Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tales of the Unexpected: an alternative history of the computing industry

Bill Thompson and I will be doing a joint gig tomorrow at the Science Museum in London.  All welcome.

The big bad package

Another opinion piece on how technology has changed libraries, this time focusing on the shift to licensed content and its perceived effect on services:

"Libraries are early and enthusiastic adopters of digital innovations. But these innovations bring the values of the marketplace with them. Through innocuous incremental stages, academic libraries have reached a point where they are now guided largely by the mores of commerce, not academe.

Commercialization has impinged on two core facets of university libraries—their collections and their user services. The ownership and provision of research materials, especially academic journals, has been increasingly outsourced to for-profit companies. Library patrons, moreover, are increasingly regarded simply as consumers, transforming user services into customer service. Both developments have distanced libraries from their academic missions."

This fairly damning article comes from Daniel Goldstein, a subject Librarian at UCD writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education. He writes at length about how big package ejournal licensing has eroded the value of traditional library services, removing the specialist librarian as a vital part of academic life and simplifying the services libraries offer:

"By outsourcing ownership to mega-vendors, libraries have introduced the commercial interests of the journal providers into what had been an internal academic transaction between a library and its patrons. Purveyors of e-journals provide access to their titles on sites that are designed to bolster brand recognition and encourage repeat visits. This practice is good for business but not for scholarship. It is common to hear library patrons say that they found information on "Informaworld" (the platform of publisher Taylor and Francis) or "ScienceDirect" (Elsevier's platform) and not to know the name of the journal in which the article was published. Students especially have become purveyor-dependent, when they should be familiarizing themselves with the best literature, in the best journals, regardless of who sells it."
My first thought on this is, does it matter, as long as they get the content they need? But it does. The journal in which an article is published should indicate the authority of the piece based upon the journals' editorial credibility. To some extent, journal vendors are possibly unwittingly eroding the value of peer review. He also warns against the same problem occurring with ebooks:
"It is time, now, to articulate a plan for e-books that better serves the needs of the academic community. University libraries should opt out of the e-book market until it conforms itself to the values, needs, and wallets of academe."
Pretty radical stuff. Its worth taking the time to digest and read. I've often felt that ejournal vendors have forced us to arrange the digital library by publisher, rather than by subject or author. Goldstein also warns against the 'good enough' data that Librarians increasingly fall back on when dealing with digital material. This is also a strong argument, although one I don't always buy. After all, access to full text will surpass even the most well constructed metadata. That said, getting accurate metadata to run a library link resolver remains a real challenge.

There is an interesting response in Library Journal, focusing on open access as an alternative and the problems faced in both getting material available and readers aware of its existence.

Its strikes me that open access for pre-prints, at least in its current institution-centric form does not have all the answers. As Goldstein notes, scholarly publishing is still a legitimate commercial concern, and peer review is a costly process, I can't personally see how open access publishing on an institutional basis could solve the big package problem. Institutional repositories themselves certainly have other vital roles to play, notably that of digital preservation.

A new business model for licensed content may help, moving away from the big deal packages. A colleague who deals far more with this kind of thing recently suggested an interesting alternative to me, which I have since given some thought to:

Social academic platforms such as Menderley are transforming the way academics share citations, and also full text articles, (be it possibly illegally in some cases). Why not simply plug article purchasing from vendors directly into there, but marry that up with shared institutional funds? Academics could purchase articles directly from Menderley, Pubget, Scopus, Web of Knowledge or a library discovery service such as Summon using pools of institutional funds, some or all of which was previously spend on packages.

Once an article has been purchased using shared funds, the full text is then made available to everyone from their institution, either via the vendors' website and/or stored locally on an institutional licensed content server, similar to the LOCKSS and Portico initiatives.

Placing article level selection in the hands of the user is a great idea, allowing collections to grow and diversify according to the academic needs of an institution. The negative issues around big deal purchasing and vendor-exclusive deals could be partly sidestepped. Certain core titles for all disciplines could still be automatically purchased for all by the institution (Nature), and any titles already purchased in perpetuity (such as an archives package) could be added.

We could see two or three purchasing models in operation, rather than just one.

In this 'shared itunes for papers' model, what role is there for the librarian, now selection has been devolved? The above scenario would still need administering financially, with access management and article availability issues to be taken care of, as well as any local storage of content. Its not really so different to the current work of our library's' ejournals team, all that's changed is the selection model.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Libraries without librarians?

The Wall Street Journal has produced a somewhat bleak article focusing on the news that to cut operational costs, U.S. public library services are turning to automated mechanisms, sometimes over staff.

