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Library Interoperability: Sharing Data, Building Community


February 26, 2013—On February 13, 35 library staff members and employees from across Harvard joined forces to attend the Interoperability Tech Unconference, deepening the library community and exploring ways to connect library content and make information ever more accessible to users. Coordinated by David Weinberger, co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab at Harvard Law School, the event was part of the Library Interoperability Initiative (LII).


“The overall aim of the LII is to get as much information as we can from everything that libraries know,” Weinberger said. ”Harvard libraries have a great deal of expertise in the form of librarians, and a huge amount of content. But there’s actually much more information that the library generates that is much more difficult to get at.”


For example, when someone creates or curates an offline collection of information, Weinberger said, there may be others who could benefit from the information that gets added, including the labels and the descriptions, and even the fact that all these items go together. The LII works to find ways in which such information can be made available and accessible to developers who might want to build new ways that users can find library items and see how they connect across collections, topics, and disciplines.


Part of the challenge, Weinberger said, is that there’s such a wealth of information—and so many efforts under way. “There’s just so much going on,” he said. “There’s no way to know everything. We want to improve the communication and the knowledge and, when it makes sense, to develop tools to share these collections and the information.”


In keeping with the unconference format, the first order of business was for the attendees themselves to determine the event’s topics. Attendees then came up with a set of topics and then broke into discussion groups, creating the event’s content by sharing their expertise and perspectives. Participants discussed topics ranging from organizational and legal roadblocks and metadata standards to linked data and science and content delivery.


Melissa Shaffer, director of digital content programs for Knowledge and Library Services at the Harvard Business School, said one of the vital aspects of interoperability was providing greater information and access to Harvard researchers.


“Research is more interdisciplinary than ever before,” Shaffer said. “Part of what we’re talking about here is special collections and primary resources that are at the heart of faculty members’ research. Having access to content in digital form, or discoverable metadata—digital descriptions of content and data—across disciplines and collections is vital to researchers. Not only are their research capabilities greatly expanded if content is in digital format, but being able to combine, to interoperate with content across disciplines…the power of that cannot be understated.”


Randall Stern, director of systems development in the Library Technology Services group, said the unconference was an energizing and enlightening event. “Notes from the unconference are available on a wiki, which is great,” Stern said. “There was so much energy in the room; people were really participating. There were a lot of active, lively discussions.” Stern added, however, that actions resulting from the event would be the true reflection of the event’s success.


Shaffer agreed, adding that the event’s format made its content particularly action-oriented. “The flexibility of an unconference is that you can ask: what can we do to move this forward? How can we demonstrate the power of interoperability, even on a small level, and really show what can be done?”


Ultimately, said Weinberger, interoperability isn’t a tech issue: “Interoperability is something that a community has to do,” he said. “The community has to be informed about what everyone in the community is doing, and be excited about collaboration. In some ways, interoperability is a property not just of technical systems, but of communities themselves.”


Shaffer suggested that conversations begun at the unconference should continue—both formally and informally. “One of the beauties of interoperability is that, while it’s technology-assisted, it’s not technology-driven; it’s really more of an attitude and a mindset. It’s community-driven,” she said. “It’s about having the desire to do it, sitting down and working through the challenges and issues, and having the commitment to move forward and make it happen.”