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D-Lib Magazine
July/August 2005

Volume 11 Number 7/8

ISSN 1082-9873

Whence Leadership?


Ronald L. Larsen
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh

Red Line


"Within the past decade the number and kinds of digital information sources have proliferated. Computing system advances and the continuing networking and communications revolution have resulted in a remarkable expansion in the ability to generate, process and disseminate digital information. Together, these developments have made new forms of knowledge repositories and information delivery mechanisms feasible and economical" [1]. Before you check the citation for the source, ask yourself when these words may have been uttered. While they could easily be reporting on the advances of a decade of research in digital libraries, in fact they were the words of Paul Young in 1994 at the initiation of the six projects that comprised the first Digital Library Initiative.

Nearly ten years later, Howard Wactlar and I, reporting on an NSF workshop on research directions for digital libraries, noted that "Our ability to generate and collect digital information continues to grow faster than our means to organize, manage, and effectively use it. This trend is likely to continue without focused research and development" [2] We went on to observe that "the more that is accomplished exposes the more that remains to be done." And, indeed, that is the story of digital libraries. The Digital Library Initiative (DLI) launched in 1994 through the collaborative leadership of NSF, NASA, and DARPA provided the means for six exploratory projects. Four years later, additional federal agencies, including ones less traditionally engaged in research support joined with the sponsors of DLI to launch DLI-2, a broad, sweeping program that aspired to catapult laboratory technology into mainstream operations. And in the process, began to scratch deeper into the surface of possibility.

D-Lib Magazine was a spin-off of DLI. Under DARPA sponsorship (initiated by the late Barry Leiner) and leadership from CNRI (as publisher and editor), D-Lib was envisioned as the voice of the D-Lib Forum. The Forum, inspired by the success of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was to be where the real action was, providing a venue for discussion, debate, and development of ideas. But as with many plans, reality chose a different path. Digital Libraries use the Internet, but they aren't like the Internet. The community didn't need the Forum as much as it needed the magazine. D-Lib has reported on digital library projects, collections, standards, and technological advances now for ten years, but there is a human dimension to the story that is rarely reported. It is this human dimension that I reflect on here.

The importance of digital library research and development, while clear to D-Lib readership, is much less obvious to those in Washington who establish research priorities and allocate federal research funds. Further, real collaboration among federal research agencies, in which funding is pooled to achieve a critical mass beyond the capacity of any one agency, is exceedingly rare. Communication and coordination actually occurs rather routinely, thanks largely to the National Coordination Office [3]. It is the collaboration that goes beyond words that is difficult. This collaboration relies on trust and selflessness. Steve Griffin (NSF CISE IIS) provided, and continues to provide, the leadership behind digital libraries research for the federal government. His leadership has built a culture of trust among program managers across agencies that enabled not only much of what is reported in D-Lib, but D-Lib itself.

While Steve has provided inspired leadership both nationally and internationally, progress in digital libraries also depends on leadership in other NSF program offices and other agencies, including but not limited to DARPA, NASA, the Library of Congress, NLM, NEH, NARA, IMLS, and the Smithsonian Institution. A number of these positions are not filled by federal employees, but by academics who find that a 2 - 4 year stint in Washington provides the opportunity for them to expand their individual horizons and influence the directions for federally sponsored research. Digital libraries and D-Lib Magazine both owe much of their success to academics who have "rotated through" Washington.

Just as collaboration among federal agencies is difficult due to the precedence of unique agency missions, active participation by academics in federal agencies is likewise difficult because of seemingly different missions. The federal government is the source of much of the research funding that goes to universities, and rare is the academic who doesn't appreciate the value and, indeed, the necessity, of monitoring the various agencies' announcements of opportunity. But rarer still are those who understand the role played by academics in shaping federal programs. The familiar role is to participate in agencies' peer review of proposals. As a limited, well-defined activity, and one that all of our proposals are subject to, the value as well as the commitment is understood and clear.

