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Magazines > Information Today > January 2004
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Information Today
Vol. 21 No. 1 — January 2004
Report from the Field
Internet Librarian Returns to Monterey
By George Plosker

Librarians and information professionals from a wide variety of environments descended on beautiful Monterey, Calif., for the seventh annual Internet Librarian conference, held Nov. 3—5, 2003. They came to learn more about search, explore new directions in staff and patron instruction, and hear about the latest advances in online access to premium content and Web resources.

The event covered such marketing concepts as getting closer to patron needs, understanding the specialized requirements of user segments, and improving communications. An important theme was the librarian as content engineer. This is achieved by coordinating seamless access via new technologies or designing superior navigation tools for library Web sites. It was easy to see that the profession has embraced the Web as an ally to win the hearts and minds of users as well as take advantage of the incredible range of technology-based tools that extend content's reach into everyday life.

Content Integration Practices

Mary Lee Kennedy of Microsoft kicked off a new pre-conference Sunday-evening session that addressed user expectations of content integration. She said that users don't really care or have to know where specific items come from. However, links that explain the source and definition of the content are always useful. Microsoft has been utilizing portal technology for its internal content resources and has also been exploring the use of the new Research Pane in MS Office 2003.

Microsoft is looking to make content available in a single view, regardless of location. In addition, the company is attempting to embed content into business processes. Kennedy believes this is preferable to search for many business professionals. She also discussed the need for prioritization, given the large volume of content that must be managed. These decisions should be made with input from users and stakeholders.

Allen Paschal, president of Thomson Gale, spoke about content integration from the producer's point of view. He said that Gale is supplying content to many outlets, including major aggregators and Web sites like Amazon and Microsoft. Paschal is interested in seeing integration go further—for example, as electronic supplements to textbooks in which a right click would supply additional information in context and integrate content subscriptions into software.

User Interfaces, Technologies

User interfaces are always a featured topic at Internet Librarian. In a session titled "New Age Navigation: Innovative E-Journal Interfaces," Gerry McKiernan of Iowa State University said that from a user's perspective, today's information-retrieval systems are still difficult to use. He reviewed the work of several organizations that explore visualization interactivity instead of text interfaces.

McKiernan also talked about Concept Space, an interface that's being studied at D-Lib Magazine (http://www.dlib.org). Concept Space uses a color-coded display to represent 20 concepts that are covered in the magazine. The color-coding is used to associate related concepts and allows the combination of terms and concepts on the map using Boolean connectors.

Other examples included Astronomy Journal, which uses a Self-Organized Topic Map, and HighWire Press, which uses a topic map to provide a visual sense of context. Utrecht University is utilizing an AquaBrowser that offers "clouds" of associations to permit visual searching. McKiernan also mentioned Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's ThemeView, which grew out of Project Spire. ThemeView can use a galaxy of stars or a relief-map metaphor to represent concepts, topics, or themes in a group of documents.

ebrary CEO and CTO Christopher Warnock discussed the promise of intelligent linking and contextual searching. He illustrated the potential of digital content by conducting a live demonstration with Stanford University's OPAC as his starting point. Warnock began with a topical search and retrieved an e-book record from Stanford's collection. With this system, users can then follow embedded links to contextual content from other e-books, dictionary definitions, maps, and associated content. ebrary licenses content databases to libraries with the software that facilitates contextual linking. Warnock said that ebrary attempts to connect these disparate sources so that related content is no more than three clicks away.

E-Book Session

Don Hawkins, who has been tracking and writing about e-books for the past few years, led a session called "E-Books: The Third Generation" with Dennis Dillon, assistant director of libraries at the University of Texas, and Cindy Hill, director of Sun Microsystems' Sun Library. The session attracted a standing-room-only crowd and drew numerous questions from the audience.

Dillon said that librarians select all of the e-books at the University of Texas, and the collection now comprises 65,000 netLibrary titles. He has done numerous statistical studies on the cost-effectiveness of e-books and is convinced that there's excellent ROI on their use, as the average cost per access is far less than for traditional hard-copy books. In a comment that surprised some audience members, Dillon said that e-books are considered a normal part of campus life and that no special promotions or marketing have been done to increase interest in the new media.

Hill said that Sun Library's vision is to "provide the right knowledge to the right people at the right time to make the right decisions." Her team had been tracking e-books since the 1990s and believed that the format complemented several Sun Microsystems and Sun Library goals. To validate these assumptions, the library did a series of surveys and focus groups with the engineering communities. The initial Sun e-book collection was launched in a co-branded partnership with netLibrary. The communications plan included postcard mailings, e-mail marketing, and cafeteria demos.

Eight months after the launch, the library did a user-evaluation survey. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that e-books were saving them time and money, 64 percent were reading or browsing sections only, and 48 percent were using e-books to answer specific questions. The e-book launch and related surveys have served to increase dialogue between user groups and the library. This has proven to be a great method for obtaining ROI data and stories that make an impact, and has created paths for additional funding of materials that are responsive to user needs and behaviors.

The Morphing Searcher

The final session of the conference, "Life Expectancy of a Searcher: Morphing into New Roles," featured Cindy Hill; Barbara Quint, editor of Searcher; and Michael Stephens of the St. Joseph County (Ind.) Public Library.

Hill said that there's no end of opportunities for information professionals. She believes that all libraries should operate as a business regardless of the environment and mentioned some things that have worked for the Sun Library: using data for decisions, building relationships, and listening to the customer.

Hill also said that wins must be publicized to both constituencies and the broader media. The winning stories should include impact, value, and implications. Librarians should be connecting people to each other based on their understanding of where expertise lies in the organization. This is essentially a principle of knowledge management. Hill believes that librarians are in a good position to act as instructional designers for appropriate projects.

Quint, connected to the group via speakerphone, said that it's time for libraries to "step up or out." She colorfully described roles that librarians could take on and said that someday every chief executive would have a "valet for the mind." As technology marches on, the ability to retrieve information that might not be retrieved with the next-generation browser will become increasingly important. Noting that numerous content sources are now created without any human editorial oversight, she believes we should maintain and expand our role as content critics, reviewing content for quality and accuracy before it's used or acted on.

Quint recommended that we continue to master new technologies (such as IBM's WebFountain) and then market the knowledge to our users and other constituencies. She believes that the general population is not aware of the close relationship between librarians and technology, citing the profession's early experience with online services and networked cataloging as examples. We also need to work harder to make sure that folks know what we do and to never forget the importance of our core service ethic and goal of serving the minds of humanity.

Stephens followed Quint—poor guy. However, his enthusiasm and connection with the newest technologies that carry content into the hands of next-generation users amplified his message of infusing youth trends and technologies into the public library.

Stephens reviewed our new roles: technology trainers, Web page designers, purchasers of electronic resources, and most importantly, problem solvers and question-answerers. He said that in the near future, librarians will be informed, virtual, digital, unwired, and involved in planning based on the big picture and evaluation of ROI. Stephens also mentioned that our buildings would become Wi-Fi-enabled (free, of course) information commons that are intimately connected to our communities.

The library profession continues to evolve to meet user needs. Tools such as federated searching, OpenURLs, link resolvers, e-journals, and e-books are abundant. Our vendors stand ready to help us re-engineer services to satisfy even the most technically jaded customer. Internet Librarian continues to do its part to help practitioners make the best choices, act on opportunities, and enable today's searchers to learn to do more.

 


George Plosker is the principal of George Plosker & Associates, an information industry consulting firm. His e-mail address is gplosker@comcast.net.
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