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The Semantic Web – a new tool for libraries?

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The Semantic Web and the library

It might be thought that there was a high degree of relevance of the Semantic Web to the library and information science (LIS) community. Not only does it affect silos of information which they service, but also knowledge organization is librarians' traditional expertise. In recent years this has extended out from traditional resources (books, journals, databases, etc.) to the "visible web", through provision of "approved" sites lists.

There are also obvious benefits. Digital libraries structure electronic information and aid search; the Semantic Web potentially offers tools to enhance resource discovery. The former offer a degree of structured data relatively unusual on the Web, and are therefore prime candidates for semantic enhancement (Prasad and Madalli, 2008).

Ontologies, which are by their nature domain specific, are similar to taxonomies but make the content easier to reuse, so are therefore of benefit to subject portals.

The skill set which librarians draw on also maps neatly onto semantic techniques: classification, cataloguing, ontologies, the creation of metadata – all skills on which the Semantic Web draws.

The overlap extends to digital library technologies. RDF can work well with Dublin Core standard for metadata (Joint, 2008), widely used by digital libraries. And many libraries use XML for their websites – and thus have already gone some way towards a disciplined web structure (Joint, 2008).

RDF is highly compatible with XML, so adding semantic elements to an XML based website is not a major undertaking.

Bygstad et al. (2009) describe how adding semantic content to the National Library of Norway was a relatively simple matter from a technical point of view, because the library was considered one of the world's top ten of its kind.

The reluctant librarian

Yet despite all these synergies, there has been no rush among librarians to embrace Semantic Web principles. Writing in 2007, Joint (2008) proclaimed:

"At the everyday level of library practice, just now the 'Semantic Web' looks like a great idea which is still awaiting its big opportunity for a wide-ranging relevant application."

Two years later, there are few signs of that "wide-ranging relevant application", and librarians are more likely to be interested in Library 2.0 than in the Semantic Web.

Various explanations have been given for this lack of enthusiasm. Krause (2008) compares ontologies with thesauri, and believes that the latter are preferred by the LIS community. This is because although the greater precision of the former does away with a need for the human element, the considerable effort in their development is far greater than the small extra search effort needed by thesaurus-driven products.

The reality is, libraries have put considerable work into developing their catalogues and systems, and may not consider the extra effort needed to become "semantic" worthwhile. RDF compliant metadata still require a high overhead of time to create, according to Burke (2009), who also points out that libraries may want to stay loyal to existing (non-semantic) library management systems.

There is also the question of licence restrictions: certain databases may be confined to library members only and there is therefore little incentive to expose the collection more widely, according to Joint (2008).

Library semantic applications

Notwithstanding this reluctance, there are a few interesting applications:

1. vascoda and Sowiport

is a German, scholarly portal for scientific information, which combines different discipline-based portals into an overriding one. As each portal uses different terms, a considerable mapping exercise was required. is a social science portal based on the same principles; both have been developed by the GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences in Bonn, Germany (Krause, 2008).

2. JeromeDL

describes itself as a "social semantic digital library", and was developed by Semantic Web researchers at the , based in Ireland. It includes a high degree of personalization, for example the ability to annotate items, create a user profile, and have personal bookshelves.

Each resource uses three types of metadata:

  1. bibliographic,
  2. structural, and
  3. community.

The structural metadata deliver information about content (for example chapters of a book), recorded in a structured ontology. Librarians can describe resources using a range of controlled vocabularies. New concepts can be suggested, and there is a facility for user tagging.

An interesting feature of JeromeDL is the way it combines social and semantic technologies: users can share bookmarks and comments.

3. Talis Platform

Talis, whose library systems are widely used, has released , which has semantic features and can store and search both content and RDF metadata.

The catalogue is at the heart of the library, and Burke (2009) sees it as benefiting from a more semantic approach: for example, there could be more genre, data and author information.

Papadakis et al. (2009) describe how librarians attempted to overcome keyword ambiguities through developments in their catalogue at Ionian University. The ontology is based on Library of Congress Subject Headings, and each term includes the opportunity to broaden or narrow the search.

The options appear as the user scrolls from left to right along the screen, and the idea is to bridge the information gap between the terms which the user employs and those used in the catalogue.

A neater manifestation of the same principle is seen in the application yufind, shown below in use by Yale University Library. This adopts filtering techniques to narrow searches. Thus, a search for John F. Kennedy received the following help with sifting through the 1,460 results:

Image: Figure 4. Screenshot of Yale University Library's yufind.

Figure 4. Screenshot of Yale University Library's yufind

One of the technologies with the most direct relevance to the library community is Simple Knowledge Organization System (SKOS) which is an RDF-compliant language to represent knowledge-organization systems such as thesauri, classifications, and folksonomies. The Library of Congress has its own SKOS project, which involved adding metadata to all its subject headings so that these could be machine readable, and manipulated in different ways.

At the ZBW German National Library of Economics, which is the world's largest economics library, librarians have used SKOS to improve their thesaurus, in terms both of its usability in house and its external re-usability. This task involved mapping a very elaborate thesaurus with 500 subject categories and 6,000 descriptors against SKOS, as a way of helping people through the search process (Borst and Neubert, 2009).

The potential of the Semantic Web

These examples, however, are fairly scattered and on the whole small scale. Major semantic applications for the library remain at the level of potential.

Joint (2008) suggests that the ideal use of the Semantic Web lies in digital repositories, and heritage library websites. In contrast to licensed databases, which are inevitably restricted, libraries have a clear mandate to expose the content of their repositories as widely as possible, especially as more frequently cited research can improve research metrics. Semantic techniques can inevitably increase search and discovery and allow more content to surface.

We saw above how one application, JeromeDL, combines elements of the social and Semantic Web. The two are also linked by Mary Burke (2009), who sees the library of the future as combining features of the Semantic Web, with its standardization, with those of Library 2.0, with its informality and its interactivity. In other words, the best of both worlds: a Web 2.0 interface, and a semantic back end.

Library consultant Elyssa Kroski ended her presentation at Online Information 2009 on ‘"Next-generation libraries" by referring to semantic technologies: she believes that librarians are eminently suited to the task of organizing and sifting through the immense information overflow currently available to us on the Web (Kroski, 2009).

And next-generation librarians and libraries are always on the lookout for the next big thing in order to be ahead of the game. The Semantic Web may not be the only thing, but it is maturing and the number of applications is increasing. It has plenty of potential for the LIS community: improving the user's search experience by providing an intermediary between user and library terminology, richer bibliographic description, greater exposure of content, and ability to link to external applications.

Initially, many librarians fought shy of the Web, seeing it as an enemy, with some observers predicting it would contribute to their demise. That didn't happen, but the lesson is, you can't fight the Web, so embrace it. Embracing it means not merely providing lists of reliable websites, but following its trends. Librarians are often enthusiastic users of 2.0 and they need to be equally enthusiastic users of semantic techniques.

What many librarians feared about the Web was the fact that it was so haphazard. Now the Web has bounced the ball straight into their court. It's an opportunity not to be missed.

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