Web Magazine for Information Professionals

JISC/CNI Conference, York 2006

Najla Semple and Robin Rice were at the JISC / CNI conference 'Envisioning future challenges in networked information'.

Encapsulating the events of such an information-rich event as the JISC / CNI conference can be a tricky task, but the next few lines will, we hope, deliver a flavour of the occasion as well as a summary of a few significant themes.

No single overarching theme dominated the event and indeed everyone we spoke to over the two-day event expressed a different opinion as to what they thought were the really important issues. However, three areas that clearly prevailed were: the changing needs of the user; the impact of mass digitisation; and open access. Each of these demonstrated how technology is profoundly changing the process of scholarship. This cross-Atlantic meeting of minds was no doubt enhanced by much invigorating post-prandial bar action and the fact that, for the first time, Lorcan Dempsey followed Derek Law in the after-dinner speech.

A star-studded cast delivered the opening plenary, all of whom praised the JISC/CNI partnership and its collective adventures. We learned from Duane Webster that an informal predecessor to the JISC CNI conference was a group who gave themselves the telling acronym, SWIG. Ron Cooke contrasted JISC's centralised funding system with the role of CNI in the US, and reflected on how differences between the two organisations also provide a stimulus for the direction of Internet services. Resource discovery has been emphasised in the UK, whereas large research programmes tend to dominate the US agenda. Derek Law emphasised JISC's historical enthusiasm to respond to change and to shape the dialogue and the debate. Clifford Lynch picked out three areas where we need to concentrate our efforts -- digital preservation, mass digitisation, and middleware for e-Science. Reg Carr praised JISC's vision and ability to implement it - we can predict the future by inventing it, but we need to initiate and drive the change.

Reg Carr: "The JISC has succeeded in changing the culture of the Research Library for ever and for better."

Derek Law challenged research libraries to take responsibility for preserving the 'born-digital' record and to enter the arena of e-Science, or risk being judged by future generations.

While delegates heard about the progress of the JISC/NSF Digital Libraries in the Classroom DIDET Project, in the parallel Preservation and Access session, session, Laura Campbell from the Library of Congress outlined the activities of the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Programme in the US. This 'learn by doing' initiative emphasises the importance of having a network of partners due to the fact that there are so many decentralised activities in the US. There is a need for a large-scale distributed response to these system-wide challenges and repositories at both state and local level should be encouraged to deal with the huge variety of content in order to make digital preservation work. The next stage in this project is to consider potential digital preservation business models in order to assist smaller, local institutions.

The two Digital Repositories sessions mirrored the theme of distributed access to digital materials. Herbert Van de Sompel presented what is potentially a very important model for repository development, based on the concept that there is no one-size-fits-all model for all of an institution's assets. What is required is a distributed model with suitable interfaces, linked together by a universal connector. Services can then be built on top of this adaptor layer. The creation of these rich cross-repository services will enhance the scholarly communication workflow. Value will be added to the data and these 'value chains' will be used and reused a great deal over time. It's not only about asset transfer but about having one shared data model to support these core services across repositories. To augment interoperability, when an object is requested from a repository it will be a 'digital surrogate' that is accessed in the first instance, allowing the user to retrieve only the parts of a work which are needed.

Echoing this vision of rich data flow between repositories, Rachel Heery of UKOLN outlined the JISC repository roadmap, the vision that a variety of repositories will support richer scholarly communication based on open access and reuse of scholarly materials.

Rachel Heery: "The vision is to capture content from desktop applications, smart labs, VLE's ...[automatically]"-

At the same time however she emphasised that we must not lose sight of what the user wants, a combination of shared services and interoperability with services such as Google. Deposit is a priority, however it is clear that there are no widely agreed mechanisms for getting content into repositories, or for assigning metadata.

Continuing on the repositories theme, the next session proved very interesting from the point of view of a commercial software organisation, VTLS, incorporating open source software into a content management system, 'VITAL'. The benefits of the combination of proprietary and open source software systems were made apparent. The repository is based on Fedora (open source software developed at Cornell and University of Virginia), thus it is flexible and extensible, while the VITAL software provides the much needed workflow tools such as ingest, validate, export, preserve. The key point was that system designers should work closely with the 'source' of their 'open source'.

Les Carr of Southampton spoke about EPrints, an open source repository system, and the need to make researchers the custodians of their own knowledge output, to store it, manage it and reuse it. The software itself may be somewhat bland but it is highly configurable and can be put to many different uses. He emphasised the importance of embedding the repository within the institution, of gaining both grassroots and senior level buy-in. Les also said that preservation shouldn't be a barrier to access. However, this topic caused some debate among the audience with regard to what scholars see as the more important function of a digital repository, preservation or access.

