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Creating information futures:
the quest for sustainability

Neil McLean

Macquarie University

This locknote paper explores a range of issues relating to the creation and maintenance of information resources in a distributed information services environment. There is a review of technological trends associated with the challenge of matching people and resources in a global information network together with an analysis of emerging service paradigms and the challenges of sustainability within any given community.

As information professionals our core business is to manage information. In the print era, rules and practices emerged over many years to manage print collections. The first phase of the information technology revolution was a boon for information professionals because it facilitated the electronic conversion of the bibliographic conventions pertaining to print collections. With the advent of the Internet, a new rather anarchic world of information emerged with its own management conventions that bore little relation to traditional information management practices. A third phase of development has now emerged, where electronic full text of the print equivalent now uses Internet technologies for distribution purposes.

The challenge for information professionals is to develop service and management paradigms that encompass all three phases of development in a sustainable manner. At the institutional level the challenge appears very formidable because the means of imposing order on the new information regime lie in the hands of a complex array of global players in the information services market.

The aim of this paper is to explore some of these wider issues from various perspectives, with particular emphasis on the implications of operating in distributed information service environments.

The concept of sustainability

The fact that the concept of ‘sustainability’ appears with increasing frequency in the literature relating to information strategies, the information economy and IT developments is a signal of an interesting stage in the evolution of the so-called ‘information society’. It is by no means a simple concept, because it assumes a certain sense of stability which does not seem to exist, as yet, in terms of information futures or technological developments.

The information industry, however defined, remains in a state of flux and the technologies continue to topple over each other in offering a smorgasbord of development opportunities.

In addition, the communications revolution shows no sign of slackening pace, and distributed information services environments are now becoming a reality.

Given these factors, the quest for sustainability is at one level merely the latest concept to be taken up as a means of imposing order on a fairly chaotic information and technological environment. From another perspective, it marks the realisation that at the organisational level there are only limited resources with which to build information infrastructure and, as such, there is a demand for sustainable solutions that can bridge the leaps in technological development. Viewed from yet another angle, it probably represents an attempt to redefine ‘the centre of gravity’ in terms of an information world that is increasingly distributed. In other words, the old certainties of information management have disappeared at the institutional level and management control tends to become dispersed, given the ubiquitous nature of Web-based desktop technology and communication networks.

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation of the quest for sustainability is that it represents a refocussing on people rather than technology; or, put another way, it is seeking a way of matching people and information resources. Such a notion may surprise information professionals who would maintain that their service ethic has always been ‘people-centred’ or ‘client-centred’, but the underlying reality is that most information services have been dominated by technological ‘push’ over the past couple of decades.

Sustainability in this context means the creation of new service paradigms that match people and information resources in a distributed services environment. Apart from all the technological challenges inherent in supporting these new service paradigms, the behavioural patterns of users take on a new importance and terms such as ‘customer loyalty’ assume greater significance because people cannot be locked easily into electronic information services, partly because the choice of service options is so much greater and partly because there remains a sense of anonymity about services being offered remotely through a workstation, an information kiosk, or an ATM.

This paper explores a range of issues underlying this quest for sustainability. There is an assumption throughout that there is a growing convergence of service paradigms which means that, irrespective of the actual service context or the type of service being offered, there will be underlying organisational, technological and human behavioural characteristics which will be common to all.

New service paradigms

One of the most interesting phenomena to emerge over the past year or so has been the exploration of new service paradigms based on a distributed information services environment. Various service industries in both the public and private sectors are now concentrating their attention on how to deliver core services in a networked environment as a means of overcoming geographical barriers and as a means of achieving cost efficiencies. many barriers still exist in terms of fulfilling these new service paradigms, there is a gradual realisation that the basic technical architecture and service values are very much the same, irrespective of the service industry concerned. It is informative to examine these areas of convergence in some detail because they give some indication of the key critical success factors needed to create sustainable information services, regardless of the type of institutional service or the composition of the client base.

Creating an electronic community

In general, service providers have been preoccupied over the past decade with the challenges inherent in mounting electronic services and in developing an adequate technical infrastructure. These understandable preoccupations have meant that the services were predominantly supply-driven and the primary sense of achievement has come from actually being able to deliver a respectable level of service via communication networks to remote users.

