Top Tech Trends for ALA (Summer '08)

Here is a non-exhaustive list of Top Technology Trends for the American Library Association Annual Meeting (Summer, 2008). These Trends represent general directions regarding computing in libraries — short-term future directions where, from my perspective, things are or could be going. They are listed in no priority order.

  • “Bling” in your website – I hate to admit it, but it seems increasingly necessary to make sure your institution’s website be aesthetically appealing. This might seem obvious to you, but considering the fact we all think “content is king” we might have to reconsider. Whether we like it or not, people do judge a book by its cover, and people do judge other’s on their appearance. Websites aren’t very much different. While librarians are great at organizing information bibliographically, we stink when it comes to organizing things visually. Think graphic design. Break down and hire a graphic designer, and temper their output with usability tests. We all have our various strengths and weaknesses. Graphic designers have something to offer that, in general, librarians lack.
  • Data sets – Increasingly it is not enough for the scholar or researcher to evaluate old texts or do experiments and then write an article accordingly. Instead it is becoming increasingly important to distribute the data and information the scholar or researcher used to come to their conclusions. This data and information needs to be just as accessible as the resulting article. How will this access be sustained? How will it be described and made available? To what degree will it be important to preserve this data and/or migrate it forward in time? These sorts of questions require some thought. Libraries have experience in these regards. Get your foot in the door, and help the authors address these issues.
  • Institutional repositories – I don’t hear as much noise about institutional repositories as I used to hear. I think their lack of popularity is directly related to the problems they are designed to solve, namely, long-term access. Don’t get me wrong, long-term access is definitely a good thing, but that is a library value. In order to be compelling, institutional repositories need to solve the problems of depositors, not the librarians. What do authors get by putting their content in an institutional repository that they don’t get elsewhere? If they supported version control, collaboration, commenting, tagging, better syndication and possibilities for content reuse — in other words, services against the content — then institutional repositories might prove to be more popular.
  • Mobile devices – The iPhone represents a trend in mobile computing. It is both cool and “kewl” for three reasons: 1) its physical interface complete with pinch and drag touch screen options make it easy to use; you don’t need to learn how to write in its language, 2) its always-on and endlessly-accessible connectivity to the Internet make it trivial to keep in touch, read mail, and “surf the Web”, 3) its software interface is implemented in the form of full-blown applications, not dummied down text interfaces with lot’s of scrolling lists. Apple Computer got it right. Other companies will follow suit. Sooner or later we will all by walking around like people from the Starship Enterprise. “Beam me up, Scotty!” Consider integrating into your services the ability to text the content of library research to a telephone.
  • Net Neutrality – The Internet, by design, is intended to be neutral, but increasingly Internet Service Providers (ISP) are twisting the term “neutrality” to mean, “If you pay a premium, then we won’t throttle your network connection.” Things like BitTorrent is a good example. This technique exploits the Internet making file transfers more efficient, but ISPs want to inhibit it and/or charge more for its use. Yet again, the values and morals of a larger, more established community, in this case capitalism, are influencing the Internet. Similar value changes manifested themselves when email became commonplace. Other values, such as not wasting Internet bandwidth by transferring unnecessarily large files over the ‘Net, have changed as both the technology and the numbers of people using the Internet have changed. Take a stand for “Net Neutrality”.
  • “Next generation” library catalogs – The profession has finally figured it out. Our integrated library systems don’t solve the problems of our users. Consequently, the idea of the “next generation” library catalog is all the rage, but don’t get too caught up in features such as Did You Mean?, faceted browse, cover art, or the ability of include a wide variety of content into a single interface. Such things are really characteristics and functions of underlying index. They are all things designed to make it easier to accomplish the problem of find, but this is not the problem to be solved. Google make it easy to find. Really easy. We are unable to compete in that arena. Everybody can find, and we are still “drinking” from the proverbial “fire hose”. Instead, think about ways to enable the patron to use the content they find. Put the content into context. Like the institutional repositories, above, and the open access content, below, figure out way to make the content useful. Empower the patron. Enable them to apply actions against the content, not just the index. Such things are exemplified by action verbs. Tag. Share. Review. Add. Read. Save. Delete. Annotate. Index. Syndicate. Cite. Compare forward and backward in time. Compare and contrast with other documents. Transform into other formats. Distill. Purchase. Sell. Recommend. Rate. Create flip book. Create tag cloud. Find email address of author. Discuss with colleagues. Etc. The types of services implementable by “next generation” library catalogs is as long as the list of things people do with the content they find in libraries. This is one of the greatest opportunities facing our profession.
