FIGHTING BUSH FIRES: THE INFORMATION ONLINE CONFERENCE 2005
originally published in Online
Currents March 2005 and reprinted with kind permission of the
publishers Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd.
Outsell’s annual analysis of the information
industry, published before Christmas, ventured predictions for 2005. We will
see increasing democratisation of information and information access. Content
will be liberated from its containers. Information managers will take on new
roles with greater access to the power centres in their organisations.
Technology will continue to dominate. And there will be power shifts “as the
traditional publishing model evolves into a content supply chain model.”
The 12th Information Online Conference, presented by ALIA’s Information Online
Group in February, came as a welcome retreat to gnaw on these trends, check
responses by librarians, and explore the latest tools of the trade at
The lack of printed proceedings in the conference satchel (a justifiable cost
saving in today’s online world), the delay in the availability of many of the
papers on the website, the prevalence of PowerPoint files as the only format,
and the absence of a summary in the final session of the conference means this
personal synthesis, constrained by a deadline, is a first cut on sessions
attended (about a third of the conference) and a prompt for wider and deeper
exploration of the program.
As the effort of tooling up society moves into a phase of making better use of
the tools that have been created, searching has taken centre stage.
The dominance of the search engine business was reflected in two keynote
addresses. Yahoo’s Peter Crowe predicted that future search engine strategies
will respond to a need to deliver answers rather than websites. There will be
continued development of content acquisition programs, desktop search tools,
clustered hits, and search verticals facilitating access to images, news,
video and scholarly material. Knowledge search and Eurekster-style searching
will capitalise on the growth of blogs and the networking dynamics of the Web.
In the second address, Leisl Capper focused on MooterSearch’s use of
predictive profiling technology, which analyses user personalities, cognitive
styles and motivations rather than demographics in reading and responding to
Federated search technology is something in which librarians will have more
direct involvement. Mac Horn, in his talk on Web service applications, said
federated searching will probably replace the Z39.50 protocol. Library systems
today are capable of handling normal library operations. But as they look to
leverage this investment, most benefits will flow from interactions between
library systems and myriad services available outside the library.
Developments in Web service applications are likely to outpace attempts at
The conference technology smorgasbord also offered practical tips on selecting
and implementing content management systems, developing university portals to
accommodate individual course requirements, and using visualisation tools,
usability testing, and transaction log analysis.
David Hawking presented the results of a recent
study of the role and limitations of metadata in achieving effective search
functionality within enterprises. Ineffective search functionality costs many
organisations dearly in lost productivity – as much as US$15 million annually
in some enterprises according to Jakob Nielson - and in lost opportunities to
convert website visitors into customers. Achieving effective search
functionality requires an understanding of search engine technologies,
information needs and information seeking patterns. “Money for improving
search facilities is, in general, not well spent on applying metadata to
existing online resources.”
Hawking continued the metadata theme, particularly in relation to the major
search engines, in a subsequent panel session with Matthew Leske from
YourAmigo and Warwick Cathro from the National Library of Australia. Among
their conclusions: metadata cannot solve the problems of invisibility without
excellent systems design; even with good metadata, dynamic content is usually
invisible for many reasons; metadata is often useful in enterprise systems but
is mostly ignored by the major search engines; enterprise technologies from
firms such as YourAmigo can reveal pages hidden to the Internet search
engines; human indexing is prone to error and is becoming increasingly costly;
and automatic harvesting of metadata is becoming increasingly attractive as
I did not attend this discussion and have therefore drawn on Elizabeth Swan’s
summary on the conference blog page, a useful addition to the event’s modus
operandi. In the face of challenges for publishing, distributing and
synthesising conference papers, use of the blog in future conferences may
benefit from increased use of rapporteurs and provocateurs to compensate for
the reluctance of librarians to indulge in electronic discourse.
A handy overview of data quality standards and issues was provided by Cathie
Jilovsky. Scott Nicholls drew attention to responses by vendors to address
inadequacies of existing library systems for handling new types of metadata.
Andrew Cunningham championed the need for a common multilingual content
infrastructure in Australia. And Steve O'Connor drew attention to the
pervasiveness of plagiarism and the steps being taken to remedy it.
There seemed to be less uncertainty about the
status of librarians than in previous years, but their role within the
knowledge management spectrum, the value of their work, and their relationship
with IT people were under-currents in several papers.
