NOTE: Remember, if anybody wants an autograph for their copy of my book, Net Effects: How Librarians Can Manage the Unintended Consequences of the Internet, http://marylaine.com/book/index.html, e-mail me and I'll tell you how you can get the message you want, inscribed on a paste-in-able slip of paper with my ExLibris caricature on it.
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GURU INTERVIEW, PART II: RODDY MACLEOD
a self-interview, by the founder of the Internet Resources Newsletter <http://www.hw.ac.uk/libWWW/irn/irn.html>, EEVL [the Internet Guide to Engineering, Mathematics and Computing] <http://www.eevl.ac.uk/>, and Pinakes, a Subject Launchpad <http://www.hw.ac.uk/libWWW/irn/pinakes/pinakes.html>
Q: Presumably, you became involved in EEVL, one of those gateways, because it involved traditional librarian skills in an online environment?
A: Yes. I’ve managed EEVL since 1996, when it was one of three subject gateways developed under the eLib Programme. Since then it has become part of the Resource Discovery Network (RDN), a collaborative UK effort, which now consists of eight Hubs.
Q: How do you see gateways developing in the future?
A: I see very little future for ‘stand-alone’ gateways in the future, and they must move on if they are to build upon their foundations and continue to help people exploit good quality electronic resources. Some gateways which have concentrated exclusively on cataloguing or listing Internet resources, such as EELS and ICE, have already ceased. Gateways, which rely on a considerable amount of human input, are very expensive to maintain, and the purses of funding bodies are not bottomless.
Q: So, do you see yourself moving on to something else?
A: Not at all. I see a very exciting future for EEVL, but not as a simple gateway. Very early on, we saw EEVL as something that could be more than just a gateway with an Internet Resource Catalogue (IRC). In fact, our first service was a newsgroup subject archive, and we’ve added various other services over the years, such as the Recent Advances in Manufacturing (RAM) bibliographic database. But the future for EEVL, I believe, now lies in utilizing resources in a different way. The future lies in providing aggregated access to information of various types on a subject basis. The information resources themselves will come from both the public and the hidden Web.
Q: Why do you see them developing in that way?
A: Services such as EEVL contain details of thousands of extremely useful resources, but often a searchable and browsable IRC doesn’t allow these resources to be fully exploited. It can take a fair amount of effort, and also an understanding of the concept of an IRC, for users to discover and collate the resources of particular relevance at any one time. Training users is not the solution, because there are so many of them, and so few of us, and a good service should, in any case, be easy to use.
There is definitely a need for resource discovery services, beyond what Google offers, as was shown recently by the tremendous interest in Turbo10. There is also a need for subject-based services, because the information needs of different subject communities varies so much. ‘One size fits all’ is not the perfect solution.
Q: How does subject-based aggregation work?
A: If you analyse the most popular sites in EEVL’s IRC you can see that, for example, there are numerous bibliographic and full text databases; there are also several excellent trade journals sites providing industry news; there are some big recruitment agencies giving job announcements; there are different sites giving event/conference details; and so on. Though all can be located from EEVL’s IRC, if you know where to look, users still need to visit each site in turn to locate relevant information. EEVL’s harvested full text search engines provide a little more in depth indexing, but they are still rather hit or miss. Using protocols such as RSS, OAI-PMH and Z39.50 we intend to aggregate metadata content of different kinds, on a subject basis, and provide cross- searching capabilities as well.
Much of this information itself is freely available, but there is plenty which is not. Through one-step authentication and profiling we will facilitate aggregated access to subscription-based services as well, and to complete the picture we’re developing personalisation services. So, the end-product will allow easy discovery of, for example, news items from numerous different publishers, or job vacancies from several recruitment agencies, or bibliographic information and full text from numerous different publishers, including subscription services, delivered via the one Web site, or if so desired via email alerts.
We will aggregate the metadata, and allow users to discover relevant items from numerous publishers and content providers, but the content itself will still be retrieved via the publishers’ own sites.
