For two weeks, from 4 - 16 August 1996 at Tilburg University in The Netherlands, a group of 60 librarians and information specialists from around the world was introduced to the strategic and practical issues relating to digital library developments. Participants came from as far afield as Japan and Costa Rica, but mostly from Western Europe, with a significant representation from the Netherlands itself. I was the only UK delegate, however three of the lecturers were from the UK including one from Ireland.
The computing and library services of Tilburg University have set an international example in electronic library development since the late eighties. Building on that experience, a consultancy bureau, Ticer, has been established. Ticer had organized various smaller events, but this was its first International Summer School on the Digital Library. A similar event has been organized in the US by The Institute on Digital Library Development at the University of California, Berkeley.
I attended the Summer School specifically to gain insight into electronic library development and to benefit from the practical experiences of others. It was hoped that this knowledge would be of direct relevance and could be used to inform the further development of the electronic library strategy in my home institution, the Open University Library. The Open University has a well established international position in the delivery of distant education, and increasingly does so with the aid of information technology. For many OU courses the use of e-mail, conferencing software and the WWW is common practice. Within this context and with an eye on the increasing availability of electronic information, the Library's remit has been extended to develop a strategy for supporting students through networked access to information. As a result a student services project has started, an IT Development Group has been established, the Library is involved in two e-Lib research projects, and the development of the electronic library is a key feature of the Library's overall strategy. In view of these developments, the opportunity offered by the Ticer Summer School to broaden our knowledge in this interesting field was very welcome.
The program in the first week concentrated on strategic issues relating to the development of electronic libraries. The second week focused on technical issues and offered the opportunity to acquire practical skills through hands-on sessions. During the first week general introductions were given to the information society, the future of libraries, and the theory of strategic planning and innovation. Additionally a number of case studies were discussed. In this report I will concentrate on elements of the first week's program. However, a wide range of topics were on the agenda. Please refer to the Ticer Summer School web site for more details.
The week started with an overview of the history of the communication of information. It was argued that this process has known several revolutions. Overcoming the boundaries of time and location, has been very important. Most recently, however, another revolution has taken place which might have an even greater impact: the content and the carrier of information have become separated. Electronic information can be used and re-used without having to use a different carrier. Different types of electronic information: text, sound, still image, moving image can be integrated, presented etc. while the carrier is of no relevance. The conclusion offered to us was that the added value of electronic information lies precisely in this separation of content and carrier, and that this has to be exploited for the information society to become reality.
The first week ended with an insight into the future of Libraries in the information society. The presentation was based on a report produced for the European Commission DGXIII, which has recently become available (Mackenzie Owen, S.J. and Wiercx, A. Knowledge models for networked library services. Luxembourg, European Commission DGXIII, 1996.) In the presentation it was argued that the driving force in the electronic age is "the move towards the digital distribution of information through the global network infrastructure". This has four characteristics:
In this future library "knowledge mediation" will be extremely important, and it is in this intermediary role that the added value of libraries will be found.
A large part of the remainder of the week was spent on the presentation of four case studies, preceded by general introductions to strategic planning and innovation. This was a new and alien subject for most of the delegates and the topics provoked a fair amount of discussion. The general message though became very clear. A strategic planning process is all about making (difficult) choices about what to do, how to do it and how to allocate resources. The combination of the presentation of the theory and its practical application highlighted in case studies proved extremely informative and instructive; rather abstract concepts and ideas became much clearer.
In the four development examples, common elements can be distinguished. Firstly, there were strong economical and political incentives behind all of them. Secondly, in the case of Tilburg especially, the early developments were very much technology driven, rather than user-oriented. Thirdly, support from University management throughout the projects was considered to be very important.
In all cases there were strong links between the academic computing department and the library. This was regarded as an essential factor. In the case of Michigan, the local library school was heavily involved. It was also considered to be of importance to have strategic alliances with other universities and major commercial players. Finally, in all cases the developments very much depended on the continuing availability of external resources through national and/or international R&D programs.
One of many other highlights of the conference was the presentation by the University of Michigan. The most recent projects there centre around the "trendy" concept of knowledge mediation. As was argued, electronic information has become increasingly available. However the sheer amount and the unstructured nature of this information makes the availability of adequate retrieval tools a high priority.
The University of Michigan Library is undertaking one of the six digital library projects within the Digital Library Initiative funded by NSF/ARPA/NASA. The project presented, focused on the development of an agent architecture for the digital library, which aimed at enabling diverse users to access a diversity of electronic collections, which in turn have a diversity of tools and support services. A range of agents has been developed to perform several retrieval tasks arising from a user query. The agents operate as intermediaries between users and collections/services.
Knowledge mediation has also become an central issue in the further development of the electronic library at Tilburg University. It is seen as an additional element of a range of user support services. IWI ("Innovation of Scientific Information", an initiative funded by the Dutch government) has recently granted funding to a project concerned with the heterogeneous searching of various databases. This project will develop a user interface through which databases will be selected, queries formulated and results presented. Additionally it will develop a module to search databases simultaneously, and will develop interoperability between locally maintained databases and the national catalogue. In a later phase semantic structures will also be implemented including thesauri, synonym lists, topic trees and information about the characteristics of collections.
Another thought provoking part of the program centred on access to electronic resources. It was interesting to see that various commercial organisations claimed an intermediary role for themselves describing their services as "warehouses", "gateways" and "clearinghouses".
Swets announced its electronic full text service called Swetsnet which, together with its established current awareness and document delivery services, will provide a single source for ordering and accessing subscription based full text e-jounals. A representative of Elsevier announced an initiative called ScienceDirect, which will operate as a gateway to Elseviers e-journals and also possibly host journals from other publishers.
PICA, the Dutch library co-operative has recently launched its WebDOC project giving access to electronic documents through the WWW. Central to this is the Webcat, a distributed catalogue of electronic documents maintained by participating libraries. Some publishers have already joined the project and others are expected to follow. A similar project will soon be launched by the RLG in the USA.
(A report on the future of subscription agents is due to be published this year: David Brown, Report on the future of Subscription agents and other intermediaries. UK Serials Group and JISC ,1996).
The Ticer Summer School web site gives access to the text of the papers, information about delegates and lecturers and the results of the evaluation. The papers will also be published by Tilburg University Press in due course. The Summer School will be organized again next year, but probably on a somewhat smaller scale.
The Ticer team deserves praise for its excellent achievement, however I do have some criticism to offer. User needs were somewhat neglected as an issue (2 out of 40 lectures) and it was generally felt amongst participants that this should be a more central theme next year. There was not sufficient time allocated for delegates to present and discuss their own cases and, especially in the second week, the focus was very much on Tilburg University. However, a visit to the second International Summer School on the Digital Library in 1997 can be highly recommended.