Infrastructure, Infra dig

Yesterday I attended the first meeting of the new JISC Resource Discovery Infrastructure Taskforce.

I enjoyed the day, and the Task Group is bringing together a great set of people who all had an incredible amount to contribute to the discussion.

The day was much about establishing some basics – like agreeing the Terms of Reference for the group – and also about getting some of the issues and assumptions out in the open. I'd been asked to prepare a 10 minute presentation titled 'What if we were starting from scratch'. Paul Miller from Talis also presented. Originally there had been a suggestion that Tim Spalding of LibraryThing would also present, but that didn't happen in the end (which was a disappointment)

My talk is available via Slideshare, but at last look, the speakers notes were not displaying properly, so I'd recommend using the 'download' option to get the powerpoint file, as the Speaker's Notes are essentially the script of the talk (although without my witty improvisations).

One of the things I struggled with as I wrote the talk, is that I knew what I wanted to say in terms of what a 'starting from scratch' approach might look like, but I had no idea of how this linked to user need. This may seem a bit backwards – perhaps arrogant? – in a world where we recognise that serving the user need is paramount, but even during the day we seemed to come up against this problem more than once – how does the infrastructure relate to the user? Are they aware of it? Do they care what it looks like? How do they inform it?

After researching and thinking, I eventually hit upon Ranganathan's 5 Laws of Library Science as a way of thinking about the user need and still relating it to the infrastructure. If you have seen (or remember) the 5 laws:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every reader his [or her] book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the User.
  5. The library is a growing organism.

Then I really recommend you read the full text of Ranganathan’s original book – as the thinking behind these laws are so much more important than this plain statement of them.

One final thing on the presentation – in it I describe a linked environment that I say is ‘not necessarily the web’ – I think this is true in terms of what I’m describing and for the purposes of the presentation. I want to state though that in reality, if we are implementing something along these lines the linked environment would absolutely have to be the web – there is no point in coming up with something separate.

Overall the discussions on the day were very interesting, and really just emphasised how much there was to discuss:

  • How does discovery relate to delivery
  • Are we talking about discovery via metadata or other routes (e.g. full-text searching)
  • What is good/bad about what we’ve got
  • Are we talking about any ‘resource’ or just ‘bibliographic’
  • What does ‘world class’ mean in the context of resource discovery

Some of this may seem trivial, and some fundamental, but I guess this is what happens when you try and tackle this kind of big issue.

However, the one thing that I came away wondering overall was ‘what do we mean by infrastructure’? (luckily I think I’m clearer on Resource Discovery, otherwise we’d be in real trouble!) has the following definition of infrastructure:

  1. the basic, underlying framework or features of a system or organization.
  2. the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, as transportation and communication systems, power plants, and schools.
  3. the military installations of a country.

Ruling out the last one (I hope) as not relevant, I think the first two definitions sum up the problem. On the one hand, infrastructure can be seen as the very basic framework. If you talk about Infrastructure in the context of Skyscrapers then you are talking about the metal frame, the foundations, the concrete etc. This seems to me like meaning (1) above.

On the other hand, in terms of urban planning infrastructure might refer not just to underlying frameworks (e.g. roads, sewers) but also basic services (e.g. refuse collection, metro system)

I think that when we talked about ‘resource discovery infrastructure’ some people think ‘plumbing’ or ‘foundations’ (this includes me), and some think ‘metro’ or ‘refuse collection’.

To take a specific example, is a geographical Union Catalogue like the InforM25 Union List of Serials part of a resource discovery ‘infrastructure’ or is the ‘infrastructure’ in this case the MARC record and ftp which allows the records from many catalogues to be dumped together, merged and displayed?

Going back to the question of how the user relates to the infrastructure – you can see how I (as a user) relate very much to the mass transit system that is provided where I live – but I don’t care about the gauge of rail on which it runs (perhaps I should, but I don’t)

The group is planning another meeting in the New Year, and definitions are one of the things we need to talk about – I think the question of what qualifies as Infrastructure needs to be close to the top of that list.

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