Parallel sessions on e-theses and open access added depth to the repository theme. Leo Waaijers from SURF sung the praises of open access and of scholars retaining copyright to their works. He criticised 'exclusive copyright agreements' by publishers as unnecessarily excessive in the current electronic environment; a license for the publisher to use the material in perpetuity should be all that is required. He demonstrated how national support for institutional repositories led to the creation of the Dutch Cream of Science Project - a showcase of works of the top Dutch scholars funnelled through a portal on the internet. Robert Terry told of an equally inspiring policy achievement of the Wellcome Trust in mandating deposit of funded research outputs into the PubMed Central repository and the development, with partners, of the future UK PMC.

Delegates appeared on day two, ever so slightly bleary eyed, to listen to the changing needs of users. David Nicholas of UCL Centre for Publishing, whose study of virtual scholars iterated a paradigm shift in user behaviour, stated that while users are incredibly active, they are in fact searching more horizontally rather than vertically. This different form of learning moves us further apart from our users. Joan Lippincott of CNI outlined the needs of the new generation of users, sometimes refered to as 'dotnets' who are both producers and consumers of information. The traditional method of the 'sage on the stage' has altered somewhat and users are now learning through their own initiative and exploration of digital resources.

While Kevin Guthrie of Ithaka explained how business models can support preservation, Chris Rusbridge's presentation stressed that the future records of science are in fact based on past record. Hence the importance of curating data for current and future use, as on a continuum, adding value, for others to access and reuse. He stressed that a digital collection is constantly evolving, and managed through a series of conversions. Chris dissected various examples of the difficulty of curating research datasets. Data are meaningless without context and impossible to cite without provenance. Chris also stressed that we may not be able to guarantee data preservation for a 100-year period, but we can deliver on a 4-5 year promise, and a commitment to hand the data on in a good state to the next curators, almost like a relay marathon. He ended with some deeply reassuring words for the curator ... 'Don't panic!'

Sessions focused on mass digitisation projects and ICT in the Humanities provided a view of how scholars' methods are changing, as ever more information becomes available, with ever more sophisticated tools for extracting and re-using it. John Price Wilkin gave an insider's view of the Google Books scanning project at the University of Michigan, and how the Library will retain value for itself and its users while simultaneously enriching the digital content coffers of the Internet search giant.

In a session devoted to resource discovery, Nikki Ferguson gave a sneak preview of survey results of users within the JISC Information Environment, and how far there is to go in ensuring resources developed for the academic community reach their target audience. On the positive side, some were happily making use of the services without being aware of their names, being seamlessly transferred from a library Web site or Google search. Lorcan Dempsey followed by giving a current view on what the community can learn from the 'Amazoogle' commercial services and how through Web 2.0 technology, users' behaviour is more and more 'inside the network.'

Don Waters' closing speech thoughtfully considered the issue of open access from the point of view of a funder of JSTOR and other open access publishing initiatives. He highlighted the difference between the commercial exuberance of the 1990s with the spirit of democratisation today, and suggested that commercialisation and open access can in fact compliment each other. Don gently challenged open access adherents to consider whether it always necessarily furthered the cause of scholarly/scientific communication. The publishing process brings capital and added value important to the communication of the scholarly/scientific record, which the open access model has yet to fully establish.

He recognised the empowering aspect of the open access movement; that making scholarly work available to the public easily can be liberating at both individual and institutional levels. However, Don also stressed that we are already awash with unprecedented amounts of information; free information could compromise the scholarly process unless we take strategic action and design scaled systems which are well targeted for users' actual needs. We also need imagination and expertise beyond just the local level to provide sophisticated searching across systems.

Clifford Lynch: "We've learned from SURF about what it's like when repositories are deployed country-wide and can be relied on as part of an infrastructure."

Overall Observations on the Event

We are face to face with forces of change and fundamental questions for the future of our institutions and higher education. Community information - its creation and its sharing - is a reality that must be recognised and cultivated, however our understanding of the user is still fairly rudimentary. An emerging theme was the importance of Web 2.0, and its impact on all services across the sector. Web 2.0 is helping learners and teachers engage in different ways. Delivery and management of information is crucial and all the work on digital repositories has started to define how it is we can deliver on this. Although as a community we are still coping with change, we are adapting to its challenges, and dealing with it well. As we take one step at a time into the future, the JISC/CNI meeting has given us a look at how far we've come, and a glimpse of where we are headed.

Author Details

Najla Semple
Executive Secretary
Digital Preservation Coalition

Email: najla@dpconline.org
Web site: http://www.dpconline.org

Robin Rice
Data Librarian
EDINA & Edinburgh University Data Library

Email: R.Rice@ed.ac.uk
Web site: http://datalib.ed.ac.uk

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