Data will play key role in libraries

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Friedel Grant reports back from the LIBER 2013 conference where data publishing and crowd sourcing were major themes

Writer and historian Shelby Foote  is quoted as saying, ‘A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library.’

It was with this quotation that Peter Strohschneider, chairman of the German Council of Science and Humanities, began his keynote speech at LIBER’s 42nd annual conference in Munich, Germany.

‘The library is a place in which learning and research happens, and in which knowledge orders are created,’ continued Strohschneider. ‘As Foote suggests, the library lies at the very heart of the academic experience. A university without a library is more or less unthinkable. This being the case, Foote’s perspective raises some important questions when we consider the future of academic libraries.’

Strohschneider went on to explain how some of the most notable research discoveries can be attributed to serendipity. These accidental revelations can, however, be thwarted by the current enthusiasm for modern search engines which only lead researchers to targeted results.

From this opening talk, the future of libraries was repeatedly explored over the three days of the conference – particularly in relation to the vast quantities of data currently being created and the library’s role in helping researchers to manage and sift through that data.

With two new scholarly articles being published every minute, Jan Velterop asserted that structures such as nano-publications would become an essential tool for researchers to identify relevant material. This would, in turn, require libraries and publishers to adjust to a new world where the scientific journal was valued more as a source of raw material, in which researchers could look for knowledge patterns, than something to read.

Liz Lyon, director of the United Kingdom Office for Library and Information Networking, also spoke about how libraries need to move away from print-based traditions to regarding themselves as data publishers, with relevant services and data-savvy staff.

This was followed by Geoffrey Boulton of the University of Edinburgh who pointed out that he and his students no longer use libraries as a place of research.

‘Why don’t I go there anymore? The reason simply is that there has been a revolution in the way the processes of science are done. The revolution has continued. It hasn’t worked itself through. It’s technologically driven and it’s probably faster than the revolution by which Gutenberg destroyed the business model of the late medieval monastery. The question is if it is destroying the business model of research libraries as we now see them.’

To respond to this change, Boulton urged libraries to talk directly with researchers about their needs and find innovative ways of supporting them.

‘We need a new breed of informatics trained data scientists as the new librarians of the post-Gutenburg world,’ he said.

In light of the current data deluge, and plans by the European Commission to harness this deluge through the implementation of e-infrastructures for data-driven science under Horizon 2020, Carlos Morais Pires, from the European Commission’s DG Connect, also issued a call to action to libraries to engage in the data infrastructure and bring their own unique, and now much needed competencies, to bear in bringing meaning to, and spreading the word about, data-driven science.

In addition to the main speakers, the various workshops, parallel sessions and panel discussions at LIBER 2013 allowed participants to hear the views and experiences of some 50 library professionals from around the world. The work of projects such as Europeana Newspapers (working on the aggregation and refinement of 18 million digital newspapers) and Medoanet (a network advocating for open-access strategies in Mediterranean countries) was highlighted, and the use of crowdsourcing was another recurring theme.

Birte Christensen-Dalsgaard from the Royal Library of Denmark spoke about the library’s recent initiative Denmark Seen From The Air (Danmark Set Fra Luften). It presented the public with 200,000 pictures of farms and asked people to help locate the farms on a map, and to add relevant information such as information about who lived there.

The poster that was voted best of the conference also featured crowdsourcing. It profiled the Digitalgud project, in which 18 Estonian memory institutions uploaded photos of unidentified people and places to Facebook. In just 10 days, the page attracted over 1,000 followers and most of the photos were identified.

Friedel Grant is communications officer at LIBER. A version of this article also appears on the LIBER blog. Presentations from LIBER 2013 can be downloaded on the conference website and video highlights are available on LIBER’s YouTube channel