From the user perspective, there have been very mixed reactions and varying rates of takeup of electronically-based services. Attention has turned, therefore, at the strategic planning level to the concept of what constitutes a successful electronic community and to the behavioural patterns of users. Such attention is necessary because the traditional customer loyalty factors of human contact and a sense of belonging to a physical space no longer have any meaning in an electronic community. The matching of expectations with service delivery has to be rethought and traditional measures of quality service have to be re-evaluated.

The ‘people issues’ are mostly focused around analysing the means of retaining customer loyalty in an environment where users are quite fearful of the technology, antagonistic over the loss of personal service and sceptical about the value of services, which are only available in electronic form. Time and again the people issues of personal control, assurance, confidence, reliance and informed choice appear in the literature as matters to be addressed in creating successful electronic communities. While there is a fair amount of market research information available from various service industries on these people issues, there is still a paucity of reliable research evidence to help plan effective electronic services.

In order to create a successful electronic community, the matching of people and resources becomes the key challenge, using ‘hidden’ technology wherever possible so that from the user viewpoint the service looks easy to use and relatively seamless in terms of accessing a variety of services or networked information resources.

Sustaining the information economy

Inevitably the strategic options chosen by information professionals will be increasingly dependent on developments in the global information infrastructure. At the macro level it is quite instructive to examine the propositions advanced in ‘Towards an Australian Strategy for the Information Economy’, which is a preliminary statement issued by the Commonwealth Government on policies for developing the information economy (July 1998).1

The document outlines a tentative vision and potential strategies to make Australia competitive in the global information economy. Ten strategic priorities were identified, namely:

Underlying all these strategic priorities is the assumption that ‘Every Australian [should] have access to affordable online services relevant to their individual needs.’ Needless to say, the gap is still considerable between some of the more lofty rhetoric of this consultative paper and the realities in terms of electronic service delivery.

Terry Cutler2 highlighted the potential policy pitfalls in developing the information economy in an interesting seminar paper in March 1998. In summary, he said there were 10 things we must do to be competitive and successful:

These two complementary views of the means of creating a sustainable information economy present an imposing agenda and the strategic priorities deserve close attention by information professionals.

The Internet information infrastructure

The phenomenal growth of the Internet has created the illusion of a seamless global information infrastructure. It is, however, an unmanaged and increasingly unmanageable environment and offers, therefore, no prospect of sustainability for particular communities. The limitations are becoming much more evident, and although solutions for better management are being developed they will only be partial remedies to the underlying problems. The current situation can be characterised as follows:

The Internet is a unique example of the successful linking of people and resources in a distributed environment; however, there is, as yet, little capability to match people and resources in any cost-effective manner.

Commercial service providers

While most major commercial database providers now see the Web as the platform for the immediate future, there is no consensus on the shape and direction of online services to be offered using Web technologies.

From the suppliers point of view there are still major concerns including:

From the library viewpoint there are similar concerns about the use of Web-based commercial services:

Both viewpoints confirm the contention that a great deal of work still has to be done to create sustainable information futures. The matching of people and resources in distributed environments demands concerted action on a number of key technical issues which is the focus of the next section of this paper.

Moving toward the virtual library

It is instructive to look briefly at the evolution of traditional library systems towards the so-called ‘virtual library’ as a means of identifying the principal challenges being addressed in this paper.

There have now been three decades of library systems development mostly aimed at providing control and access to institutional library collections. These library systems are now quite sophisticated and mature; however, they are nearly all based on technical architectures developed in the 70s and 80s. In the technical context of the late 90s, they are known as legacy systems because they effectively ‘bundle’ information about patrons and information resources into a single integrated (albeit modular) system.

With the advent of Web technology in the early 90s various means have been found to ‘bolt on’ features and facilities to allow interconnectivity with other library systems and other information service providers. Almost all library systems now have a Web front end and have Z39.50 capacity. These applications allow library legacy systems to interact with each other but in fairly limited ways. In terms of matching people and resources a great deal of mediation is required by librarians because these legacy systems can only talk to each other in terms of discovery of resources. Even in this discovery context, Z39.50 has severe limitations in searching multiple databases, and it is unlikely to be a long-term solution because of inherent technical difficulties in accessing the data structures in the legacy systems.