Knowledge management has not yet taken a firm hold in Australia. Discussions
on the topic often run into definitional problems and a tendency to equate it
with information management. Putting a claim on the territory sometimes
involves simplistic re-badging of services as knowledge centres. Stuart
Ferguson, amplifying his ALIA 2004 conference paper on the subject, attributed
the situation partly to faulty analysis of problems and inflated expectations
about associated technology. Most KM software, he said, are actually
information management tools that were never designed to address the needs of
the learning organisation.
TFPL’s Angela Abell, however, based on her experience as a major recruiter of
information professionals in the UK, where KM jobs seem to be more abundant,
promoted the viability of KM and the opportunities it presents for librarians.
Drawing on two recent reports - The 2003 CKO Summit’s framework The Knowledge
Proposition and the British Standards Institution’s Skills for Knowledge
Working: a Guide to Good Practice – she predicted continued integration of
information and other disciplines within teams to support complex work in all
sectors. KM, she said, is about managing connections, contexts, opportunities
and partnerships. And, if you’re interested in a career shift to the world of
internally generated information, records management positions are now in very
high demand, certainly in the UK.
Kate Andrews urged a central role for librarians in intellectual capital
processes, particularly in identifying information assets, converting
information consumables to organisational capital, managing the information
lifecycle, and improving the capacity of organisations to create value.
There was some evidence at the conference of the integration of the
information disciplines within organisations, while papers on the difficulties
in dealing with inter-disciplinary relationships suggest that convergence and
integration are still in their infancy.
Joan Frye Williams said that, in a period of disorientation, librarians have
been caught in a turf war and cultural clash with IT workers because of
different values, motivations and behaviours. Her exploration of personality
types and tips for handling these relationships, however, seemed to deal with
stereotypes at an operational rather than a strategic level.
Lisa Cotter and Suzanne Lewis touched on the past reluctance by some
librarians to talk to IT at Central Coast Health and subsequent forced
engagement as the result of changing agency business strategies.
Centrelink decided that its library and IT worlds could no longer remain
separate. Anne Daniels and Pam Garfoot described how library-IT relationships
have changed partly as a result of work on language management by the Data &
Information Service, which is responsible for data administration, performance
reporting, data matching services such as fraud detection, records management,
and resource discovery.
Janet Fletcher and Jennifer Peasley, from Macquarie University, outlined how
the silos are being dismantled and the divide between library and IT services
is being bridged through the adoption of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL)
as a framework for improved services based on incident and problem management,
capacity building and delivery of physical and electronic information.
Marshalling the capabilities of librarians, IT workers and other knowledge
workers was the subject of a vivid talk by Paul Smollen, a Clinical Nurse
Consultant, and Rolf Schafer, the chief librarian, at St Vincent’s Hospital.
When St Vincent’s was inundated by travellers as a result of the Severe Acute
Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis, there was a lack of information about the
disease and widespread confusion. Articles had not yet been indexed by main
databases. Linking systems, staff and information involved rapid
reconfiguration of resources centring on the intranet and the development of
an information pathway, filtered links to accredited websites, a SARS manual,
and messaging service.
Other examples of the imagination and commitment
of librarians in responding to technological change were on display in papers
from all library sectors.
Eric Wainwright, echoing other eminent university librarians, touched a pulse
in his ALIA 2004 conference paper when he said that many university libraries
are still in danger of defining their roles too narrowly. They must see
themselves in educational terms, he said, rather than informational terms.
At Information Online 2005, Maxine Brodie’s paper on the eScholarship agenda
at Macquarie University deserved plenary rather than parallel status. Sparked
by the crises in scholarly publishing, new access problems are emerging from a
“new mode of knowledge production.” Responses generally revolve around
electronic publication of monographs and journals, redefinition of
intellectual property, creation and exposure of open access repositories,
digitising materials created in other formats, preservation of electronic
publications, and management of large data sets on the PCs of researchers.
With an eye on critical success factors espoused in Davenport and Prusak’s
Information Ecology, Macquarie University Library is taking an evolutionary
approach which avoids the “perennial library trap of perfectionism.” It is not
clear, she said, whether eScholarship activities will be successful and
sustainable in the long term. The major barriers to implementation and success
are political and cultural rather than technological.
