraries programme and is starting to be used in UK libraries to provide access to exam papers or other high demand materials.
There has been a healthy and encouraging shift in emphasis away from pure technology to real benefits for the user. This was represented within strategic, theoretical and practical papers. Hans Geleijnse stressed the importance of bringing the user with you towards your vision of the electronic library. Tilburg University in the Netherlands has introduced innovative facilities based on provision of electronic information and as a result has made huge steps towards the electronic library. Tilburg has been working on this since 1984 and as a result has much experience in the staff and user perspectives on IT innovations. Hans drew upon his twelve years experience to talk about strategic success factors for the electronic library. He highlighted issues which pervaded the entire conference:
Joan Day (University of Northumbria at Newcastle) argued that this approach constitutes a culture shift and that there is a growing conception of the "culture of the users". She picked up the theme of close co-operation between library and computer centre. There has been much talk in the library press recently about convergence between computing centres and libraries. The discussion has centred on the pros and cons of the two "departments" or services becoming a single entity with merged management structures. Joan's excellent paper discussed the changing relationships between computer centres and libraries and she pointed out that convergence doesn't have to be a structural or organisational "merger". It can simply mean a much closer working relationship in order for the needs of the university to be achieved. Joan alerted us to work carried out by Ratcliffe and Hartley which stressed that there is nothing wrong with staying apart and the of information as a linking mechanism is tenous. Any strategic changes towards convergence have to backed up by cultural change.
At some point during the conference the culture of anoraks and cardigans was mooted as relating to computer centre personnel and library staff (apply where appropriate!). This had, I think, come out of comments made by HEI staff during interviews with Joan and the IMPEL2 team. This caused the ELVIRA delegates to eye each other up nervously for wool marks and useful internal hoods.
These strategic thoughts (not I hasten to add, the thoughts on "ready-to-wear" fashion adopted by certain professions) on users and effecting cultural change were reflected in practical papers such as that given by Jane Williams (Bristol University) on the MIDRIB medical images project. MIDRIB plans to enable users to enter their own data to describe images. Similarly the BORGES project "empowers" the user to manage their own information needs by developing information filtering tools which could potentially be used without intermediaries. This system is in place and being piloted by the library with Usenet newsgroups.
Other papers which followed the theme included a theoretical paper given by Jessie Hey of the Multimedia Research Group at University of Southampton. Although the paper compared the advantages of closed and open approaches to provision of information in an electronic library environment, we heard about the Open Journal Framework project which will enable users to annotate and create their own links within documents to gain a personal view of materials.
Jessie talked about the use of Hyper-G and Microcosm which highlight the differences between open and closed systems. Using Microcosm, the group has developed a distributed link service in order to allow users to create their own links to documents. The Open Journals project uses Microcosm-based technology within World Wide Web to integrate electronic journals with other e-journals, on-line databases and teaching resources. Thus, for example, it is possible to create a link from a journal to an electronic dictionary. The links are not embedded into the document - the environment is highly configurable and the user decides how the links work. These links are created locally but can be made available to others.
I think the concensus was that an open environment was desirable but that there is a tension between the open environment and the need to deal with copyright and access issues which could be readily managed within a closed environment. However the idea of being able to offer services which are literally tailored to individuals even if in a large organisation is very appealing.
The theme of empowering users to manage their own information needs is reflected in other current research and development work. Our own eLib project (ResIDe) for example recognises the importance of empowering the user to enter their own materials.
I felt that the Lancaster Ariadne project brought a new and welcome perspective to the difficulty in encouraging users to learn and make use of electronic sources which may have implications for the way in which we teach information skills in a flexible or distance learning environment. The paper presented at ELVIRA highlighted the collaborative aspects of searching and browsing sources. Michael Twidale argued that introducing support for collaboration into information retrieval systems would help users to learn and use existing systems more effectively.
The overriding issue which hampers the progress of so many projects and electronic library development is copyright. This was referred to in many papers. Mel Collier (of De Montfort University) posited a national licencing scheme during one of the poster sessions. This is an alternative to the need for individual libraries to deal with publishers and each develop local payment facilities, which would seem eminently sensible. At the moment, many projects are trying to develop local copyright management systems which provide payment facilities for the end-user - certainly for higher education institutions, the administration entailed would mean makes this an undesirable option.
We had a rather understated talk and demonstration of the digital library system at the Mandela Library of the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, Japan. For non-techie types the network infrastructure was phenomenal - if you want the techie information, Nara has a 1Gbps network backbone for normal network traffic ( ordinary Ethernet networks are 10Mbps) with 800Mbps for multimedia traffic. What are the implications of this? Essentially the library is able to offer digital video over the university network. The library wanted a practical digital library service which used established technology e.g OCR, IP, WWW and NFS. The library has developed a video on- demand system based on MPEG-2 video dataformat. To date the system has 50 x 2 hour video programmes which can be viewed by up to 20 clients simultaneously! Viewing and printing is only accessible by registered users. We had a demonstration of the video transmission at various network bandwidths which at least proved that digital video was a real possibility even at lower bandwidths.
Nigel Ford has attended each ELVIRA conference and always provides an entertaining paper. He presented research which looked at gender differences in Internet perceptions and use. The results from a recent survey seemed to indicate differences in the way women and men perceive and use the Internet. As you might imagine, we had a lively discussion at the end of this paper.
So why "Users enter the metaverse"? - I think we are starting to see the sort of space the user and the library will inhabit in the electronic world or metaverse. It is very encouraging to hear research papers which attempt to provide the user with collaborative rather than isolating electronic environments, as well as an identification of a user culture.
To illustrate, I thought I would finish off this report with a passage from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash which is where the use of "metaverse" (a computer generated universe) first originated (note this is basically an extension of William Gibson's "Cyberspace" concept). Hiro is one of the main characters in the book.
"Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs-Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturised and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now millions of people are walking up and down it. He is not seeing real people of course. This is all part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse"
I wonder how many "cardys" and parka anoraks were in evidence.....
Stephenson, N (1992) Snow Crash. Penguin Books Ltd, London.