This means that the library systems in their present form will remain important for controlling internal resources. However, their future as access systems looks somewhat uncertain unless the architectures are radically changed, or they adopt new technologies to allow them to be directory-enabled, a concept which will be explored later in this paper.

This brief analysis leads to the conclusion that the virtual library is still quite a way from realisation because most of the world’s library resources are only partly accessible in a distributed information services environment.

PRIDE Project

Perhaps the best current example to illustrate the nature of the technical challenges to be addressed in matching people with disparate systems is the PRIDE (People and Resources Identification for Distributed Environments) Project, which the European Commission Libraries program has selected for funding for two years from 1998 to 2000.3 There are nine partners including an Australian institution, Macquarie University.

The PRIDE Project intends to develop a broker service to support the identification and delivery of information services over the global information infrastructure and to develop directory services which will provide support for authorisation, registration and cost recovery and integration with other interfaces to library services.

Such services are essential in networked service scenarios where:

The aim of PRIDE is to enable the user to gain unified access to a global range of information, resources and services in a more efficient, scaleable and functional manner by facilitating:

The service provider will be able to seek out potential service users through publication of collection profiles and exploitation of user SDI profiles and will be able to extend a secure service in terms of access control and payment collection beyond the local user community.

The PRIDE results will include open software components, active contribution to standardisation and widespread dissemination based on a pan-European demonstrator base.

In even more ambitious terms the Project describes the potential impact and benefits in the following terms:

The PRIDE solution brings wide area information to more people in a serviceable framework by opening up services in a cost effective manner to the networked public, not just to local or physical subscribers — thus enfranchising more people to use a widespread existing resource.

The PRIDE application will act as a broker for the independent user accessing multiple services; it will improve the interface between distributed library services and the wider world of electronic commerce and information supply — including digital lifestyle offerings such as tele-shopping, entertainment and training.

PRIDE opens opportunities for libraries and their suppliers to develop high impact, value added services for the information age. The libraries envisage supply of better information more efficiently to European researchers and enterprises. The commercial partners wish to penetrate global markets before they are taken over by the transatlantic content corporations.

In reality, the sobering fact is that almost none of the infrastructure as outlined in the PRIDE scenario exists as yet. The first two meetings of the PRIDE participants have confirmed the fact that the service paradigms to be developed and sustained in a distributed environment are not yet fully understood. It is also clear that the technical challenges are formidable and in some respects the solutions lie outside the control, or influence, of libraries.

Interlending and supply service scenario

The Australian contribution to the PRIDE project is to develop directory services to support the interlending and document supply service paradigm. This has been made possible through the development of the Local Interlending and Document Delivery Administration System (LIDDAS), which is designed to support interlibrary lending and document supply in both print and electronic form between libraries and between libraries and commercial document supply services.

The LIDDAS platform is based on open systems principles and adheres to International Standards Organisation (ISO) standards wherever possible. The system makes full use of Z39.50 for searching and the ISO ILL protocols for interlending transactions. It effectively automates local interlending activity and allows a high level of interoperability between LIDDA systems. In a sense, it can be characterised as an open systems resource sharing platform, which acts as a bridge between library legacy systems and commercial document supply services.

There was no attempt, however, to incorporate user authentication into the LIDDAS platform because, at the time of design, there was no obvious technical means of doing so. This meant that flat files of user information would have to be fed into the LIDDAS system and a relatively high level of mediation is then required by library staff to facilitate transactions between libraries. It became clear over the past 18 months that authentication and authorisation were the key elements for matching people and resources in a distributed services environment, and this complex technical area requires some explanation.

Becoming directory-enabled

It is not the intention in this paper to embark on a detailed explanation of the technical framework needed to support authentication and authorisation, as this is being addressed in another conference paper.4 The aim here is to outline the strategic importance of authentication and authorisation in the process of becoming directory enabled.

In the UK, through the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), in the US through the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) initiative, and in Australia as part of the LIDDAS implementation, a great deal of work has been done on these matters over the past two years. There are two primary thrusts in the technical investigation:

These two technical requirements are different but they are inextricably linked in practice. It is beyond the technical capability of most legacy systems or applications to build in the necessary requirements of authorisation and authentication to operate in a distributed services environment. There is a need, therefore, for systems and applications to become directory enabled which is a new concept gaining currency over the past year.

