29 May 2008

Personalisation and Resource Discovery (Or, Can the Archives Hub Learn a Few Lessons From Amazon?)

As the team thinks carefully about the future of the Hub, we are pressed to examine current trends and developments surrounding the UK (and broader) Information Environment, and to make sure our long-term strategic aims are in line with those trends. In other words, we need to predict which technologies and user-expectations are going to take a hold, and make sure the Hub is in step with that future. Understanding those trends and these possible futures is no simple matter, and the trend of 'Personalisation' is a perfect example of a seriously complex area that we must examine with real scrutiny. JISC (our funders) are investing a lot of time and revenue into personalisation -- funding several studies in the area, including this one -- Developing Personalisation for the Information Environment and encouraging its services to consider ways in which users might have personalised experiences when accessing and using content. The first of these studies has specifically looked at the relation of JISC services to social-networking and collaborative environments, surveying all 'web 2.0' implementations currently in effect within JISC services. The second study, still underway, continues this scoping work, but aims to look specifically at 'opportunities to personalise sites adaptively in a way that is transparent to the user' (see page 1 of their interim report). What is 'adaptive personalisation' and what might it mean for services like the Hub? Many JISC services offer some sort of personalisation where users can customise their experiences -- for instance Zetoc's RSS alerts, Copac's search RSS, or Intute's bookmarking tools -- but adaptive personalisation is different in that the system uses information it knows about a user to 'push' content. This technique is already used to great effect by commercial organisations, the most obvious being Amazon and eBay, who collect usage data (what you searched, what you clicked on, what you bought) to suggest or 'recommend' items to you. This is a rather clever marketing technique, but of course from a resource discovery standpoint, there is a great deal of potential -- notwithstanding the fact that you need a vast amount of usage data to make this form of personalisation meaningful. In my days slogging through the Ph.D., I often found Amazon a useful research tool for discovering books that my library searches had not uncovered -- I would search for a book that I already had, and scavenged the 'people who bought this, also bought this' lists. (I suppose this might be cheating, but I prefer to call it 'enterprising'!) In the interdisciplinary field I was researching (history of technology) this was a highly productive method of surfacing relevant records, as the library metadata might not necessarily reflect the subject matter. More interestingly, however, is the fact that not only was I finding content, I was also -- if on a very peripheral level -- engaging with a community of peers. People 'like me' who were also interested in the same research questions (or, in more mercenary terms, I knew what the competition was up to). So what will the Archives Hub of the future look like? More to the point, what will be the experience of Archives Hub users? These are questions that form the focus of a think-tank meeting we are holding next week here in Manchester. Our Steering Committee, along with some other stakeholders, will be joining us to think collaboratively about our future, and we're very much looking forward to it. Will personalisation (in its many forms) or social networking have a role here? And if so, in what ways? Will the Hub users of the future find records 'recommended' to them? Will they be able to share, comment, or annotate records (will they want to?) All of these questions, of course, get at the very heart of what it is we do as a profession (archivists, information professionals, researchers) and in some ways begin to undermine some of our traditional practices or assumptions about cataloguing and standards -- what it actually means to describe something. Who gets to describe (and who doesn't)? For what purposes? It's tricky territory, for sure, but exciting and challenging nonetheless. We'd be curious to hear your thoughts about these issues, and especially in terms of the Hub's future. In turn, we'll look forward to sharing with you what we learn from our day.

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09 May 2008

It's a matter of trust

I attended the Eduserv 2008 Symposium recently. The theme was 'What do current Web trends tell us about the future of ICT provision for learners and researchers?'. The day provided a good mix of speakers, and for me one in particular stood out, Geoff Bilder from CrossRef. His talk was intriguingly entitled 'Sausages, coffee, chickens and the web: Establishing new trust metrics for scholarly communication'. Whilst writing this blog I visited Geoff's blog Louche Cannon (very entertaining it is too) and there he refers to his feelings about the thorny issue of trust: "It may sound incredibly un-hip and reactionary, but to hell with the wisdom of crowds. Watching the crowd might be entertaining, but when I need to work, I can get far better results if I constrain that crowd to a few people whose opinions I have reason to respect." Geoff's main point was that we are really continuing to underestimate the importance of trust. It is often implicit but rarely explicit. He referred to what he called the 'Internet Trust Anti-Pattern' whereby a system is set up by a core of self-selecting high-trust technologists. Then the masses, for want of a better expression, start to use the system and as it becomes more successful the risk grows that a strain will be placed on it by untrustworthy users. Think of spam, viruses, phishing, and generally dodgy content - we are all well aware of these things and find them a real nuisance on a daily basis. There is undoubtedly a trust problem and users are often uneasy, though generally we have not reached the point where systems are widely declared to be 'untrustworthy'. When we think about how we establish trust, it may be through personal acquaintance, perhaps we trust someone because someone we know trusts them. It may alternatively be through a proxy, where trust is effectively extended to strangers. Looking at trust from a different perspective, we can think in terms of trust among equals, where coercion cannot really be applied, as opposed to trust where coercion can enforce behaviour. The traditional scholarly publishing domain works largely through personal trust and there is the possibility of the use of coercion. The internet works largely in the sphere of strangers and there are few means to know whether something is trustworthy or to enforce behaviour. Geoff argued that the success of eBay, Amazon and Google is partly about their understanding of the importance of trust. Right from the outset eBay thought about how to ensure that people would trust the mechanisms that they had for buying items online - they built in a trust metric. Amazon implemented uncensored reviews, lowering the risks of buying something online. Within Google the page rank is an implicit trust metric that works extremely well.

