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March 28, 2011

Waiter, my resource discovery glass is half-empty

Old joke...

A snail goes into a pub and says to the barman, "I've just been mugged by two tortoises". The barman looks a bit shocked and says, "Oh no, that's terrible. What happened?".

The snail responds, "I dunno, it all happened so fast".


I had a bit of a glass half-empty moment last week, listening to the two presentations in the afternoon session of the ESRC Resource Discovery workshop, the first by Joy Palmer about the MIMAS-led Resource Discovery Task Framework Management Framework and the second by Lucy Bell about the UKDA resource discovery project. Not that there was anything wrong with either presentation. But it struck me that they both used phrases that felt very familiar in the context of resource discovery in the cultrual heritage and education space over the last 10 years or so (probably longer) - "content locked in sectoral silos", "the need to work across multiple websites, each with their own search idiosyncracies", "the need to learn and understand multiple vocabularies", and so on.

In a moment of panic I said words to the effect of, "We're all doomed. Nothing has changed in the last 10 years. We're going round in circles here". Clearly rubbish... and, looking at the two presentations now, it's not clear why I reached that particular conclusion anyway. I asked the room why this time round would be different, compared with previous work on initiatives like the UK JISC Information Environment, and got various responses about community readiness, political will, better stakeholder engagement and what not. I mean, for sure, lots of things have changed in the last 10 years - I'm not even sure the alphabet contained the three letters A, P and I back then and the whole environment is clearly very different - but it is also true that some aspects of the fundamental problem remain largely unchanged. Yes, there are a lot more cultural heritage, scientific and educational resources out there (being made available from within those sectors) but it's not always clear the extent to which that stuff is better joined up, open and discoverable than it was at the turn of the century?

There is a glass half-full view of the resource discovery world, and I try to hold onto it most of the time, but it certainly helps to drink from the Google water fountain! Hence the need for initiatives like the UK Resource Discovery Task Force to emphasise the 'build better websites' approach. We're talking about cultural change here, and cultural change takes time. Or rather, the perceived rate of cultural change tends to be relative to the beholder.


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did you just call me a tortoise? (heh)

keeping the glass half empty mentality is certainly a feat of will at times. So much remains the same (silos, even if we don't want them, have become entrenched through our workflows, and so in mindsets). But we now have the opportunities of APIs, and we've also learned that the 'build it and they will come' mentality to open interfaces is not enough. Hopefully we can leverage the first and counter the latter.

And, er, by glass half empty I meant glass half full...

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