Faced with layoffs and budget cuts, or simply looking for ways to expand their reach, libraries around the country are replacing traditional, full-service institutions with devices and approaches that may be redefining what it means to have a library.

Later this year Mesa, Ariz., plans to open a new "express" library in a strip-mall, open three days a week, with outdoor kiosks to dispense books and DVDs at all hours of the day. Palm Harbor, Fla., meanwhile, has offset the impact of reduced hours by installing glass-front vending machines that dispense DVDs and popular books.

The wave of innovation is aided by companies that have created new machines designed to help libraries save on labor. For instance, Evanced Solutions, an Indianapolis company that makes library software, this month is starting test trials of a new vending machine it plans to start selling early next year.

"It's real, and the book lockers are great," said Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association. "Many of us are having to reduce hours as government budgets get cut, and this enables people to get to us after hours."

Whilst it will be a while before a walking robot can successfully guide a reader around the labyrinthine complexities of South Front 3 within the UL, it is interesting to note that this is seen by some as a negative or retrograde step.

"The basis of the vending machine is to reduce the library to a public-book locker," Mr. Lund said in an interview. "Our real mission is public education and public education can't be done from a vending machine. It takes educators, it takes people, it takes interaction."

I don't personally read it that way. Many libraries in Cambridge and the world over already use self-circulation machines to cut costs and make life easier for the reader.

The article seems to be placing a negative cutback-centric spin on a larger growing trend for automating basic library services.

Academic libraries have been doing this kind of thing for years. A self-issue terminal that works with RFI tags in books is arguably a much nicer experience than a 10 minute queue ending in a grumpy Librarian. Ditto with being able to get requested books from an external locker any time you like.

Freeing up staff time for more productive action or interaction (of the reader-educational type perhaps?) other than scanning a barcode and stamping a book is never a bad thing.

From my perspective as an evening Duty Officer within the UL, it would be really nice to be able to have some way to cater for those readers who insist on turning up five minutes before closing with a really complex query. These lockers would not work, so where is the robot that could possibly help here?

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Data mash-ups and the future of mapping

Interesting JISC report published last month.  The Summary says (in part):

"This TechWatch report describes the context for the changes that are taking place and explains why the education community needs to understand the issues around how to open up data, how to create mash-ups that do not compromise accuracy and quality and how to deal with issues such as privacy and working with commercial and non-profit third parties. It also shows how data mash-ups in education and research are part of an emerging, richer information environment with greater integration of mobile applications, sensor platforms,e-science, mixed reality, and semantic, machine-computable data and speculates on how this is likely to develop in the future."

Full report (in optimised pdf format) from here.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Arcadia Lecturer honoured by Electronic Freedom Foundation

James Boyle, who was the first Arcadia Lecturer, has been given a Pioneer Award by the EFF.  The awards were established in 1992 to "recognize leaders on the electronic frontier who are extending freedom and innovation in the realm of information technology".  The award will be presented at a ceremony in San Francisco on November 8 hosted by Cory Doctorow, who you may remember, gave an Arcadia Seminar in 2009.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Introduction ...

I'm Ed Chamberlain, the first fellow for Michaelmas 2010. Whilst I've posted on this blog quite frequently, this is my time doing so as an actual fellow! I've spent the first two weeks of my fellowship investigating digitisation-on-demand services at the University Library, with a view to scoping a potential future service.

The aim would be to offer readers digital delivery of print only material, on demand through the library catalogue.

The project may sound a bit woolly at first, after all libraries have been doing digitisation en-mass for mainstream material and rare stuff for some time, but a reader-driven approach covers a number of areas that have an impact on the future of libraries.

By no means the smallest is that of copyright. In looking for automated solutions to copyright assessment I'm currently taking a look at the wonderful copyright calculator API developed by the Open Knowledge foundation. I'll also be looking to highlight some of the problems that copyright legislation raises for libraries wanting to innovate with new digital services.

Later on I'll be looking and quick wins in non-destructive digitisation of bound material and print-on-demand, hoping to learn from the experiences of those already deploying these services.

Whats interesting for myself, as a Systems Librarian, is that there are no major technical challenges here, its arguably as much about changes in work flow and culture as anything. At the heart of it all is the concept of placing choice over the material digitised firmly in the hands of the reader, rather than a Librarian.

More info about my project can be found on the Arcadia project site, as well as a bit of bio blurb.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Project Highlights for the coming academic year

An outline of what's in the pipeline.


