Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 8 — September 2001
Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
IT Report from the Field •
The Joint Conference on Digital Libraries
ACM and IEEE have joined forces to introduce this new event
by Péter Jacsó

Since I always enjoy reading Sue Feldman's insightful reports about digital library conferences in Information Today, I've longed to attend one. I just couldn't decide if I should go to the one organized by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society's Advances in Digital Libraries conference. My dilemma was solved this summer when these two prominent associations joined forces to launch the first ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL 2001), held June 24–28 in Roanoke, Virginia. The conference program was so rich, colorful, and engaging that hardly anyone paid attention (except for a passing glance perhaps) to the Miss Virginia contestants, who convened at the same hotel to prepare for the following week's pageant.

A Rich Menu of Choices
The topic itself has always been very attractive to me. After all, I teach a course on digital librarianship, write a column with the same title for Computers in Libraries, and have created small digital shelves with my students for the past few years. It added to the attraction that Edward A. Fox, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech, was the general chair, and Christine L. Borgman, a professor at UCLA's Department of Information Studies, was the program chair. They created an exceptionally well-rounded conference program, with the obvious purpose of being all-inclusive and still high-quality. The joint nature of JCDL 2001 brought together the best people from both of the previously competing conferences as attendees and speakers. There were more than 420 attendees from 20 countries.

It was a special bonus to see and talk to many people whom I hadn't met before but whose names I knew from conference papers and journal articles. Even better was running into "long time, no see" acquaintances. Such encounters add a personal touch to conferences for me.

It was an excellent idea to schedule short papers (15 minutes), long papers (30 minutes), expert panel sessions, keynote speeches on each day by key industry figures, poster sessions, demonstrations, pre-conference tutorials, and post-conference workshops. The social events in the evening nicely rounded out the daytime programs, and even the substantial breaks provided good opportunities for mingling and chatting with researchers, teaching faculty, and deans of computer and information science schools. And while on the subject, I can't help mentioning that the reasonable $395 conference fee also included a reception, a banquet, and breakfast and lunch every day—far superior to the rubber-chicken dish served at most of the information industry conferences. And after this detour about food, here comes the food for thought.

The Appetizer
To prepare the uninitiated, Fox offered a full-day tutorial that provided an overview of the practical aspects of digital libraries: definitions; foundations; and issues, including resource discovery, architectures, de jure and de facto standards, protocols, interoperability, 3-D interfaces, search agents, distributed processing, data representation formats, and social and legal issues. It was a sampling of subjects that the conference presentations touched upon. Fox is utterly qualified to put together the full picture from pieces, as he already proved as editor of an excellent special issue of the Journal of the American Society for Information Science that focused on digital libraries—years before conferences were dedicated to the topic.

Dagobert Soergel's full-day tutorial discussed thesauri and ontologies in digital libraries. I remember him as the thesaurus specialist when we met in 1976 during my 1-month research stint at the University of Maryland, and he's now imparting his immense knowledge to the Web environment. Hussein Suleman's half-day tutorial addressed the issues related to building interoperable digital libraries—such as the concept of the Open Archives Initiative—and protocols for metadata harvesting and exchanging. Ian Witten and David Bainbridge's full-day session on "Building a Digital Library Using Open-Source Software" used the Greenstone software to demonstrate the process of creating digital libraries from a variety of document sources. The biggest advantage of the software is the ease with which you can include and index disparate document types in a short time and make them searchable. Currently there are few power-search options—such as proximity and positional operators—that are important when searching a full-text document, but a soon-to-be-released version will have such features. Commercial software in this league has a five-digit price tag.

Other researchers (along with Witten) from New Zealand's University ofWaikato Computer Science Department demonstrated their talent earlier with both the Phrasier and Kniles software that help users find relevant documents in full-text repositories that don't have abstracts and subject headings. Greenstone is yet another part of this team's software arsenal.

The Main Course
The conference itself discussed the issues mentioned above, and then some, such as the state-of-the-art tools to identify, explore, and classify the content of audio and video files in digital libraries instead of or complementing traditional human abstracting and indexing (A&I). The terabytes of audiovisual information make bibliographic control and the print media's A&I issues look like child's play. The presentations proved that such tools are for real and will be available within a few years.