Web 2.0 is very much about trust. We can pretty much subscribe to someone else’s life – what they are blogging about, bookmarking, reading, listening to, thinking about … But how does Web 2.0 enhance trust in the higher education sector? There is tons of content out there and it is getting harder and harder to figure out what is authoritative. We haven’t built in many mechanisms to figure out what trustworthy and what isn’t. On the Web we don't have the traditional indicators of what is reliable and what isn't

Geoff made the point that we didn't use to care so much about who picked our coffee or who makes our clothes, but now we do because we have a greater awareness of ethical issues. So this is partly about assessing whether something is trustworthy. In computer systems we didn’t use to care about the source code but now we see it as a sign of trust. We have a whole set of indicators that allow us to know about the provenance of consumer goods, e.g. The Soil Association or Fair Trade logos. We could consider implementing something similar in the library/publishing sphere. In the medical arena there is the HONcode – a code of conduct for medical and health related websites. Those who are accredited can display the icon, PubMed for example. How about an icon for blogs on peer reviewed research?

Geoff concluded by saying that we should bear in mind that the early printing press saw a radical loss of control and great alarm as a result with the ability to produce a mass of cheap content. It caused disruption over a long period of time as society adjusted to new ways of thinking about publishing. As far as the Internet is concerned we are really very early on in the process – we haven’t really moved much beyond print and what we provide in print media. The Internet is likely to expand and change in ways that we cannot yet predict.

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06 May 2008

Everything is open to interpretation

I attended a seminar a few weeks ago on The Ontology of the Archive, one of a series held as part of a workshop looking at Archiving and Reusing Qualitative Data organised by the ESRC Centre for Research and Socio-Cultural Change at the University of Manchester.

Louise Craven of The National Archives began the day with a very stimulating and challenging talk on ‘What is Archive Where is the Archive?’. This gave quite a philosophical perspective on the broad concept of the archive, and made my brain shoot off in many and various directions as I thought about what an archive is and the attitudes and beliefs that underpin our work as archivists. I can only capture a small part of her talk here, as it contained so much and asked so many questions about the postmodern perspective on archives.

Archives are different things to different people – the perspective of the individual is part of the experience of the archive. New interpretations of archives are now coming to the fore as people think about the widening interest in archives and their relevance in increasingly broader contexts. In the post Second World War context the common perception was that the archivist gave access to archives through a range of finding aids and often via terminology that could be very specific to the archival community. In recent years we have see the rise of community archives, the concept of individuals having their own archives and the enormous impact of technology which brings archives so much closer to people in so many different ways. More recently there is a greater understanding that record keeping and archives are integral to the development of society, and philosophical writings have reflected this, notably Derrida and Foucault.

Archives may be seen as a source of power and control, and the archivist as central to this, providing context and order to the records. Archivists themselves are now more aware of addressing the ‘why’ and not just the ‘how’ in terms of their role and approach to archives. It may be that our traditional ideas about provenance, original order and uniqueness need to be reassessed, especially in the light of digital records. Indeed, context and provenance may be important to many users of archives, but not all – some are only concerned with an individual document and its relevance to them – the context they are concerned with is really their own life and experiences. Furthermore, it could be said (controversially) that there are multiple creators of an archival document, including the archivist who looks after it and catalogues it. The archive is not passive but actually has an active existence.

The relationship between the reader and the text is at the heart of the experience of an archive. The ‘structure of feeling’ depends upon what the reader brings to the text as well as the text itself. The understanding equates to some extent with the use, so the meaning is bound up with the identify of the reader. Texts can be deconstructed and reconstructed, emphasising that they have many readings and many interpretations.

I took away from Louise’s talk the idea that it is dubious to think about 'the meaning' of an archive, or even to limit the number of meanings at all, because there can really be a limitless number of interpretations – the meaning of an archive for one individual is really their own interpretation of it, which is based not only on the text but also on their cultural identity, history and knowledge. Following some of the many bibliographic references that Louise gave I found a most interesting article by Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz in Archival Science (2) 2002 which sums up this postmodern perspective quite nicely:

Postmodernism requires a new openness, a new visibility, a willingness to question and be questioned, a commitment to self-reflection and accountability. Postmodernism requires archivists to accept their own historicity, to recognize their own role in the process of creating archives, and to reveal their own biases. Postmodernism sees value in stories more than structures, the margins as much as the centres, the diverse and ambiguous as much as the certain and universal. Above all, it asserts that no actor or observer, historian or archivist, is ever neutral or disinterested in any documentary process, nor is any “text” they consult (including archival documents) or preserve (i.e., appraise, acquire, describe, make available) a transparent window to some past reality. All human actions occur (even if subconsciously or unconsciously) within a context of contemporary societal metanarratives where everything is filtered, mediated, or influenced by considerations of language, personal (or organizational) psychology, and power.”

Image: disCONSTRUCTS WHAT IS re-constructed on Flickr (Creative Commons licence) http://www.flickr.com/photos/jef_safi/2094499635/

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