We will have eight Fellows over the course of the year. The first, Ed Chamberlain, is already beavering away on "Digitisation-on-Demand in academic research libraries". We will have two Fellows working on a radical re-engineering of the info-skills curriculum to make it fit for purpose in a networked scholarly environment, and two working on using technology to support the work of a busy teaching library. And Isla Kuhn will be working on designing a one-day symposium on health-related information (see below for more information).


We have three interesting speakers booked for the Michaelmas Term.

On November 2 Professor Richard Susskind will talk about "The End of Lawyers?" He is one of the world's leading experts on the impact of information technology on the legal profession and has been an adviser to the Lord Chancellor's Department on IT systems for supporting the administration of justice. Given that librarianship is also an established profession that is being profoundly affected by information technology we thought it would be interesting to hear about his experience with his own profession.

More details at

On November 16 Dr Mark Patterson, Director of Publishing at the Public Library of Science (PLoS) will talk about "Re-engineering the Scholarly Journal". Open Access publishing will be one of the key areas of interest to the academic community in the coming decades and PLoS is a fascinating and successful enterprise in this area. Given that it's on our doorstep, it seemed like a good idea to hear about PLoS's experience so far and their thoughts about the future.

More details at:

On Devember 7 Simon Andrewes will give a talk on the subject of "Changing BBC News: the cultural, managerial and editorial challenges of adapting to a digital environment". Given that adjusting to the needs of a digital environment poses major problems for any established and successful organisation, we were looking for a speaker who could speak from experience. Simon Andrewes was formerly Head of Newsroom development at BBC News and is currently leading a project to deliver and implement a set of online tools to help BBC Journalism collaborate and share more effectively.

More details at:


The Arcadia Lecture: April 2011

The Arcadia Lecture will be given in April 2011 by Tim O'Reilly, the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, and the only publisher who can command the attention of Linux-kernel geeks. Tim has built O'Reilly Media into a leading publisher of computing-related books and a major conference-organising organisation on leading-edge technology issues. He is credited with coining the phrase 'Web 2.0' and is widely recognised as one of the world's most influential commentators on technology issues.

International symposium: health information in a digital world

In 2011 we plan to host a major one-day symposium on how online information and search is impacting on health care. As part of her Arcadia Fellowship, Isla Kuhn, will be working on this. The symposium will focus on most (though perhaps not all: a day may be a long time in politics, but it's just a blink in an academic timescale) of the following areas:

  • Patients

  • Practitioners

  • Researchers

  • Policy-makers

  • Mass media

  • Technology

  • More details will be available as we have them.


    Specification and development of an iPhone/Android App

    We plan to devote some resources to the development of an original, library-related smartphone App. If you're interested in helping imagine and specify an App, please email me (jjn1 at cam).

    The Arcadia Project Book

    We will be crowdsourcing a book based largely -- but not exclusively -- on reports by Arcadia Fellows, using an approach pioneered by the Dan Cohen, last year's Arcadia Lecturer.

    Thursday, 14 October 2010

    Future scenarios for academic librarians

    From Phil Davis, writing on the Scholarly Kitchen blog.

    The report, Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025,” sponsored by ACRL, provides nine likely, high-impact scenarios for the future of higher education and the supporting role of librarians. Understanding that universities and their academic libraries take time to adapt to change, the purpose of this study was to start preparing for the likely — or inevitable — future. These scenarios involve:

    1. A breaking of the textbook monopoly — creating flexible content that allow pieces to be assembled and allow feedback from users.

    2. “I see what you see” — large touch screens that allow for collaborations.

    3. “Write here with me” — automated mobile devices that allow students to collect and reference work.

    4. Bridging the scholar/practitioner divide — open access publishing and open peer review

    5. Stultifying of scholarship — the antithesis of #4 where the current status quo is maintained and strengthened.

    6. Everyone is a non-traditional student — moving beyond the 4-year resident college experience.

    7. Meet the new freshman class — preparing for the digital divide between in-coming tech-savy students and students with need of remedial technological training.

    8. Increasing threat of cybercrime — as campuses lock down their technology, online privacy and intellectual freedom are compromised.

    9. “This class brought to you by . . . ” — disaggregated education provided by corporate sponsors.

    Enola Gay and digital preservation

    Interesting blog post by Danny Bradbury, who made a documentary a few years ago about the cultural history of the nuclear weapons programme. One of the most interesting interviews he had was with Martin Harwit who had been director of the National Air and Space museum in Washington, DC, but was rudely ousted in 1995.

