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Harvard University Library Notes / November 2007 / No. 1340
Interview: John W. Collins III
John W. Collins III is librarian of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and a member of both the faculty of education and the University Library Council (ULC). He directs the Monroe C. Gutman Library, which provides a full range of research support services to the HGSE community and maintains collections of over 200,000 volumes and thousands of electronic resources. Collins is a specialist in information technology, serves on national boards and task forces, and is a regular reviewer for several prestigious library journals. He played a key role in designing the National Library of Education and has consulted with the US Department of Education in developing and implementing the National Education Network. During the 2005–2006 academic year, Collins served as the acting director of the Office of Student Affairs. He is also the faculty director of the Specialized Master's Program at HGSE. Collins served on the ULC's Task Group on Discovery and Metadata. He was interviewed for Library Notes on October 30.
What was the origin of the Task Group on Discovery and Metadata?
Not long ago, the ULC reviewed all of its committees and recognized that we needed to look at metadata and discovery in a new way. We chose to put together this preliminary group—the task group on metadata and discovery—to get a sense of the landscape and to develop a meaningful charge for the new, permanent committee.
The plan was for the task group to work for a year or so to give the ULC a handle on key developments in the discovery and metadata arenas. We wanted to be able to inform the ULC, the library community, and our library stakeholders about the big issues.
Things move quickly in these areas, and new programs seem to appear every day. In part, we formed the task group to be flexible, nimble, and quick. Our users, our constituents, are seeing online systems that can change every day—whether it's Google or Amazon or other online systems that they're very familiar with. They expect us to adapt, too.
When you're involved, as all of us here at Harvard are, with such a huge library system, change necessarily comes slowly—even when the world around us is changing very quickly.
What was the task group's charge from ULC?
We were charged with reviewing key developments in the domains of discovery systems and metadata.
Part of the charge—at least as we interpreted it—was to listen to users. We know that they're using different discovery tools, like social tagging systems, that are outside of the Harvard Libraries domain. We wanted to assure everybody that we were aware of those trends and that we recognize their value and significance. And we needed to know more about the impact of some of these new tools and approaches on the way that we create metadata.
What can you tell us about the group's process?
We gave each other assignments. Individuals and teams would come to our meetings having done homework and made explorations. We gave presentations to each other. We fielded a marvelous iSite. [See http://isites.harvard.edu/k13676—Ed.] On that iSite, we had a blog, collected papers, added lots of links—to different systems that exemplify some of the points that we were talking about. These range from faceted and visual display systems such as Endeca and AquaBrowser to social bookmarking sites such as del.icio.us.
We included links to conferences, some longer reports done at other universities, and papers, including work by some of the speakers that the task group brought to Harvard. The iSite is quite an incredible resource in and of itself. Even though the task group's work is done, the iSite will continue to be a valuable resource to the Harvard community and others because it really is a nice collection, a nice place to go to become educated on all of the issues surrounding this topic.
Of course, our report and recommendations are there too.
Working on the task group was an incredibly rich educational experience for me. My background isn't in cataloging or the creation of metadata, and it was such a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to explore, to look at what people are doing around the country and to come to a greater appreciation of the role that some of the big players—like OCLC—are now playing on individual campuses and in local catalogs. I was also incredibly impressed with the deep level of knowledge and expertise found in the librarians here at Harvard.
The task group brought some very high-level people to Harvard. How were those presentations received?
Well, they were extremely well attended—which told us that the topics were of great interest to lots of people here. It also told us that we were on the right track as far as the speakers we were inviting: These were truly the leading experts—people who had done a lot of thinking on these topics. We were interested in hearing how the decisions that they've made were playing out. They are looking into the crystal ball and are trying to imagine how the future looks for the discovery of metadata arenas.
These talks were so well received that we want them to continue. Now that the task group work is done and the coordinating committee on metadata and discovery has already had some meetings, one of our recommendations is that this series of presentations by leading experts in this field continue so that we can enable the Harvard community to engage in the dialog and be informed around these issues and to continue our own education into these fields.
How would you characterize the overall dialog on metadata and discovery?
Dynamic, exciting. It's a dialog that allows people with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences to have a voice, and this includes library users because we're looking carefully at how people are using different search tools.
I have sensed no skepticism at all. It's clear that this is an area that Harvard must commit to doing very careful work at this point. The world is changing, and the search-and-discovery world is changing extremely quickly and in exciting ways.
There was no sense that we ought to continue doing things the way we've always done them, but rather that we ought to look at the way we're doing things and, in order to remain relevant and valuable in the world of search and discovery, that we have to adapt and adjust. We have to be current and forward-thinking.
That said, we all recognize that we have a long and rich history and a tremendous investment in the creation of metadata. And none of us think that there's any reason even to consider abandoning that commitment. If anybody did believe that that was where we were heading, it simply wasn't the case. As our report indicates clearly, we're not about to abandon—or even to make radical changes to—the way we treat metadata.
Can you give us the short version of the task group's recommendations?
Sure. We made four recommendations.
The first recommendation is that the discovery and metadata coordinating committee look at new ways of presenting the HOLLIS catalog, and that we should give priority to platforms that support new tools and technologies, such as faceted displays, relevance ranking, and things like that.
The second recommendation was that the new standing committee should pursue catalog enrichment opportunities. People are used to Amazon, for example, which offers enriched displays such as cover images and tables of contents. We're asking if there are ways to incorporate enrichments into our HOLLIS display.
The third recommendation was to develop tools that enable us to display library resources on iCommons and course web sites more easily and in a significantly enriched way.
The last of the four recommendations is that we promote techniques to improve efficiencies in technical services. The more the world of metadata and discovery relies on massive systems, shared resources, like Open WorldCat, the more ways there may be for us to be more efficient in sharing and using that data, which may in turn give us more time to focus on the unique and less discoverable aspects of some of the Harvard collections that are not part of the mainstream.
Among these recommendations, were there any surprises for you?
Some of us suspected that we'd be heading for a significant change in our commitment to metadata—which represents a huge investment over a long period of time.
It's important to remember that we're part of the research library world and a lot of people are relying on us to share the data that we create. To do something ad hoc or independent at this point would probably not be a good idea. It's not the right time for that type of radical change.
Metadata is enduring. It's going to live on. There'll be new systems that come and go, but metadata is actually the foundation for everything else that we're doing.
So, in closing: the task group's work is done.
Yes. We've presented our report to the ULC. It's publicly available. The new coordinating committee [See http://hul.harvard.edu/resources/committees/dmcc.html—Ed.] has been formed and charged and has actually met. We have some new faces on the committee who weren't on the task group. But there's some consistency with people who were. The committee is representative, with a range of functional specialists, people who really know aspects of metadata. There are people who represent different constituents, familiarity with different discovery techniques, and people who know the Harvard system very well. It's a great committee and it's already hard at work. I'm enjoying it immensely.