Midwinter Sunday: Top Tech Trends

January 25, 2009

LITA's traditional Top Tech Trends discussion played to a standing-room-only crowd this morning, although the event was briefly delayed by a fire alarm in the hotel. Participants and attendees ignored the alarm, which proved to be nothing, and focused on four topics: the management of open-source software, the growth of geolocational technologies, linked data, and the effect of the economy on technology choices in libraries. Open Source Karen Coombs, head of web services at the University of Houston, observed the number of companies being formed to manage open-source software. "That's a really big change. In the past, open-source has always required your own developers and staff to support." Karen Schneider, community librarian at Equinox, said that when libraries were developing their own integrated library systems in the 1970s and 80s, they tended to follow the same model: Development would stay within the library, and the ILS would continually get harder to maintain, until it got complicated enough that the library had no choice but to buy a vendor product. "Now, the test for the open source community is, 'Can you move past your founding library or founding community?'" Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, discussed the successes of the Flickr Commons, particularly the unanticipated benefit that when libraries posted photos online, users returned narratives about those images that go beyond "the trivialities of tagging." Participants are now looking at ways to take that data and put it into their own databases, although Lynch warned that no model has been developed yet that would scale to large numbers of issues. Geolocation Panelists saw two distinct applications for the ubiquity of geographic information. Library consultant Karen Coyle sees the ability to deliver information based on where someone is on the earth; for example, seeing a building and having information about it delivered to them. Coyle also called for an Open Street Map for libraries, although one audience member announced that she had just finished geocoding every library in Texas and suggested that other state library associations might have similar projects underway. Lynch and Coombs focused instead on what Lynch termed "fine geolocation" to provide GPS-type data within an individual library. For example, a cellphone-based system that "can tell you you're in the wrong shelf; you need to be two shelves over," Lynch explained. An audience member said the National Library of Singapore is already testing this kind of system. Linked data Roy Tennant of OCLC Research said that linked data may make him "eat half of my hat" regarding his skepticism toward the Semantic Web, although there are not yet specific examples. "First we have to make it possible to do things and then see what happens," he said, noting that the Library of Congress is planning to put up a site using linked data in the next 4-6 weeks. Economic considerations "In rank-and-file libraries, I'm seeing a controlled burn," Schneider said. "Libraries are looking much harder at their processes. Ideally, that would lead to getting rid of the silly stuff and focussing on the useful stuff." The panel agreed that the poor economy may encourage more libraries to install self-check capabilities. The panel also discussed the problem of getting broadband access to rural areas. "It's not even a money problem, it's an end-of-the-road problem," Schneider said. Coombs illustrated the point with the plight of her parents, who have to connect to the internet with a 28.8 modem because the cable company doesn't think it would be cost-effective to run cable to their house. Lynch called for "a considerably more nuanced and fluid public policy here," and urged rural libraries not to frame the lack of broadband as solely a library issue. "It's a much broader economic and development problem and should be taken on as a municipal or regional issue." The LITA Blog liveblogged the session (see me sideways with computer at 8:22), and the session was streamed at www.ustream.tv/channel/griffey.