    Harwit had attempted to mount an exhibition showcasing the Enola Gay, which was the B52 airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As part of that exhibition, he tried to ask whether the bombing was justified. His approach called down a rain of fire. He was blasted for historical revisionism by the politically powerful veteran community, and the board had little opportunity but to let him go.

    The spectre of the Enola Gay's public display caused a tussle before Harwit's moral inquiry even began. The exhibition was mounted because 1995 was the 50-year anniversary of the bombing, and veterans were anxious to see the plane exhibited that year.

    Archivists had other ideas. They wanted the job done properly. They knew that in 500 years, when historians examined the aircraft, they might ask an array of arcane, academic questions. For example, what materials were the alloys in specific engine parts comprised of? Investigating minute details such as these and acquiring or rebuilding complex parts for complete veracity takes a great deal of time and effort. They may not have been interesting for veterans who wanted to see their bird fly one last time, but skimping on such tasks for short-term satisfaction puts the whole archival endeavour at risk.

    The more I think about the quandary facing archivists preparing the Enola Gay exhibit, the more I worry about our digital existence. Increasingly, our lives are articulated digitally. We share our experiences with others online, and carry out more of our transactions in binary form. The amount of information that we create is accelerating exponentially. "Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created," said Google CEO Eric Schimdt recently. "We [now] create five exabytes every two days."

    Archiving this stuff is going to be really difficult, in a way that the Enola Gay's archivists couldn't begin to imagine. For one thing, there's the physical media involved. Information may become increasingly stored in the cloud, but it must still be held on physical media, in some data centre somewhere.

    Estimates for the longevity of this physical media vary, but all of them point to instability; eventually, data storage decays. It turns out that tape, which is increasingly becoming an archival medium rather than a backup one, is particularly prone to damage because of the way that robotic tape libraries work. In order to access the information that we store today centuries hence, we'll need media that stands the test of time.

    New Masters course in Knowledge and Networks

    Cathy Davidson at Duke University is designing an intriguing Masters course and has put the outline proposal on the Web for commenting.

    Current topic headings are:

    Attention: What are the new ways that we pay attention in a digital era? How do we need to change our concepts and practices of attention for a new era? How do we learn and practice new forms of attention in a digital age?
    Participation: How do we encourage meaningful interaction and participation? What is its purpose on a cultural, social, or civic level?
    Collaboration: Collaboration can simply reconfirm consensus, acting more as peer pressure than a lever to truly original thinking. HASTAC has cultivated the methodology of “collaboration by difference” to inspire meaningful ways of working together.
    Network awareness: How we both thrive as creative individuals and understand our contribution within a network of others? How do you gain a sense of what that extended network is and what it can do?
    Global Consciousness: How does the World Wide Web change our responsibilities in and to the world we live in?
    Civic Responsibility: How we can be good citizens of the Internet when we are off line, working towards real goals in our communities and using the community practices of sharing, customizing, and contributing online towards responsible civic action off line?
    Design: How is information conveyed differently, effectively, and beautifully in diverse digital forms? How do we understand and practice the elements of good design as part of our communication and interactive practices?
    Narrative, Storytelling: How do narrative elements shape the information we wish to convey, helping it to have force in a world of competing information?
    Procedural Literacy: What are the new tactics and strategies of interactive games, where the multimedia narrative forms changes because of our success or failure?
    Critical consumption of information: Without a filter (editors, experts, and professionals), much information on the Internet can be inaccurate, deceptive, or inadequate. How do we learn to be critical? What are the standards of credibility?
    Digital Divides, Digital Participation: What divisions still remain in digital culture? Who is included and who excluded? How do basic aspects of economics and culture dictate not only who participates in the digital age but how we participate?
    Ethics: What are the new moral imperatives of our interconnected age?
    Advocacy: How do we turn collaborative, procedural thinking on line into activism in the real world?
    Preservation: What are the requirements for preserving the digital world we are creating? Paper lasts. Platforms change.
    Sustainability: What are the metrics for sustainability in a world where we live on more kilowatts than ever before? How do we protect the environment in a plugged-in era?
    Learning, Unlearning, and Relearning: Alvin Toffler has said that, in the rapidly changing world of the twenty-first century, the most important skill anyone can have is the ability to stop in one’s tracks, see what isn’t working, and then find ways to unlearn old patterns and relearn how to learn.

    Thanks to John Connell for the link.

    This is an interesting venture, and it has some useful echoes for us -- especially given that we will have two Arcadia Fellows in the Easter Term working on designing a new curriculum for information skills.