Developments in specific institutional repository initiatives were amplified
by a number of speakers. These included Geoff Payne on the Australian Research
Repositories Online to the World (ARROW) project, Tom Ruthven on the
Australian Partnership for Sustainable Repositories, Tony Cargnelutti on the
Australian Digital Theses Program, and Martin Borchert and Joanna Richardson
on the experience at Griffith University implementing the Hive Digital
A paper by Di Clarke and Des Stewart, led examples of other activities in the
higher education sector, when they described the development of the Southern
Cross University Tweed Gold Coast Campus Library as the first bookless
e-campus library in Australia, and resulting changes to approaches on
selection, document delivery and information literacy. Vicki Bates and Paul
Genat spoke about the creation of a metadata, digital rights and learning
assets management system as part of a “blended learning agenda” at Brisbane’s
The work of government and corporate libraries were represented by Heather
Jones on an audit of information resources as part of risk management exercise
at Hobart City Council, an initiative that has gained support for other
information management projects at the council. Two presentations, one by
Catherine Gilbert and the other by Gaik Khong and Shirley White, described
projects at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library – delivery of digitised
television and radio items to the desktops of parliamentarians and
implementation of 3M’s Digital Materials Flow Management system, using radio
frequency identification technology to manage stocktaking, shelf-reading and
Public libraries seem to be clawing back ground that some Information Online
2003 presenters said they were at risk of losing. MLA chairman Mark Wood
proclaimed last year that, in the UK, “the tide has turned for public
libraries” because library visits in the past year had increased by almost 5
million, library investment had reached an all time high, libraries had bought
more books and they were now open for longer periods.
If this trend is mirrored in Australia, further progress will undoubtedly
centre on efforts by the National Library of Australia, which reported on two
Tony Boston and Bemal Rajapatirana gave an update on the redevelopment of
Kinetica as Libraries Australia. Among enhancements are parallel searching of
multiple remote databases, record sorting, IP authentication, and improved
advanced searching and ‘get’ options. (Find and Get have appeared as the new,
no-nonsense buzz word for resource discovery and delivery). Proposals for
future development include wider access (subject to funding), provision of RSS
feeds, and clustered displays derived from its work on the Functional
Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FBBR) data model.
Information Australia is a pilot portal project involving the National Library
and selected public library services to facilitate improved access by their
constituents to the National Bibliographic Database, PictureAustralia, APAIS
full text and other resources. Fran Wilson, Roxanne Missingham and Janet
Smith, in reporting favourable outcomes, pinpointed three major areas to be
resolved - funding models for community access by all Australians, support for
resources to match increased ILL traffic, and authentication issues. Although
extension of the project is dependent on additional government funding, work
on subsidiary issues is continuing through the Peak Bodies Forum and other
meetings, as are discussions with local government and other possible players.
Andrew Bennett provided an interesting case study on the implementation of
wider community access to online resources at the University of Queensland
Library, a thorny subject that will surely attract wider interest at future
conferences as head-scratching continues on ways of connecting libraries in
the manner of banks.
Virtual reference, two years ago, seemed to be the productivity frontier for
libraries. After the laudable creation of cataloguing efficiencies, the time
seemed to have arrived to rationalise effort at the enquiry counter. However,
several speakers hinted mixed success on this front and one vendor indicated
that adoption of dedicated technology had been limited.
It was heartening, therefore, to hear Royal Adelaide Hospital’s Mary Peterson
and Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s Sue Rockliff talk about a successful joint
venture, Chasing the Sun, involving the South Australia Department of Human
Services Libraries Consortium and the South West Information for Clinical
Effectiveness in the UK. Most of the development work for this award-winning
after-hours cooperative virtual reference service was undertaken in Australia.
The UK provided funds for the trial. That the idea ignited at a dinner between
Australian and UK counterparts is an indication that imagination is relatively
cheap. Its global perspective hints at opportunities for other types of
library groupings to consolidate their interests worldwide. And its dependency
on future funding underlines the challenges of dealing with costs, benefits
Lindon Fairbairn reported on University of Sydney Library’s experimental Ask
Live Service. Many questions relating to staffing, training, promotion,
management, evaluation and integration, she said, still need to be answered.
Has virtual reference arrived too early for the marketplace? What will be the
long term impact of increased numbers of tech-savvy users with a preference
for electronic material and an intolerance of delays?
Liz Blankson-Hemans from Dialog urged delegates to go beyond return on
investment in defining the value of services, beyond traditional "soft"
indicators such as time saved, and to use metrics which more effectively
articulate impact on business initiatives
Broad strategic issues received scant attention.
Colin Webb called for a national plan, based on overseas models, to guide
future action on digital preservation. His paper on the National Library’s
PANDORA project also stimulated the metaphor for the title of this article.
