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Archive for the ‘libraries’ Category

The Semantic Web

Our wiki scrum team is now testing Semantic MediaWiki, a tool that will improve the wiki’s search and browse experience by bringing further tagging (and resulting meaning) to our articles. To understand the power of such a tool, one must understand the concept of the Semantic Web. One of the simplest descriptions I’ve found is Chris Gledhill’s “The Semantic Web — A Muggle’s View.” Below are a few quotes that explain the Semantic Web in a clean metaphor:

“The web is like a vast library in which the books are completely randomly arranged, each book has a predefined space on the shelf but there is absolutely no categorisation. Search engines such as Google act as librarians to help us find the resources we want, but in a most bizarre way. A web search engine is like some sort of autistic genius with an immense memory and perfect recall of the words in each book but absolutely no idea what they mean.”

“So instead of being able to ask Google to direct us to the section on advanced bungee jumping techniques or DIY space exploration, we have to think of some words that are likely to appear in the books we want and then wade through all of the irrelevant rubbish that happens to contain the same words in the hope of finding something useful.”

Having explained how the primitive Web works, Gledhill goes on to explain the Semantic Web:

“In information science… an ontology is a formal (and rigorous) description of all of the entities, relationships and rules within a particular domain of knowledge. The magical bit happens when you have created an ontology in a particular field. It then becomes possible for computer software to make logical inferences from real world information to ‘discover’ new facts which have not been explicitly encoded.”

Gledhill ends by predicting which fields will likely embrace the work it takes to create the semantic context that will allow their information to be more useful and findable. The Semantic Web, he says, “will be welcomed in any commercial field where the economic advantages of standardisation outweigh the benefits of confusing the opposition, punter [beginner user] or regulator.”

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This morning I spent one hour on the bus and a half hour in the office reading sections of two books, trying to learn new paradigms and find something that will help me make my Web 2.0 team’s efforts more scalable. The two books were a couple I’ve been reading lately — William Becker’s How to OD [organizational design] and Live to Tell About It, and David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined: a Unified Theory of the Web. This morning, Small Pieces was just too philosophical for me: Sure, I could take one of the great abstract thoughts I marked in the book and figure out some way to transform it into an epiphany of how I should change my site’s strategy, but boy, the work it would take was just too much. And while Becker’s organizational design book applies directly to a division reorganization in which I am participating as a planner, what it was telling me to do to get other managers aligned and ready for change again felt like an enormous amount of work that nobody really asked me to do. I guess I’m just tired this morning.

Then, clearing my desktop bookshelf of items I rarely read so I could put these books there, I came across an American Library Association journal whose cover read “Shaping the Future with Student Interns.” I’d been grabbing the stack of ALA mags to put them in a closed overhead bin, and ironically, my morning paradigm shift had come from this six-word headline I was about to archive. Student interns. Read: No-cost, temporary employees burning to prove their mettle. We’ve got ’em in a university nearby that acts like a feeder school to our corporation. I’ve used them before. They were great, and their effectiveness, semester by semester, has grown as the needs of our customers became clearer and our Website matured. And for some silly reason, as I struggled recently to determine ways to get more volunteers writing on our site, I completely overlooked them.

But interns — especially those from our feeder school — really know our content. They use it all the time. They understand how our library’s materials are organized and accessed. They’re young college students, so they understand Web 2.0. Most have a Facebook account; shop on Amazon, Ebay, and Craigslist; and participate in online forums. Many can write well. Each wants an internship whose assignments are measurable so that calculating success, or a grade, will be easy. Many would like to work for our department because they have declared a major (family history) which corresponds with what our department does.

So it’s no big revelation that an intern adds value to our project. The big question is why we don’t have them all the time, why we’re not always trying to get more, and why I didn’t immediately think of them when trying to figure out how to engage more contributors on our Website. And I suppose the reason for all these failures stems from two issues: First, the tour of duty for an unpaid intern is a bit shorter than the duration of a semester. We have them for only about three months, really. And the ones we get are required to work — hours. That’s a lot of turnover, and it takes effort to show an intern the ropes, train them how to use the system, provide follow-up coaching, design a project that’s big enough to keep them busy, and oversee their progress in that project. But judging from the content we’ve gotten from some of our interns, it’s all well worth it if you get the right interns and don’t just accept anybody who applies.

If interns are well worth the time they take to manage, then what’s holding us back from using several interns continually? Organization, really. We have nobody assigned to recruit, train, and direct interns each semester. It feels like a worthwhile assignment to make. Inasmuch as most of this workgroup’s employees are centered around developing a community of contributors around a knowledge domain, it feels like maybe each of them should be in charge of an intern each quarter. Having one person assigned to recruit interns for the whole team feels wrong, somehow — it feels smarter to have each community coordinator select and recruit their own intern so they can get the right person for the job.

The ALA journal’s article about interns yields something important to remember: That interns are there to learn. “The student who only does clerical tasks or low-priority activities during fieldwork may come away with a distorted view of the librarian’s role and reduced interest in remaining in the profession.” In other words, we probably shouldn’t employ interns only to write content. They should become involved with our product development scrums, design portal pages for a knowledge domain, get other sites to link to the content they create, monitor Web analytics for their domain, and survey users on what parts of their designs do and do not work. They could even design and create within their domain the reference-interview system I described in yesterday’s blog entry which helps beginners get the help they need without having to know genealogical lingo or research methodology.

The takeaway from this six-word journal headline that happily took over my morning: My team will have a meeting Monday. We’ll discuss the things each employee is doing that could benefit from an extra set of (intern) hands. If the list is sufficient to keep some interns busy with mind-growing assignments, employees will be assigned to recruit and engage some interns. If it works — if the ROI is indeed worthwhile, recruiting and managing interns will become a regular assignment for employees each quarter.

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Del.icio.us has a brilliant feature on its site that would strengthen other sites and and give their users the feeling that there’s always something new there. Each day a Delicious member can post their newly tagged Internet favorites as a blog post with a series of links to each new site (Groundswell p.30). If a library’s Website put such a daily list in a highly-trafficked portal page, customers visiting the portals would get a strong feeling that A) this site is improving all the time and B) if it doesn’t have information I want today, it will tomorrow.

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