Web 3.0 promises change for libraries

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The latest developments in web technology will undoubtedly continue to
affect libraries. David Stuart looks at some of the technology on the horizon

Almost as soon as the term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined, the web community split into two factions. There were those who embraced the term and started debating future iterations and the meanings of ‘Web 3.0’, ‘Web 4.0’, and even ‘Web 5.0’. Meanwhile, the other group labelled the 2.0 moniker as hype.

One of the problems with the term Web 2.0 has been the lack of an explicit definition. In his seminal paper on the topic, Tim O’Reilly instead provided a list of features and technologies, such as using the web as a platform, and harnessing the wisdom of the crowd. The wide variety of features has led to arguments that Web 2.0 is vague enough to include everything on the web and as such means nothing. However, away from the details, the term ‘Web 2.0’ reflects a major shift in the way that users view the web: from a read-only web, to a read-write web.

The term ‘Web 3.0’ reflects an equally momentous change in the way we view the web. Some of the possible avenues for the future include the 3D web, the semantic web, and the real world web. All have gained a lot of interest among library and information professionals. Virtual 3D worlds such as Second Life provide new places and ways to offer information and services. An increasingly semantic web offers the opportunity for access to increasing amounts of information from disparate sources. Meanwhile the real world web offers to integrate the web with the world around us. We are yet to see which of these will capture the imagination of library stakeholders to such an extent that it will reflect a new perspective in the way they see the web.

The 3D web

The potential of a 3D web and a far richer web experience have been enabled by increases in computer processing power and higher bandwidth capabilities. Complex virtual worlds offer the opportunity for 3D virtual representations of users to interact with one another in real time and explore information and virtual objects in new ways. The potential of such virtual worlds for the provision of information services has been recognised by many information professionals.

Much of the attention in the library community has focused on Second Life, a virtual world with modelling tools and a scripting language that enables the creation of a wide variety of objects. The Alliance Virtual Library has had a presence on Second Life since 2006, housing a variety of collections, and regularly being staffed by volunteer librarians. The popularity of Second Life among the library community has even resulted in an online magazine dedicated to the use of Second Life by librarians and educators, RezLibris.

However, the widespread adoption of Second Life among the general public no longer looks as likely as it did a couple of years ago. Instead of virtual worlds making the news over the last year, far more attention has been paid to the minimalist Twitter service. Second Life suffers from the need to download software and far higher computational requirements than the ‘traditional web’. It also requires a user to master a more complex set of skills, for both the browsing and creation of content.

The 3D web will only become a realistic medium for the provision of library and information services when it becomes seamless with the rest of the web, becoming browser friendly. While steps are being made in this direction, those 3D environments that currently make use of a browser generally still require an extensive download. This might be a single user exploring a virtual space, for example, the virtual tour of The Linnean Society of London, or interacting in a multi-user environment, such as in the multi-player game QUAKE LIVE. Rather than the 3D environment running in the browser, the browser is merely the front-end for a program running in the background. Steps are being taken, however, for browser-based 3D environments, with the development of cross-platform plugin-free web standards.

Although much of the hype surrounding 3D web services has died-down, there is plenty of potential for its application in the provision of library and information services in the future. However, it is important that the technologies are used because they are the most appropriate way to convey the requisite information – not just because they are the latest glitzy web technology.

The semantic web

In comparison to the excessive hype surrounding sites like Second Life, there is relatively little widespread understanding of the semantic web – a web of information that is meaningful to computers. The specialist terminology of the semantic web has created a barrier to most people engaging with the topic. And those that do engage with the semantic web fail to get the same sense of discernable contrast that people notice with the 3D web. Whilst O’Reilly identified data as “the next Intel inside”, much of the data that is currently hosted is in information silos. Accessing the data from a specific information resource requires learning the quirks and format of each specific application programme interface (API).

Nonetheless, access to APIs has encouraged an increasing number of users to start thinking about the web of data, and there is increased interest in the possibilities of both Linked Data and microformats for the embedding of semantic information. Linked Data is about publishing and connecting related data from different websites in a way that the relationships are meaningful to computers. Microformats focus on embedding semantic attributes into web pages through the application of agreed standards (for example, marking up contact information in the hCard format).

Embracing the semantic web requires librarians and information professionals to not only move beyond the physical and virtual document, which has been the focus of much of their attention up until now. It also requires them to start thinking of interacting with the data on the web as a large information resource, rather than in individual data repositories. When discussing the potential of a semantic web to bring together previously disparate information resources in as yet unthought-of ways, it is difficult not to slip into hyperbole – assigning increasing amounts of our daily online activity to automated agents that could carry out the tasks on our behalf.

Real world web

While the incremental changes of the semantic web may not be immediately discernable, or beneficial, this is not the case with the real world web. Small-scale applications incorporating the web into the world around us can have an immediate impact. Connections between the web and the real world are not only possible through the increased sophistication of mobile phones, but also platforms that enable real-time updates from real world objects.

Mobile phones with high processing power, high-specification cameras and GPS receivers, offer a new way to provide information services. This can be a sophisticated augmented reality, overlaying a real image of the world with additional information from the web. An example is combining facial recognition software with social network profiles, or overlaying buildings with virtual signs. Another way to provide information services might be scanning simple 2D barcodes such as QR codes to make connections between the objects in the real world and the web. Although the technology for reading QR codes has been around for a number of years, and its use is widespread in Japan, it has only relatively recently started to be adopted more globally. For example, Bath University library in the UK has recently incorporated QR codes into its library catalogue. This enables users to save the author, title, and shelf number of the works they are interested in onto their mobile phone. The floor plan also includes QR code links to an MP3 audio tour.

Connections between real-world objects can also take the form of automatic updates. The streaming of data from real-world sensors attached to real-world objects has been simplified by the emergence of dedicated web services such as Pachube, microblogging services such as Twitter, and the extension of the RSS protocol with RSS Cloud and PubSubHubBub. Library services can now incorporate real-world sensors to inform customers how busy a library is or which facilities are not in use at a particular time.

Future libraries

The 3D web, the semantic web, and the real world web, will all have a role to play in the future provision of library and information services. However, it is the real world web that is most likely to change the way users see the web – thus, this is the one most worthy of the 3.0 moniker. Not only will it provide an immediately-recognisable difference in the way users view the web, but the technologies are already available. Although the technologies are available for the semantic web, it relies on widespread adoption to become useful. It doesn’t seem likely that it will create a dramatic shift in the way we view the web any time soon. The technologies necessary for a more immersive 3D web experience are not yet established, and it is not yet clear how much it will affect the way that we view the web as a whole.

The three potential visions of the web discussed here are not mutually exclusive, but instead are likely to be combined in many as yet unthought-of combinations in the future, along with other new technologies. While Web 2.0 has been surrounded by a lot of hype and argument, we can’t get away from the fact that the way we use the web, as well as the content on it, has changed, and will continue to change in the future. Those who gain the most from the web will be those at the forefront of the change, not those playing catchup.

David Stuart is an independent web analyst and consultant and honorary member of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton, UK

Further information

Cross-platform plugin-free web standards: www.khronos.org/webgl
Linked Data: www.linkeddata.org
microformats: www.microformats.org
Bath University library: www.bath.ac.uk/library/services/qrcode.html
Pachube: www.pachube.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com
RSS Cloud: www.rsscloud.org
PubSubHubBub: www.code.google.com/p/pubsubhubbub