About a year ago, D-Lib Magazine modified its format. Among other changes, we expanded the Clips column to include "Goings On", a section devoted to announcing meetings, workshops, conferences, and various events of interest to digital libraries researchers and associated observers. The intent was primarily informational. As a monthly, we did not undertake to provide enough lead time to help readers participate, but thought that simply a running record of what's out there would convey a sense of the community and its activities.
Frankly, we are almost appalled by how much there is to do. Over the course of a year, there are two conferences in the U.S.A. organized on the theme of digital libraries as well as at least one in the U.K., not to mention other major meetings on the Continent and in Asia. But this is only if we look at the conferences in which the term, "digital libraries", is in the title. There are also meetings in which digital libraries occupy a major track, witness medical informatics (meets twice a year), information science (also meets twice a year), and the American Library Association (twice a year). Then there are the more technical meetings on allied or related topics: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), ACM Special Interest Groups in information retrieval, graphics, and human-computer interactions, and the INET meetings as well as the worlds of metadata and geographic information systems (GIS) fall into this category. Finally, there are numerous focused one- and two-day meetings on all manner of interesting topics from applications in the humanities to issues in intellectual property and technology transfer. Some of these are by invitation only; others are open to members of the public who happen to hear about them.
On the one hand, this reflects the fundamentally integrative nature of research in digital libraries. Innes Ferguson and Michael Wooldridge argue persuasively that several research traditions in artificial intelligence, library and information science, and communications have matured and converged to the point that digital libraries now constitute both a set of resources and a commercially viable set of technologies. On the other hand, precisely because digital libraries gather under one umbrella a widely disparate set of technologies, there are centripetal as well as centrifugal forces. The human price may well be too few people trying to cover too many bases at the expense of the underlying research.
The expense is potentially felt in several ways. For one, a ground swell of excitement, evidenced by all the meetings, can willy nilly turn into over-promising despite all the care in the world. And hype, like hubris, has a way of coming back to haunt us. Research is a messy business of two steps forward, one step back, and a giant leap sideways. The tentative and speculative nature of early results is not always adequately conveyed in the rush to come up with a paper. On the other hand, the need to come up with papers to fill slots can result in too many re-cycled papers and mushy, carefully-worded sentences. Still another response is for many of the senior researchers to throw up their hands and attend only a very few of these meetings, contributing to an unfortunate balkanization in a very young field. Finally, at least one colleague has told me that he spent 90 days on the road last year. Since travel requires both preparation and follow-up, this is an extraordinary amount of time, and it is worth asking if the outcome is worth it, and if there is another way to build community and share results.
Certainly D-Lib Magazine believes in early and speculative discussion of research and associated issues. We also think that the research community can be well served by a somewhat modified approach to meetings and conferences. Imagine annual or biennial national conferences. These need not be strictly defined on national criteria; ERCIM's meeting in September reflects coordinated efforts by 14 national labs. But the point is that these are large, open, comprehensive, and few. Then, over the interim, structured, focused meetings and workshops could be scheduled along the models established by the IETF, Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the National Research Council (NRC), or the workshops periodically organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). These are focused, frequent, and small, allowing for substantive discussions on defined topics. (An example is the NSF-sponsored terms and conditions workshop, described by James Davis and Judith Klavans.) Typically attended only by invited participants, these meetings would be followed by appropriate release of findings, summaries, and recommendations.
These concerns are not exclusive to digital libraries research. And other disciplines from archaeology to computer science to economics have experimented with combining events and meetings to consolidate content and reduce demands on people's time. The field of digital libraries is maturing rapidly in many ways. It is now time to exercise discipline and show maturity in the ways we talk to each other.