The aim within the PRIDE project is for LIDDAS to become directory enabled through the use of X.500 directory services products.

The OSI Electronic Directory Service (EDS) is defined in the CCITT X.500 series of recommendations and their equivalent ISO standards, ISO 9594 parts 1 to 9.

Alan Lloyd has summarised the Electronic Directory Service in the following terms:

The Directory is a knowledge base and acts like a phone book for computing networks in which objects have ‘user-friendly’ names. The directory therefore permits the storage of information that is referenced with a name. The name being a structured name such as country, organisation and personal name or a user friendly name (an alias).

In reality the X.500 directory permits direct ‘white pages’ style look-ups, browsing of information that matches an imprecise query, ‘yellow pages’ style searches based upon a filter, and various security features. Thus, the Directory is capable of providing the vehicle for managing information regarding network users, systems and applications and the business enterprise in general. The X.500 directory can also provide the information for authentication and security related services.5

The fundamental advantage of deploying directory services in this form is that the information about a person or a service is only held once but it can be accessed by multiple applications and services and there can be multiple views of the same information. More importantly, it offers a scaleable solution to the ever-expanding range of services and it overcomes the problem of a user having multiple service identifiers.

This ambitious contribution to the PRIDE project by the Australian LIDDAS team will be observed with considerable interest in both Europe and the US, because it will be the first large-scale directory enabled application for library purposes. It will also provide valuable information on how to build directory services and offers the possibility of developing international standards for service descriptions and for patron attributes relating to interlending and document supply services.

Resource discovery

Another important aspect of the PRIDE project will be the availability of distributed service information about collections’ descriptions through intelligent query routing. The wide deployment of Z39.50 over the past five years has made effective use of the Internet to link patrons with library catalogues in the global arena. While this has been a very important development, it only really operates effectively on a one-to-one basis and even then only retrieves a limited amount of information from the legacy system. Quite a lot of research has gone into the use of Z39.50 for searching multiple catalogues; however, the results have been disappointing because the amount of latent ‘noise’ in each system means that there is no consistency in the retrieved data sets. It could be that Z39.50 (like many other successful standards) has reached the limitations of its application and that new ways will have to be found to ‘mine’ information from the global library collections.

It is in this context that the concept of applying directory-enabled techniques to library collections is worthy of some research. Just as it is possible to describe and depict attributes relating to patrons and services within the X.500 framework, it is possible to describe collections in the same manner. This concept comes as a cultural shock to librarians who are inevitably wedded to a long history of MARC/AACR2 recording and structuring of information about library collections. The potential exists, however, to adopt a new approach to describing collections capable of being accessed in a distributed services environment, and the initial applications of directory enabled access may well be applied in the journals area where access for document delivery purposes remains an important objective.

The future of metadata

A tremendous amount of debate and energy has been devoted to the means of developing metadata and it is seen by many as a key to sustainability in a distributed services environment. The basic aims of providing metadata are to:

In terms of functionality, metadata facilitates:

The most well-known schema to evolve over the past two years has been the Dublin Core, which defines a set of 15 data elements, which provide the framework for resource description. There are however, some reservations to note about the application of schemas such as the Dublin Core.

The critical success factors for the application of metadata are worth noting, however, because they are integral to the building or reliable effective networked information services, namely universality, simplicity, translation between domains, scalability, and independence from technical developments.

In summary, metadata is obviously an important element in achieving unified networked information description, however, the means of achieving this goal remains to be realised.

Subject gateways

A great deal of effort has been devoted to building subject gateways over the past couple of years, particularly in the UK. It is instructive to look at this work because it encompasses all the challenges of matching people and resources in a sustainable manner.

A recent report to JISC under the eLib Supporting Studies Programme, highlights the issues involved in building and sustaining subject gateways.7 At the broadest level the main concerns revolved around:

The more specific observations will come as no great surprise:

The principal recommendations arising out of the report were:

So once more the common themes of interfaces, protocols and standards for description and access and integration between public and commercial services emerge as being fundamental to sustainability.

