D-Lib Magazine
May 1998

ISSN 1082-9873

From the Editor

Notions of community and the done thing

In a conversation with Ben Shneiderman last fall, he pointed out the need to help the digital library community cohere. This interesting observation begs the question, what constitutes "the community"?

In this issue, notions of community are pervasive. Timothy Thomas describes efforts among the physicists to use the new technologies to restructure scientific discourse and suggests that one familiar instrument, the formal journal, will disappear and will be replaced by a new approach to archiving. Eric Miller argues that metadata systems must be domain-specific and community-defined and describes the approach set forth by the Resource Description Format (RDF), which is a proposal that allows for both system interoperability and context dependence. Shirley Browne and her colleagues show how software exchange can help a community coalesce, and Henry Gladney and Jeff Lotspiech argue that notions of "trust" are based in human interactions. Thus, trust exists in communities of people -- publishers, librarians, faculties, and students, etc. -- supported and reinforced by the technologies.

Researchers in digital libraries frequently participate in several communities. Those who come from computer science inherit intellectual allegiances that may range from networking to natural language. Those who come from the library community may have arrived via the cataloging department or the reference desk. And increasingly, there are those who have come from a non-technical domain, like literature or archaeology, drawn to digital libraries work because of the possibilities of the new analytical and communications environment. The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), which uses SGML, is but one fairly well-known artifact of this process.

This rich diversity offers some creative tensions. Not all investigators can agree on what is important. For example, I once asked a researcher about a project that involved information retrieval over a corpus of text and images, believing that there was a story to be written. He candidly answered that this work was not cutting edge image processing and was therefore not terribly interesting to his colleagues, although he agreed that information retrieval over heterogeneous data was an important topic. On the other hand, looking at some practical problems in engineering has yielded some highly interesting results in physics. Sadi Carnot was writing a textbook on steam engines for student engineers when he developed an analysis of efficiency that is equivalent to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. And Oliver Heaviside was working on the problem of signal attenuation in submarine telegraph cabling when he encountered James Clerk Maxwell's field equations, which he subsequently re-formulated into their current canonical form. This is not to say that all interdisciplinary work will produce fundamental science. Rather, notions of importance will legitimately differ from group to group, and the inevitable disconnects en route will be worth it in the end.

However, it is hard to build a community on discord. Communities, by their nature, share core values and experiences. For example, I am a member of the unspoken community of Saturday morning dog walkers, who in terms of job, gender, and marital history are far from uniform. Research has never relied on consensus in content; it thrives on questions and challenges to received doctrine. But research does require a level of consensus in behavior: core values relating to the importance of evidence and method, although styles of argument and definitions of evidence vary substantially from, say, chemistry to art history. Digital libraries research inherits these. The interesting question will be how this kind of cross-disciplinary and integrative research embeds value structures from different application areas into its own emerging system of values. So that the day will come when someone will say, "that's just not the done thing", and we'll all know what is meant.

Amy Friedlander

Copyright (c) 1998 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

Top | Magazine
Search | Author Index | Title Index | Monthly Issues
Previous | Next
Comments | E-mail the Editor