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Making discoveries at discovery meeting

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Neil Grindley reports from the recent Jisc Discovery Summit 2013 and the parallel discussions on Twitter

Anyone who follows me on Twitter (@neilgrindley) will know that they get nothing from me for weeks, and then all of a sudden I start gushing, tweet after tweet, and won’t shut up. The reason for this is that I mostly use Twitter intensively when I’m at an event where presentations are being given and discussions are happening. 

Twitter can be a valuable alternative channel of discussion and a medium of communication that, when used effectively, can genuinely provide participants with insights, views, opinions and a unique synthesis of an event.

This was illustrated by the Twitter discussion that accompanied the recent Discovery Summit 2013. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss methods and strategies for discovering digital resources. Organised by Jisc and the British Library, it was a two day conference attended by more than 200 local and virtual delegates. The hash tag was #disc13 and around 1017 comments were tweeted during the course of the conference.

The plenary talks and discussions were streamed live over the internet and there was a determined effort to engage all online delegates by asking them to vote on discovery priority actions for a future ‘to do’ list arising from the conference.

Rachel Bruce, innovation director at Jisc, suggested in her conference presentation that ‘to do’ items could include ‘making hard economic arguments for open resource discovery’ and ‘focusing on user satisfaction, not click’s. The second point, about user satisfaction, reflected a larger live and virtual discussion about ‘users’, references to whom (singular and plural) featured 88 times in the Twitter stream.

The behaviour of ‘users’ has been changing, of course, as information professionals are all too aware. Demonstrating this, Cameron Neylon (@CameronNeylon), advocacy director for PLOS, began his presentation by provocatively asserting that he hasn't set foot in a library in 12 years. Instead, he said, he uses Google, PubMed, and Twitter for discovery.

His remarks struck a chord with people following the event on Twitter. Gwen Franck(@g_fra), for example, tweeted, ‘i concur. i don't use it if it's not on the interweb (and i work in a library!)’, while PhD student Ross Mounce (@rmounce) asked, ‘re: researcher/library disconnect @neilgrindley What do librarians do? No, seriously! PhD students wouldn't know I think. I dont tbh #disc13’.

The role of the library was much discussed at the conference and online (it came up 65 times in the stream). Comments such as Mounce’s also raise questions about student awareness of what libraries offer and more general questions about the skills agenda.

It is clear both from the tweet stream and some of the prioritised conclusions of the conference that there is work to be done to ensure that libraries are positioning and marketing themselves effectively in the role of intermediaries in the discovery process and that both students and librarians have sufficient knowledge and skills to support effective research and sophisticated learning. Two from the long list of 18 conclusions from the conference explicitly support this view. (The long list is available here).

Metadata was another topic that attracted considerable discussion during the conference (and was mentioned 66 times in the tweets).

There was a useful and impressively concise exchange of views in response to my tweet, saying: ‘if an object is digital, you don't need metadata. You need to index the content.#disc13’. Chris Rusbridge’s (@carusb) response was: ‘Text-think!’, which succinctly branded me as someone who was ignoring non-text based objects such as images, audio and data. Amber Thomas (@ambrouk), meanwhile, shot back at me with: ‘answer: that's still metadata’

Both good points were well made, and exclusively came from the virtual realm of the conference rather than from the face-to-face discussion. And what’s more, they are repeatable now and were available to all delegates at the time, regardless of which breakout session they were attending – or whether they were even at the meeting at all.

Meanwhile, many people used the Twitter stream to share resources that they have found useful for information discovery or to share more information about topics discussed in the presentations.

Ade Stevenson (@adrianstevenson), senior technology innovations coordinator at Mimas and secretary of the Museums Computer Group, for example, tweeted: ‘Thanks to @rachelbruce for the WW1 Discovery project shoutout - using GLAM APIs live on-the-fly. More info at http://t.co/U3oAXySFEU #disc13.’

PhD student and chair of the Museums Computer Group (@ukmcg) Mia (@mia_out) tweeted a ‘great resource for GLAMs and devs using Refine for cultural metadata: http://t.co/fJfngkLfBA’ and Jane Stevenson (@janestevenson), who manages the UK Archives Hub, shared ‘ResourceSync: http://t.co/ssSKlu2c0S. Lightweight mechanism to allow state of web resources to be communicated.’

Nicholas Poole‏ (@NickPoole1), CEO of Collections Trust, also recommended the @EuropeanaEU Network, which Alistair Dunning of the European Library (@alastairdunning) mentioned in his presentation. As Poole tweeted, ‘joining is free & takes 2 mins - http://t.co/QoRTqw1rCO.’

Such information about additional routes to useful resources mentioned in presentations is valuable and echoes another theme of the conference, something that Antonio Acuna of data.gov.uk described as ‘six degrees of openness’. Currently, Acuna said, the UK’s open government data service provides six ways that users can get to data. This is good, he explained because users are usually not searching specifically. He also encouraged people to avoid thinking too narrowly about how their data will be used.

Detractors of Twitter say that it fosters the belief in its users that every thought and  reflection becomes worthy of sharing with the world and that consequently anything valuable that might get posted is swamped with a great tide of mundanity. This is, inevitably, everyone’s first experience of Twitter.

What won’t be obvious straight away is the incredibly-powerful voice it gives you to address a particular community engaged in a specific topic and to enrich the physical conversations that happen at conferences – and this all forms part of the discovery that was the theme of this conference. And even if you don’t wish to have your thoughts powerfully (and near instantly) amplified by such a community microphone, it offers unique opportunities to listen to opinions and discover resources that will not arise anywhere else.

I’m certainly of the opinion that Twitter is not just for saying what you had for breakfast – although, of course, it’s good for that as well.

@neilgrindley – Right … I’m going to have another cup of tea and some toast #fascinatingtweets

Neil Grindley is programme manager, digital infrastructure, Jisc