Less well-defined, and surely less clear, is the value and commitment associated with spending a year or more in Washington. But the potential rewards go beyond those that accrue personally, to those that benefit the discipline and the greater research community. The 3 1/2 years I spent at DARPA, on leave from the University of Maryland, were among the most interesting and challenging of my career. My tenure followed Barry Leiner's and bridged DLI and DLI-2. As with many who come to Washington, it was not my idea, which is not to say I was opposed to the concept, just that it had never really occurred to me. In the end, it turned out to be fun and rewarding, and an education in how much influence the academic community can have on the direction of federally sponsored research. My experience is not atypical.

Upon my arrival at DARPA (1996), I inherited management of the DARPA component of the DLI program (including D-Lib Magazine) and the Tipster program. This provided an immediate base of operation, but also forced me to rapidly learn about people and programs around the country, and other program managers in DARPA and other federal agencies. Most program managers do not derive their greatest joy from managing programs conceived and built by their predecessors, though. The fun and the passion come from working with the research community and the federal government to shape a new direction and to build a program to move in that direction. For me, this entailed working with Steve Griffin and others to shape DLI-2. It also entailed working very closely with CNRI as we sought to ensure continuing support for D-Lib Magazine (which, by the way, has never been fully assured, but owes much to Robert Kahn for his personal commitment to the magazine). And there's more.

Along the way I also inherited a research program in machine translation and became increasingly conversant with some of the issues confronting intelligence analysts. This led to the conceptualization of an idea for cross-lingual digital libraries that would provide users ready access to materials in multiple languages...even languages in which they had little or no fluency. As I was leaving DARPA in 1999, the Translingual Information Detection, Extraction, and Summarization (TIDES) program was launched, becoming the inheritance of my successor, Gary Strong and, after him, Charles Wayne. That program is now winding down, being replaced by the recently announced Global Autonomous Language Exploitation (GALE) program.

The federal research agenda is malleable. It depends on the engagement of researchers and academics in ways that go beyond their local research interests. It provides an invaluable experience, particularly for those who have employment stability and personal mobility, to advance their own careers by assuming positions of leadership within their discipline at an appropriate agency. NSF and DARPA are the two most obvious, but not the only, destinations appropriate to the readership of D-Lib.

Why might you consider such a step? Funding for digital library research has been and continues to be at risk. That it continues at all is a testament to a relatively few individuals in Washington, foremost among them Steve Griffin. Over the past ten years, digital library research has proceeded through the mechanism of "initiatives". These are finite-duration programs that set a specific goal and timeline and are accountable to those ends. The next plateau for digital libraries research is to be recognized as an ongoing area of investigation that has no known duration, that encompasses a body of work that will always be responding on one end to technological advances in, for example, sensors, devices, and networks, and on the other end leading in the very human aspects of connecting individuals and communities to the information they need and want, whether that information is coming from a remote sensor in real-time, is a digitized rendering of an archaeological artifact from millennia past, or is the output of a computer program now obsolete.

Of the many people with whom I have worked that have taken on a temporary position of leadership at a research agency, I know of no one who has regretted that decision. It is not an obvious or easy choice for most of us, but it is an important one and a valuable one. D-Lib owes its existence to such leadership, as do many of the nation's digital libraries projects, either directly or indirectly. Your reading of this 10th anniversary issue of D-Lib serves as evidence of its value to you. Your reading of this article suggests you are interested in leadership. Consider whether there is a point in your career when you will be ready to take on that leadership.

Notes and References

[1] Paul Young, Assistant Director, directorate for computer and information science and engineering. National Science Foundation (1994). NSF Announces Awards for Digital Libraries Research. NSF PR 94-52, Washington, D. C.: NSF.

[2] Larsen, R. and Wactlar, H., "Knowledge Lost in Information, Report of the NSF Workshop on Research Directions for Digital Libraries," Chatham, MA, June 15-17. 2003, <>.

[3] National Coordination Office for Networking and Information Technology Research and Development, <>.

Copyright © 2005 Ronald L. Larsen

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