The evolution of Web technology

Web technology has been the most significant integrating factor over the past five years and it is important to understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of evolving Web technologies in terms of sustaining distributed information service environments. In an interesting article Rajaraman outlines the possibilities of applying virtual database technology and XML to provide a new level of searching capability. The vision is described in the following terms:

As much as 90% of the world’s data is outside of relational database systems. Vital data is scattered across Web sites, file systems, database systems, and legacy applications. Virtual database technology transforms the Web into a database, using adapters that analyze the HTML from Web sites to present them as relational data sources. The limited descriptive capability of HTML necessitates manual analysis for the creation of adapters. XML will add the next level of automation. Since data sources have become self-describing, VDB technology will automatically create the adapters. Virtual databases of several hundred thousand data sources will occur. In fact, the entire Web could become one unified database, fulfilling [a new] vision.8

There is probably no reason to doubt the tremendous possibilities of extending Web technology in these directions. However, the fact remains that HTML and XML basically describe and facilitate transactional functionality between Web sites. Such technology does not address the more complex scenarios outlined in the PRIDE vision, and much more fundamental re-engineering is required to directory enable the range of services offered by library legacy systems, commercial services and Internet services.

The local quest for sustainability

A great deal of this paper has been devoted to the more global management and technical issues relating to sustainable information futures. From the institutional perspective there is no easy way of relating to these more global issues. There are however, a number of strategic imperatives, which need to be addressed, including:

The response to these strategic issues will vary from library to library, depending on the service context and a range of institutional factors. The growing interdependence between library and information services and the institutional IT infrastructure presents many challenges in formulating sustainable strategies. The increasing dependence on external electronic information services presents an equally imposing set of challenges which means that sustainability is likely to depend very much on the ability of the information professional to forge strategic alliances both internally and externally.

Embracing knowledge management

Some reference to the progress of knowledge management is necessary, because there is a growing interdependence between the goals of knowledge management and the goals of the more mature information management. As David Skyrme9 reported recently, the recurring themes in knowledge management over the past year revolve around connecting people, building relationships and trust, and nurturing communities of good practice. He identified two levels within knowledge management:

This distinction is important because it points to the more precise role of information professionals within the knowledge management paradigm. It is important for information professionals to understand the tacit knowledge environment of the organisation because there is little chance of success in managing information resources effectively without being able to tap into the institutional working cultures. Sustainability in this context means being able to link the tacit knowledge environment to the distributed information services environment on which most organisations will increasingly depend for competitive information and intelligence.

Conclusion

The main points to emerge from the analysis presented in this paper are as follows:

The ultimate challenges for the information professional are to be able to live with constant uncertainty, to be able to clearly distinguish between short term and long term strategies, to be imaginative in creating new service paradigms and to be bold in seeking new strategic alliances. Sustainable information futures will be created by those who take up these challenges with enthusiasm, determination and foresight.

References

  1. ‘Towards an Australian strategy for the information economy: a preliminary statement of the government’s policy approach and a basis for business and community consultation’, Ministerial Council for the Information Economy, July 1998.
    http://www.noie.gov.au
  2. Cutler, Terry, ‘Ten mistakes we can’t afford to make’, CEDA Bulletin (Committee Economic Development of Australia), July 1998.
  3. PRIDE project.
    For further details see http://lirn.viscount.org.uk/pride/
  4. Blinco, Kerry and McLean, Neil, ‘Authentication and authorisation: the key to matching people and resources’, paper presented to Information Online & OnDisc 99.
  5. Lloyd, Alan, ‘X.500 directory services: an introduction’.
    http://www.opendirectory.com/Whitepapers/x500tut.html
  6. Lynch, Cliff, ‘Building the infrastructure of resource sharing: union catalogs, distributed searching, and cross-database linkage’, Library Trends, vol. 45, no. 3, 1997.
  7. ‘Comparative evaluation of the subject based gateways approach to providing access to network resources’, a report to JISC under the eLib Supporting Studies Programme prepared by David Haynes, David Streatfield, Noeline Cookman and Helen Wood, August 1998.
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/tavistock/subject-gateway-access/
  8. Rajaraman Anard, ‘Virtual database technology, XML, and the evolution of the Web’, 1997.
    http://www.junglee.com/tech/xml_pos.html
  9. Skyrme, David, ‘I3 update’, Entovatron International News, no.25, Part 1 and 2, October 1998.
    http://www.skyrme.com/updates/

This is the final paper for Day 3.

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