  • Open Access Publishing – Like its sister, institutional repositories, I don’t hear as much about open access publishing as I used to hear. We all know it is a “good thing” but like so many things that are “free” its value is only calculated by the amount of money paid for it. “The journals from this publisher are very expensive. We had better promote them and make them readily visible on our website in order for us to get our money’s worth.” In a library setting, the value of material is not based on dollars but rather on things such as but limited to usefulness, applicability, keen insight, scholarship, and timeliness. Open access publishing content manifests these characteristics as much a traditionally published materials. Open access content can be made even more valuable if its open nature were exploited. Like the content found in institutional repositories, and like the functions of “next generation” library catalogs outlined above, the ability to provide services against open access content are almost limitless. More than any other content, open access content combined with content from things like the Open Content Alliance and Project Gutenburg can be freely collected, indexed, searched, and then put into the context of the patron. Create bibliography. Trace citation. Find similar words and phrases between articles and books. Take an active role in making open access publishing more of a reality. Don’t wait for the other guy. You are a part of the solution.
  • Social networking – Social networking is beyond a trend. It is all but a fact of the Internet. Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn as well as Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, and Delicious are probably the archetypical social networking sites. They have very little content of their own. Instead, they provide a platform for others to provide content — and then services against that content. (“Does anybody see a trend in these trends, yet?”) What these social networking sites are exploiting is a new form of the numbers game. Given a wide enough audience it is possible to find and create sets of others interested in just about any topic under the sun. These people will be passionate about their particular topic. They will be sincere, adamant, and arduous about making sure the content is up-date, accurate, and thoroughly described and accessible. Put your content into these sorts of platforms in the same way the Library of Congress as well as the Smithsonian Institution has put some of their content into Flickr. A rising tide floats all boats. Put your boat into the water. Participate in this numbers game. It is not really about people using your library, but rather about people using the content you have made available.
  • Web Services-based APIs – xISBN and thingISBN. The Open Library API. The DLF ILS-DI Technical Recommendation. SRU and OpenSearch. OAI-PMH and now OAI-ORE. RSS and ATOM. All of these things are computing techniques called Web Services Application Programmer Interfaces (API). They are computer-to-computer interfaces akin to things like Z39.50 of Library Land. They enable computers to unambiguously share data between themselves. A number of years ago implementing Web Services meant learning things like SOAP, WSDL, and UDDL. These things were (are) robust, well-documented, and full-featured. They are also non-trivial to learn. (OCLC’s Terminology Service embedded within Internet Explorer uses these techniques.) After that REST become more popular. Simpler, and exploits the features of HTTP. The idea was (is) send a URL to a remote computer. Get a response back as XML. Transform the response and put it to use — usually display things on a Web page. This is the way most of the services work (“There’s that word again!”) The latest paradigm and increasingly popular technique uses a data structure called JSON as opposed to XML as the form of the server’s response because JSON is easier to process with Javascript. This is very much akin to AJAX. Despite the subtle differences between each of these Web Services computing techniques, there is a fundamental commonality. Make a request. Wait. Get a response. Do something with the content — make it useful. Moreover, the returned content is devoid of display characteristics. It is just data. It is your responsibility to turn it into information. Learn to: 1) make your content accessible via Web Services, and 2) learn how to aggregate content through Web Services in order to enhance your patron’s experience.

Wow!! Where did all of that come from?


  1. Peter Suber

    Hi Eric: Many thanks for including open access (twice!) on your list.

    At the end of the fifth bullet, didn’t you mean: take a stand *for* Net Neutrality?

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  3. Eric Lease Morgan

    Peter, regarding open access, you’re welcome. Like so many things in today’s environment, open access is an real opportunity for libraries, librarians, and librarianship.

    Regarding Net Neutrality, you are correct. I meant to write, “Take a stand for Net Neutrality.” I have updated the posting accordingly.

    Eric “Benefiting From the Many Eyeballs” Morgan

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