The value of linguistic research, which got tremendous support from computer technology and is repaid now with compound interest to computer and information scientists who deal with automatic classification, indexing, and abstracting, manifested itself in many presentations. No one embodied the integration of the dual culture better than Judith Klavans, director of the Center for Research on Information Access (CRIA) at Columbia University and a linguist turned information/
computer scientist. She made several short and lucid presentations about CRIA's grant projects. All of them superbly illustrated how information technology will help end-users in the long run find their ways throughthe digital towers of Babel built, for example, from the full-text sources of U.S. government agencies' regulatory information using the same terms with quite different meanings. As a bonus, on top of her articulate talk and keen intellect, she's one of those speakers who remains cool and unfazed and can substitute her slides with words if, in a Maalox moment, technical difficulties prevent connecting the speaker's laptop to the audiovisual system. This happened way too often—representing the only weak point of the conference. (I couldn't help thinking of the flawless, taken-for-granted technical arrangement Bill Spence provides at the InfoToday meetings—expertise that probably could be used to lure Klavans in for a session or two at InfoToday 2002, since her office is just a short ride away.)

Many presentations fused traditional library science with information and computer science. William Arms of Cornell University's Computer Science Department, and the author of the best-selling book Digital Libraries (which will be out in paperback by the time this issue reaches you), paid appropriate homage to the pioneers of contemporary metadata research, such as Gerald Salton's seminal SMART project about natural language searching; the Cranfield project, which provided an impeccable test and benchmark suite for indexing-related research; and Henriette Avram's work on the MARC format—the mother of all metadata research that aims to make interoperability smoother.

The keynote addresses represented the pillars of the conference. Brewster Kahle, developer of the WAIS (Wide Area Information Server) system that pioneered the searching of full-text databases scattered over the Internet, and the brain behind the Alexa Internet archive, gave a high-octane talk about the past, present, and future of digital libraries. He showed off his latest project, the Wayback Machine (, a repository of digital materials about the 2000 presidential election. It gives a blow-by-blow replay of the events in chronological order as reported (or rather spinned) on the 900 Web sites of the candidates, their parties, the TV stations, newspapers, and magazines. It's a fascinating project that will allow the next generation to understand how this noble tradition of American politics turned into a farce, and is a masterly manifestation of what digital archives can do.

Pamela Samuelson, professor at both the University of California­Berkeley's School ofLaw and School of Information Management and Systems, gave a fast-paced review of the legal issues surrounding digital libraries. She pointed out that there's currently a publishers' nirvana in which they set the rules and finance the technology to enforce them—including the inane stipulation that you can't read the digital version of Alice in Wonderland aloud from its publisher's Web site. Her talk was given a particular edge as just the day before, the Supreme Court sided with the freelance writers in their suit against The New York Times Co. and others. As an author and (non-practicing) intellectual-property legal scholar myself, I'm very interested in the reaction ofjournal publishers and online information providers. I hope that instead of removing the infringing materials (which would not solve the problem of past copyright infringements), they work out some generic agreement that reasonably shares the publisher's pecuniary benefits with the authors.

In his keynote speech, Clifford Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, focused on interoperability, or rather, the lack of it. He pointed out that there's currently no objective way to measure interoperability, only descriptive and anecdotal approaches, and it's a gradual measure rather than a binary one. This certainly gave comfort to many digital library builders who can claim that they're quite interoperational, just like how library automation vendors up until the late 1980s liked to say that they were mostly MARC compatible. To me that always sounded like "I'm a little pregnant." In the long run, interoperability must be answered with a definite yes or no. After all, the key to the success of digital libraries is not so much in their role as passive repositories, but as interactive and collaborating archives that complement each other and lead users from one resource to another by way of, say, citations.

The Desserts
The post-conference workshops represented the desserts. Because I was unable to reschedule my flights, I missed this part of the conference. I did, however, catch a glimpse of the dessert cart. The workshops included such mouthwatering delicacies as visual interfaces to digital libraries; the technology of browsing applications; information visualization for digital libraries; and classification crosswalks that mapped the classification schemes of different systems, featuring Diane Vizine-Goetz, the outstanding expert from OCLC's Office of Research. Although the topic of Digital Libraries in Asian Languages would have been Greek to me (or as Hungarians say, "Chinese to me"), I would've liked to have heard Ching-chih Chen, a speaker who deeply impressed me in the early 1980s with a presentation about her digital library, The First Emperor of China.

I missed these workshops, but I hope I'll have another chance next year when JCDL 2002 convenes in Portland, Oregon, under the chairmanship of Gary Marchionini, another outstanding digital library specialist (whom I met again in Roanoke after a 20-plus-year hiatus). And who won the Miss Virginia Pageant? You can see for yourself since there's a digital library about it (, of course.

Péter Jacsó is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii's Department of Information and Computer Sciences. His e-mail address is

Table of Contents Previous Issues Subscribe Now! ITI Home
© 2001 Information Today, Inc. Home