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September 01, 2010

Lessons of Intute

Many years ago now, back when I worked for UKOLN, I spent part of my time working on the JISC-funded Intute service (and the Resource Discovery Network (RDN) that went before it), a manually created catalogue of high-quality Internet resources. It was therefore with some interest that I read a retrospective about the service in the July issue of Ariadne. My involvement was largely with the technology used to bring together a pre-existing and disparate set of eLib 'subject gateways' into a coherent whole. I was, I suppose, Intute's original technical architect, though I doubt if I was ever formally given that title. Almost inevitably, it was a role that led to my involvement in discussions both within the service and with our funders (and reviewers) at the time about the value (i.e. the benefits vs the costs) of such a service - conversations that were, from my point of view, always quite difficult because they involved challenging ourselves about the impact of our 'home grown' resource discovery services against those being built outside the education sector - notably, but not exclusively, by Google :-). 

Today, Steve Hitchcock of Southampton posted his thoughts on the lessons we should draw from the history of Intute. They were posted originally to the jisc-repositories mailing list. I repeat the message, with permission and in its entirety, here:

I just read the obituary of Intute, and its predecessor JISC services, in Ariadne with interest and some sadness, as will others who have been involved with JISC projects over this extended period. It rightly celebrates the achievements of the service, but it is also balanced in seeking to learn the lessons for where it is now.

We must be careful to avoid partial lessons, however. The USP of Intute was 'quality' in its selection of online content across the academic disciplines, but ultimately the quest for quality was also its downfall:

"Our unique selling point of human selection and generation of descriptions of Web sites was a costly model, and seemed somewhat at odds with the current trend for Web 2.0 technologies and free contribution on the Internet. The way forward was not clear, but developing a community-generated model seemed like the only way to go."

http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue64/joyce-et-al/

Unfortunately it can be hard for those responsible for defining and implementing quality to trust others to adhere to the same standards: "But where does the librarian and the expert fit in all of this? Are we grappling with new perceptions of trust and quality?" It seems that Intute could not unravel this issue of quality and trust of the wider contributor community. "The market research findings did, however, suggest that a quality-assurance process would be essential in order to maintain trust in the service". It is not alone, but it is not hard to spot examples of massively popular Web services that found ways to trust and exploit community.

The key to digital information services is volume and speed. If you have these then you have limitless opportunities to filter 'quality'. This is not to undermine quality, but to recognise that first we have to reengineer the information chain. Paul Ginsparg reengineered this chain in physics, but he saw early on that it would be necessary to rebuild the ivory towers:

"It is clear, however, that the architecture of the information data highways of the future will somehow have to reimplement the protective physical and social isolation currently enjoyed by ivory towers and research laboratories."

http://arxiv.org/macros/blurb.tex

It was common at that time in 1994 to think that the content on the emerging Web was mostly rubbish and should be swept away to make space for quality assured content. A senior computer science professor said as much in IEEE Computer magazine, and as a naive new researcher I replied to say he was wrong and that speed changes everything.

Clearly we have volume of content across the Web; only now are we beginning to see the effect of speed with realtime information services.

If we are to salvage something from Intute, as seems to be the aim of the article, it must be to recognise the relations on the digital information axis between volume, speed and quality, not just the latter, even in the context of academic information services.

Steve Hitchcock

Steve's comments were made in the context of repositories but his final paragraph struck a chord with me more generally, in ways that I'm struggling to put into words.

My involvement with Intute ended some years ago and I can't comment on its recent history but, for me, there are also lessons in how we recognise, acknowledge and respond to changes in the digital environment beyond academia - changes that often have a much larger impact on our scholarly practices than those we initiate ourselves. And this is not a problem just for those of us working on developing the component services within our environment but for the funders of such activities.

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