Sunday, February 27, 2011

So I had a dream last night where Lorcan Dempsey had a really good idea that I want to riff on

So I had a dream last night where Lorcan Dempsey had a really good idea that I want to riff on. Of course, it was "dream Lorcan" who got my mind rolling which I guess is essentially me and not him. Which is weird. I also don't believe this idea is really new, though at the moment I can't lay my brain on exactly where it is being discussed, at least in the way I'm thinking about it. (Please show me those places if I don't know about them or learned about them and have forgotten all but the nugget of their ideas, which obviously I'm appropriating just now.) I'm not sure what this all says about me, but that's never stopped me in the past from just going ahead and talking, so here we are. I've also been fixated on this idea enough that I'm writing this pre-coffee and pre-the rest of my usual weekend wake up routine, so we'll see how that goes. Moving on now.

I've recently switched jobs within libraryland (loving the new one, thanks!), and am not doing on the ground metadata work any more. It was time for a shift, though I do definitely miss working with metadata issues. But that shift has given me some distance to reflect more on the overall state of the library metadata landscape. In this dream, I was setting up at table in the front of the room for some conference or another. The session was a good ways away from starting, and for a while it was only the other speaker and me in the room. We were supposed to be presenting about really big picture issues in libraries, and we were chatting a bit about what we were going to say, about the overall dearth of big ideas in libraries (especially in metadata), and about our own personal insecurities about what we were about to say in the session. Enter Lorcan. He heard us, and entered the conversation. He had some amazing ideas that the other speaker wrote down and said "oh, great, I should definitely talk about that!" Of course, since this was a dream, I have no recollection of what those were, but in the dream they were brilliant, trust me. And then he said it. "You know, we really need professional help."

What dream Lorcan meant by that is that libraries are entering new areas of work, trying out new ideas, and talking the big talk about interoperating beyond our borders, but that were really not very good at all about truly working with others outside of our own culture to do this, or to do anything beyond us taking inspiration from something going on outside then working only inside to try to appropriate them. And, in my opinion, that's a problem.

Of course we want to take ideas from elsewhere and make them our own. And of course, "we" understand our culture, mission, goals, ideals, etc., so we need to be core players in adopting ideas from other communities, and in many cases we can indeed do it on our own. But this idea has me thinking doing that alone for some critical ideas is too insular an approach. Much of library culture is good, but not all of it is. Sometimes when we try to work on ideas and services from other communities we corrupt them in ways that we really shouldn't. Sometimes when we adopt an idea to work for our core values and vision we also impose some of our baggage on that idea. And we need someone to call us on that, but there's nobody that doesn't have that baggage close enough to do it.

I see library metadata as a prime example of this problem. Take the RDA Vocabularies work (aka "try to turn RDA into something that allows library metadata to interoperate outside libraries.") [1]. There's a core team of great people working on this that really understand the issues from the library perspective, and are able to think beyond many of the constraints libraries place on ourselves. I share their frustration with the lack of engagement in this aspect of RDA within the library community, and with them desperately seek ways to raise awareness within libraries of the issues raised by this work. However, the work is being done by library people learning about other communities' expectations and models, and attempting to map library metadata practices on top of them. They're making progress: identifying areas that might be problematic beyond libraries such as the explicit connection of many RDA properties to FRBR entities, and the packaging together of different data elements into a publication statement. But these are details. I worry that there are more fundamental mismatches that we're not seeing because we don't have the right people at the table. And by this I'm not exactly thinking FRBR vs. non-FRBR, though indeed that is going to be an issue. I'm thinking somehow higher level than that, but I'm having trouble articulating what that is exactly. What I think we also need is non-library people learning about library expectations and models to help us more effectively work towards library metadata being useful "out there." I won't say there are none of these people and partnerships today, but where they do exist I believe they're result of individual interest, or small-scale partnerships set up through personal connections. What we're missing is the high-level engagement of the two communities. Libraries in the large sense need to be visible enough to cause other communities to be interested in the data we could potentially provide. If this is going to work we need both organizational weight and grassroots efforts that will eventually meet in the middle. Right now we only have the grassroots stuff.

And when I talk about outside, professional help, I most definitely DO NOT mean a traditional consultant that's paid to come in, talk to some people, and produce a report on some relatively short time frame (a year or less). These folks rarely understand the underlying issues of the situation they're asked to comment on, and typically produce reports that are more about their own agendas than about the work they're analyzing. What I mean is more of an ongoing dialogue and partnership, and the library community has to find ways to get other interested in spending time, energy, and resources on that work. More on that in a moment.

Another area where this might have worked better is the Linked Library Data Incubator Group from the W3C. This is very much an "outside" thing, which of course is promising. I don't know the deep history of this group, but it seems to me to have been put together largely from outside interest and not from library leadership. There are LC folks involved, but I get the sense that's more individuals rather than the organization as a whole. They're at the table (thankfully) but I haven't heard that LC as an organization is a real leader for this initiative. It's as if LLD,, and the MADS RDF Ontology are reduced to experimental status rather than true strategic directions for LC (at least beyond one department). LC also hasn't put much weight at all behind the RDA Vocabularies work. They're kind of milling about rather than leveraging their position. And beyond LC (and a bit of OCLC, which suffers from the same problem) the LLD group looks to me like outsiders and theorists. They've done an admirable job of publicly calling for use cases, but it seems to me this effort is too far on the other side of the continuum from the RDA Vocabularies work. They're to be absolutely commended for putting this together at all, don't get me wrong. I totally believe in what they're doing. But I don't see this yet as the true strategic partnership geared at getting the right people in the room to find all the places where we say the same word but mean two different things yet. Maybe we just need to try a few more of these types of these efforts before we really understand what the right makeup is.

But if LC and OCLC are at this cocktail party but mostly talking to each other near the wall rather than having an impassioned theoretical discussion with someone they just met, DLF skipped the reception entirely to go see a show. They're not even in these discussions, at least not as far as I have heard. (Anyone want to correct me?) Some of the best public/private partnerships in libraries are represented by the DLF community. I believe the big, looking outside issues facing library metadata are core to what DLF does, but even if others disagree, surely we can learn from the mechanics of these types of partnerships that have been set up for non-metadata work, using the collective knowledge of DLF. Now I'm thinking I should step up or shut up and say specifically what DLF should do in this area. Good point, I'll definitely work on that, and have some inklings of ideas that aren't quite ready for a forum like this yet.

Here's the core of what I'm saying: if it's time for a sea-change in library metadata, we have to truly shift our thinking. It's not just about making RDA data RDF-ified (though we do have to go through that exercise as one way to expose differences between the models). It's going further than that to truly understand where our assumptions collide. And we have to do that from both ends: library people learning about other models, and people with other models learning about libraries. I don't believe we're facilitating enough of the latter. We have lots of smart library people working on this problem, but they're primarily working by reading and experimenting on their own. We also need more opportunities for actual engagement between our community and others. Right now basically we're writing each other memos rather than actually hashing it out.

And this is all because dream Lorcan told me that I (well, we), need professional help. Aren't dreams funny?

[1] Hillmann, Diane, Karen Coyle, Jon Phipps, and Gordon Dunsire. (January/February 2010) "RDA Vocabularies: Process, Outcome, Use." D-Lib Magazine 16, no. 1/2.