Ten years ago, he said, we talked of the Internet in terms of “drinking from a
fire hose,” but we are now discovering there are more similarities with the
fire than with the hose. PANDORA operates in a ”fire zone” as it deals with
the paradoxes and tensions of beginning something yet finding the means to
sustain it, of promoting individual responsibilities within a collaborative
framework, and of responding to the challenges of rapidly evolving
technologies and standards.
Brian Fitzgerald urged libraries to become involved as critical agents in the
global creative commons movement, represented in Australia by Queensland
University of Technology. And Hemant Manohar’s presentation on the knowledge
landscape in India tempts further investigation by those, who, like me, missed
It was curious that programmers, presenters and maybe even delegates were not
attracted more deeply to contextual threads such as the cursory Senate Inquiry
report, the release of the latest Strategic Framework for the Information
Economy, the break-up of the National Office of the Information Economy and
continued development by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of
knowledge-based economy and society metrics. The work of the Australian
Research Information Infrastructure Committee was mentioned in at least one
paper and, by implication, in several others about specific projects, but
other new players and enforcers such as the Collections Council of Australia
seemed to be off the radar screen.
The Information Online conference again attracted
over 1000 delegates and presenters from all library sectors, reaffirming its
status as Australia’s most popular library conference and trade exhibitor. But
its vanguard status may have disappeared. As Joan Frye Williams observed in
her presentation, every library job is now a technology job. Other local
conferences now echo its look and feel.
Are there lifecycle factors that need to be considered in future iterations?
Australian library conferences tend to be about learning and networking. Their
financial viability depends on an appeal to different interests operating at
different levels within the profession. The formula involves thought leaders
delivering sermons from the mount, papers that are sometimes refereed to
ensure quality (as in the case of the VALA conference), and a good time for
all. But, if comments by a senator at the Senate Inquiry on the Role of
Libraries are interpreted correctly, politicians think librarians do not use
their association conferences to great effect.
ALIA, in recent years, has endeavoured to reduce duplication in conferences
under its control and discouraged those with risky prospects, an approach that
has seen the temporary or permanent disappearance, for example, of the
Specials, Health and Law Libraries Conference. This strategy often meets with
tribal responses lamenting loss of territory: the thirst for the experience of
a conference seems to override interest in macro problems looking for
solutions. The launch of the Australian and New Zealand branch of the US-based
Special Libraries Association at the Information Online conference, leading to
an immediate increase its ANZ membership by 20%, generated speculation about a
possible local conference representing the special libraries sector in the
Major overseas reports beg local interpretation and possible action. The Wider
Information and Library Issues Project (WILIP) by the Museums Libraries and
Archives Council, for example, concluded that the potential of libraries is
underdeveloped, at least in the UK. The situation is caused by fragmentation,
duplication of effort and resources, lack of leadership and lack of influence
in the higher reaches of policy and political power. A more coherent vision,
it said, is required to link strategies for all types of library and
information services, raise the profile of libraries with government and other
stakeholders, and address issues of low esteem and skill gaps within the
sector. A flow-on report is due in April. How applicable is WILIP to the
Australian scene? Are there opportunities awaiting ownership? To what extent
is it the role of conferences to address these issues? And should a conference
such as Information Online have a contributory role to play?
Attempts to use of major local library association conferences for strategic
purposes have not met with success. Conferences with strategic intent – as
exemplified by, say, forums of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)
and World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) – need rigorous lead-up
processes and post-conference momentum. Even then, success is not guaranteed -
as Alex Byrne observed in his report on WSIS at ALIA 2004. Despite exhaustive
consultation through subcommittees, negotiations at WSIS were often frustrated
by territorial interests. While its action plan captured a worthy agenda, it
is more of a response to the pressures of advocates than a well considered
strategy. Urgent targets have all been moved to 2015, far enough in the
future, Byrne said, ‘to lose any sense of urgency.’ And the failure of many
heads of government to attend sessions signalled a lack of confidence in major
Effective action by libraries generally falls to bodies with control over
funds and political connections. Leadership in managing the bush fires awaits
the Collections Council of Australia.
Most information is managed by organisations without libraries. Information
Online is still very much a librarians’ conference in a country where genuine
mingling of businesses, academia and the information disciplines seems to
occur at smaller events such as AusWeb, Educause and Ozeculture. Large
conferences are important mechanisms for stimulating unexpected collisions
that can elude smaller gatherings. The need to bring the unconnected
information tribes together in a big conference is debateable. Maintaining a
leading edge for Information Online, if that is a goal, paradoxically may
require risking popularity. If a new niche is warranted, its shoots may spring
from Information Online’s origins as an information science and technology
enterprise. Life cycles can be circular.