Despite a proclivity toward openness, libraries have historically been involved with data and content under various levels of restrictions imposed by copyright and proprietary business arrangements. Libraries have also dealt with data primarily through self-contained applications, mostly managed within relational databases. While these modes of operation persist today in the mainstream production systems of interest to libraries, a strong movement is underway toward the principles of the Semantic Web and more open approaches to sharing data. I see libraries now at an interesting juncture between the realm of proprietary, restricted, and isolated data and a new era with possibilities for more openness in sharing data and putting it to work through Semantic Web technologies.
The library community seems to be ready to push boundaries and more liberally share previously restricted data. To what extent can metadata related to collections be shared with other organizations or exposed freely for the entire world? When can the actual content of collections be shared? Copyright, licensing terms, and business contracts impose specific restrictions, but libraries have been working toward arrangements that allow more sharing.
The open access movement, for example, has been underway for a decade or so, aiming to transform scholarly publishing. Yet, it seems that the progress achieved has yet to significantly relieve the financial burden that libraries face in gaining access to scholarly publications. Still, there is reason for optimism as increasing numbers of important academic institutions, such as Harvard University, become strategically committed to open access to the works created by their researchers.
We see more aggressive movement toward liberal models of access in the metadata that describes library collections or bodies of published content. In this issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter, we explore developments toward more freedom in sharing metadata stores of interest to libraries, such as Dewey Decimal Classification, the Virtual International Authority File, the bibliographic records from libraries such as Harvard University, and ultimately OCLC's WorldCat database. International efforts such as Europeana have set a high standard for openness that other organizations will do well to follow.
In addition to sharing data, the library community has also become increasingly involved in Semantic Web technologies that enable more powerful use of that data. One of the technologies associated with the Semantic Web is linked data, which exposes data elements with built-in interconnectivity. Rather than using proprietary formats, linked data makes use of W3C standards such as RDF (Resource Description Framework); exposes each element through a unique URI (Uniform Resource Identifier); and provides ways to query the linked data sets through the URI. This approach results in a global network—the Semantic Web—where data are truly machine readable, meaningfully structured, and interconnected, enabling the creation of new systems or applications that bring together relevant information from the ever-expanding universe of linked data.
So far, library automation has not yet seen widespread adoption of Semantic Web technologies. The business systems common in libraries make use of data enclosed within relational databases. The current slate of discovery services, although incorporating ever larger volumes of metadata and content, continue to operate on the basis of pre-built indexes within search engines rather than through linked data. The current technology trends toward cloud technologies, such as software-as-a-service and shared knowledge bases, do not generally cross over into the realm of the Semantic Web.
While the number of library activities and projects involving Semantic Web technologies continues to grow, it seems to me that they currently are in the research and development stage and have yet to reach strategic production-level systems. They hold great potential for libraries, and I will be closely following these technologies, looking for significant new developments.