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Magazines > Information Today > May 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 5 — May 2004

Report From The Field:
Computers in Libraries 2004

By Shirley Duglin Kennedy

"We're getting to the point where there are an awful lot of unintended consequences ... and surprises."

— Clifford Lynch, executive director of
the Coalition for Networked Information

Unintended consequences? Of what? Technology, of course.

This theme surfaced repeatedly at Information Today, Inc.'s Computers in Libraries 2004 conference, held March 10—12 at the Washington Hilton & Towers. The event attracted nearly 1,600 registrants as well as 51 vendors to the busy exhibit hall.

Although the title of Lynch's initial keynote address was "Expectations for Our Digital Future," it could well have been called "The Unintended Consequences of Technology."

Cell phones are more intrusive than ever, because "now we've added cameras too," said Lynch. The "panic response" has been to ban cell phones from various places "because you can't separate the camera from the phone anymore."

The Internet is getting "very, very fast at its core," said Lynch. "Meanwhile, out on the periphery, things are not as attractive." Broadband to the home "is not all that broad," because it's expensive and still not even an option in many outlying areas.

"Remember the wired classroom, that marvelous piece of rhetoric? It's wireless," said Lynch. Many instructors are now looking for a way to turn it off so students don't surf the Net during class. The same is true in wireless corporations, Lynch said, where employees in meetings are often disengaged, reading e-mail, etc. On the other hand, the always-on network offers ready access to needed information or the documents being discussed.

Geo-location technology means "the Net always knows where you are." Said Lynch, "People are building all sorts of fascinating distributed sensor networks, and they are beginning to hook them up to the Internet." Potential applications are very useful: 911 emergency services, "smart" highways, RFID tagging for inventory control, etc. But, as Lynch pointed out, "We don't know where all of this is going to take us." The privacy implications could be enormous.

"When you talk about unintended consequences, spam is one of the more interesting ones," Lynch said. The fact that we are constantly bombarded by advertising has given rise to "a generation of anti-advertising technologies," such as spam filters and TiVo. This issue is worth watching, since so much entertainment is underwritten by advertising.

Debate over fair use, said Lynch, "has largely dissipated" with the development of sophisticated digital rights management technologies. These are being used in ways not originally intended. DRM is "baked into the infrastructure now" and dictates "what can be done with an object, by who, and for how long."

A lot of our data is at risk due to security concerns, said Lynch, because "no one is really responsible for it, or responsibility is diffuse, or [it] resides with a single individual." We need to be practicing better "data stewardship" because "amateur curation" is no longer good enough.

Systems used for "organized data management," said Lynch, are having unexpected consequences for "our writing and what happens to it. When we wrote things, we mostly assumed they would be read by human beings.... Now, we are about a decade into a period where not all readers of things are humans," which means we need to write "in a more structured way."

"Storage is getting really cheap," Lynch pointed out. Thus, we now save everything. "People don't have to clean up after themselves anymore.... Just get a bigger hard disk every 2 years." An unintended consequence is that your past history follows you around, whether you want it to or not.

Focused on Advertisers

David Seuss, CEO of Northern Light Group, LLC, gave the second day's keynote speech, "Ten Years into the Web: The Search Problem Is Nowhere Near Solved." In May 2003, Seuss purchased his Northern Light search engine back from the bankruptcy proceedings of divine, Inc., which had paid upward of $16 million for it in January 2002. Seuss paid just $81,000 at auction to get it back. He's redeploying it both as an enterprise search engine and market research portal.

"Web search results decline in quality with the size of the database," Seuss said. He questioned the wisdom of attempting to include everything, à la Google, which has 6 billion pages indexed. One unintended consequence: "A multimillion dollar industry has grown up around spamming the Google results list."

And, he pointed out, since the focus of the search engine industry is on advertisers rather than end users, the industry cannot be relied on to organize the Web in a way that would be more useful to searchers.

Technology Panel

The third day's keynote was a panel discussion of technology trends featuring Roy Tennant, user services architect for the California Digital Library; Mary Lee Kennedy, director of Microsoft's Knowledge Network Group; and Stephen Abram, vice president of innovation for Sirsi Corp. (and president-elect of the Canadian Library Association).

"Storage has become dirt cheap," said Tennant. "Software has advanced to the point where there is really nothing you can't do." He emphasized the need for standards and protocols and noted that XML "is part of our infrastructure now."

Kennedy said that instant messaging will soon be widely used by corporations because it provides "immediate access to experts when you are trying to solve a problem." She foresees the emergence of "personal portals," which allow users "to work in different applications in one space." And she predicted an increase in content integration. "Wherever I do my work, information will be delivered to me ... in a particular application or on a particular device."

Likewise, Abram predicted increased "work-flow integration" that "moves the content out to where the people are." Also, he said, we will be confronted with "massive archives" because everything now is being saved. The information professional needs to step in here in order to filter information for users "so they can drink a glass of water, not drown."

Federated Searching

Conference sessions that addressed federated searching played to packed houses. In his presentation "Federated Searches: A Primer and Strategies," Jeff Wisniewski, Web services librarian at the University of Pittsburgh, offered a succinct definition. "Federated searching provides a single search interface to heterogeneous resources." It is not a portal, he said, though it can be a component of a portal. It is also not an OpenURL resolver, although this is a "complementary technology" that can be packaged together with federated searching by a vendor.

Wisniewski explained that federated searching "addresses two fundamental roadblocks for individuals doing research": "prior knowledge" (knowing which resources to search) and "multiplicity of effort" (needing "to search over and over through several databases").

Although this is an emerging technology and "the marketplace is in a state of flux," Wisniewski said it may be better to start thinking about federated search now rather than later. The range and diversity of electronic resources "is increasing almost every day," he said, and many institutions are dropping print entirely. The lack of standardization among database vendors creates difficulty for end users.

Federated searching can help us get our money's worth out of expensive electronic resource collections. Wisniewski said, "We built it, they came, got confused, and left." This is a tremendous waste. "They think we are hard to use and they use, you know, Google." Instruction can only do so much, he said. "You can't teach them all."

Frank Cervone, assistant university librarian for information technology at Northwestern University, focused his presentation on the relationship between federated searching and OpenURL. He explained that federated search is an intermediary. It intercepts the search terms entered by the user and translates the query to the various databases. OpenURL takes the user from the search results list to the actual results.

End users do not care which results come from which databases. "They care about the journals," said Cervone. OpenURL can locate the full text of an article from within an institution's subscriptions, regardless of which database contains them, and link to anything that is OpenURL-enabled.

OpenURL does this by "redirecting URLs through a resolver," which can be located in your library or hosted by a vendor. The resolver interprets the data and locates "the appropriate copy in your system of databases."

Federated search itself is "very complex at this point in time," said Cervone. "Not all products are supported by all providers." And not all protocols and metadata formats are supported by all vendors. This new technology still has problem areas, such as coping with various search protocols among different databases and a certain degree of inadequacy when it comes to results de-duping and relevance rankings.

Many presentations and handouts from Computers in Libraries 2004 are available at

Shirl Kennedy is the reference librarian at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Her e-mail address is
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