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Notes from the Executive Director – May 2017

This turned out to be quite a different column than the one I thought I was writing. Lately, I’ve been thinking about linked data a lot, and I thought I’d opine a bit about the history and development of linked data, with an update on a couple cool linked data projects in Michigan and Indiana. I love this topic, but as I wrote I seemed to bog down. It sounded boring. Then I came across an article by Karen Coyle and a YouTube video of a presentation she did in 2015. Karen Coyle is a linked data goddess. She has surely forgotten more about metadata and linked data than I will ever know. Her talk lasts for about 35 minutes and almost all of it is about FRBR. If you have to ask what FRBR is, this part of her discussion isn’t for you. Instead skip ahead to minute 32 and listen to what she says about giving users new ways to interact with library metadata. It was here that she clarified a quote that I’d seen in a 2010 article from D-Link Magazine: “Until there is enough linking between collections and imaginative uses of data collections, there is a danger librarians will see linked data as simply another metadata standard, rather than the powerful discovery tool it will underpin.” When I connected this quote to Coyle’s presentation, my world shifted a little. I had thought that linked data was all about metadata and descriptive cataloging and technical services. It’s not. It’s really a form of community engagement. Whoa.

This is not how I normally think about community engagement. When I use the phrase “community engagement,” I am almost always talking about the necessity for librarians to get out of their buildings to interact with their communities in the places where they live and work. It’s about listening deeply to our community members’ aspirations and concerns. My recent reading and listening about linked data brought home that we must not only make metadata about our holdings easily findable through search engines, but we must make our metadata reusable for purposes that we may not be able to imagine. Once we let go of the control of our metadata, we will find that our users will respond to us in ways that we can’t now imagine. That kind of reaction is exactly analogous to what happens when librarians turn outward and make their communities their focal point, rather than their buildings, their strategic plans, or their legacy services. With our existing metadata standards, we lock our users into viewing our collections in narrow, specific ways. If we do nothing more than crosswalk that data from our library silos to the web, we will forego a huge opportunity for new engagement with our communities. It’s an opportunity to open our collections to exciting, new uses. That’s why linked data is so much more than a metadata standard.

The transformation from closed MARC records to open linked data won’t happen overnight. The technology is still new. The article I cited above from D-Lib Magazine is almost seven years old, yet reads like it was written this year, which shows just how far we still have to go. But the greatest impact isn’t going to be technological. It’s going to be the shift from an attitude of bibliographic control to one of bibliographic openness. We must ask ourselves how we’re going to encourage researchers, data analyzers, and others to take our data and repackage it in ways that give it more utility and make it more valuable. That will be hard for many in our profession. But it’s necessary if we want our libraries to be the value-added institutions that we know they can be.

There are linked data projects going on in both Indiana and Michigan. In Indiana, the Indiana State Library contracted with Zepheira to transform the Evergreen Indiana catalog into linked data. Nearly 120 libraries participate in Evergreen Indiana, with a database of more than seven million items. That database hit the web in late 2016, and records are now starting to pop up in web searches.

In Michigan, the Library of Michigan contracted with Zepheira to transform the MeLCat database, and those records were published to the web in April. The holdings come from more than 425 Michigan libraries and represent more than 16 million items. As they are indexed in search engines, they will be more discoverable in the places where people usually start their online searching.

These are small first steps in the use of linked data. What happens next is going to be far more important. If done right, these and other projects like them will be transformative developments that blow the lid off what we thought could be done with library metadata. It’s time to let go of bibliographic control and embrace bibliographic openness.

I hope you can join me at 9:00 on Friday morning, May 5, for our first virtual “Coffee with the Executive Director”. We intend to hold these meetings monthly, and they will be extremely informal. We want to give you the opportunity to learn more about MCLS and a chance to see into your membership organization. Visit the event webpage for instructions and the link to get to the meeting. No pre-registration is necessary. Just log in to the Zoom meeting or dial in on the phone and be part of the conversation. Hope to see you there!