As a not-for-profit organisation, which is not in competition with any publisher, we are in an ideal position to do this work, and, in effect, drive traffic to the publishers’ sites.
Q: Won’t cross-searching of multi-databases result in rather crude functionality?
A: To some extent, yes. Where those databases are complex, we will only be able to offer ‘lowest common denominator’ cross-searching. For full functionality, users will always need to visit the database provider’s own site. But much end-user searching is, in any case, relatively crude. On the other hand, where the target databases are less sophisticated, cross-searching of metadata works well.
Q: Will the resulting service be very complicated?
A: It won’t work unless its easy to use, and it won’t work unless the search process and results are very transparent. There are big interface design issues that need solving, and we are working on these just now. I’m confident that it can be done.
Q: Will all of this be freely available to anyone?
A: It will be free, apart from access to subscription services, which will only be available to those whose institutions have subscribed.
We recently published an RSS primer, to encourage publishers and content providers to release their metadata via RSS. This work was funded by JISC. Already we’ve got several engineering publishers on board and very shortly we’ll be making One-Step Industry News, and One-Step Job Announcement services available. These free services will aggregate content and will be the first stage in the longer process of developing the complete picture I’ve been talking about.
Q: Earlier you told me about Africa. Do you manage to travel much nowadays through your work?
A: EEVL’s promotional budget is, sadly, very small, and we prefer to use it to target UK academics. However, Pearson Education sponsored my trip to Beijing last year, to speak at a conference. China is developing at an incredible rate, especially in the engineering and IT sectors. There are good engineering Web sites there that are untapped by the West, and we are currently negotiating with an institution in Beijing to enter some sample records into EEVL to test the market.
Q: Are you involved in any other things?
A: With Jim Corlett, who has contributed to EEVL for many years, I’m editing a new edition of a book “Information sources in engineering” to be published by Saur.
[end of self-interview]
Marylaine: A couple more questions that I routinely ask people: I know that to a large extent you can keep up with what's going on in the profession just with the items people send you for the newsletter, but are there sources you read regularly to keep up (or just because they're interesting)?
A: I used to have quite a long list of such sources. Some of them disappeared, and I now no longer go through anything on a systematic basis. I don't want to be just repeating what is being announced elsewhere, so its probably just as well that I don't have time to be more systematic.
I do try to check ResourceShelf regularly, and when I have something from EEVL to announce, I'll look through the sources I'm sending the PR to for items for IRN. I'm a member of many JISCmail lists, and discussions on these throw up many resources of interest.
Marylaine: Are there new developments you're following with interest? If so, who do you trust for information on them?
A: I'm interested in how Blogs are developing. I'm very taken with the site Bloglines and in particular with My Bloglines, and will be running an item on that site in the next IRN. RSS is also a current interest, and also anything to do with portals, and also marketing of electronic resources.
With all of these things, I think its necessary to look at who is producing the information, and why they are producing it. I trust academic sources, but I think its also important to keep an eye on commercial sources, as it is often possible to learn from them.
An example of this would be Engineeringtalk. Engineeringtalk is a product news release service. Its not unique in that respect, but the way that it generates reports for the producers of press releases is extremely impressive. I have sent a handful of press releases to Engineeringtalk about EEVL, and now, each month, I get an email report telling me how many people have read those releases each month at the Engineeringtalk site, how many people subsequently clicked on the links and came to EEVL, and how many 'sales leads' there were (people requesting more information).
Engineeringtalk may be very much based in the commercial world, but many of its methods could be applied to academic information services. The same can often be said about marketing. Its possible to learn from the commercial world when marketing information services - of course, marketing methods should not just be copied from the commercial world into academia, they need to be adapted to suit academia, but often its possible to get ideas from commerce.
Marylaine: Roddy, thank you for taking the time to tell us more about your work.
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Information that seekers seem to think they find serendipitously actually has an organized, purposeful structure created by professionals who use a variety of standards, systems and rules meant to bring order out of chaos.
Suzanne Pilsk, "Organizing Corporate Knowledge," Information Outlook, April, 2002. Quoted in Revolting Librarians Redux.
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