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Conference Report


D-Lib Magazine
October 2006

Volume 12 Number 10

ISSN 1082-9873

ECDL 2006

A Conference Report Based on a Travel Log in Context


Eric Lease Morgan
University Libraries of Notre Dame

Red Line


This brief travel log documents my experiences at the 10th European Conference on Digital Libraries <>, Alicante (Spain), September 18-20, 2006. If I were to pick the single most important theme from the conference, it would be "context" because a number of the presentations, posters, and conversations were not only about information access but also about turning data into information and then into knowledge.

Image of sculpture Photgraph of the University of Alicante Red girders against a blue sky
Giant hand University of Alicante Red against blue

Photographs from Spain. Copyright © Eric Lease Morgan.

Panel discussion

From the panel discussion on Monday, September 18, "Sustained Digital Libraries for Universal Use" (chaired by Ching-chih Chen, Simmons College, USA, and José Borbinha, INESC-ID, Portugal), I took away the following two thoughts:

  • First, "One vision of digital libraries is about access. Another is about using information." This struck a chord with me. We already have more access than we need. (Think of the venerable "firehose" of information available to us.) What we really need are ways to put the data and information into context and then into use. What is the user trying to accomplish? Is the user trying to verify a fact? Write a research paper? Get directions from one place to another? Who is the user? A student? How old is he or she? How quickly does the user need the information? How critical is the answer? Will the answer be used to make a choice in a life or death situation? Does the answer have the potential to cost someone a substantial amount of money?
  • Second, "Digital libraries can be a center for promoting the free flow of ideas... Knowledge is the driving force of social and economic transformation." Interesting, to say the least, but of course the panelists were "preaching to the choir."

The panel's discussion was based on the following initiatives: The European Library (, sponsored by the European Commission; DELOS, the Network of Excellence for Digital Libraries (, also supported by the EC; the Global Memory Net initiative (, supported by the National Science Foundation NSF); the National Science Digital Library (NSDL) (, also funded by the NSF; and UNESCO's Memory of the World Programme (; among others.

Queries and clicks

One of the more interesting presentations on Tuesday was given by Richardo Baeza-Yates (Yahoo) and was entitled "Queries and clicks as a sources of knowledge". The gist of the presentation was, "The use of implicit semantic information is the key to the Semantic Web." The key word in this sentence is "implicit". By analyzing log files, user clicks, and social networks, increasingly it is possible to steer people in directions that will satisfy their information needs. He strongly advocated reading The Wisdom of crowds, by James Surowiecki – "a large group is smarter than a smaller group of elite few." (Think peer review here.) Baeza-Yates also advocated trying to discover the intentions of users. Try to discover who they are, where they are, and what they are trying to do. He enumerated a number of tasks people want to accomplish when using Web resources, including: to be directed, to be advised, to locate, to list, to download, to interact, to obtain, etc.


There were two posters in particular at ECDL 2006 Poster Session that caught my eye. The first was "Alvis - Superpeer semantic search engine" by Gert Schmeltz Pedersen (Technical University Library of Denmark). This system of open source software is a crawler/indexer combination. Feed the crawler a number of URL's, harvest their content and related links, homogenize the cache, and index it (using IndexData's Zebra indexer). This looked smart.

The second poster I found especially interesting presented a set of XSLT stylesheets to "FRBR-ize" MARC records. The poster title was "A Tool for converting from MARC to FRBR" and was by Trond Aalberg (Norwegian University of Science and Technology). This system seems to have great potential. Feed a set of MARC records to the system and output XML snippets (records) that can be fed to your favorite indexer. Each resulting record contains links to authors, works, and items, allowing users to navigate the collection.

Image of tile wall Image of silk exchange pillar Image of silk exchange floor
Tile wall Silk exchange pillar Silk exchange floor

Photographs from Spain. Copyright © Eric Lease Morgan.

Presentations on Modeling

In his talk "Representing contextualized information in the NSDL", Carl Lagoze (Cornell University) shared ways in which he looks for contextualizing content in digital libraries. He outlined how the National Science Foundation Digital Library was created and what it contains. He postulated that gaining access to information is not enough, and to overcome this issue he advocates remixing and transforming data, exploiting the collective intelligence of users, creating a "long tail", and implementing two-way data flows. Using Fedora as a base, Lagoze sees a number of different (digital) object types: resources, metadata, aggregations (collections), branding, agents, and services.

Gregory Crane (Tufts University) in "Beyond digital incunabula: Modeling the next generation of digital libraries" gave one of the more passionate presentations. He believes that the digital libraries we are presently experiencing are "incunabula". Just as the original incunabula were a cross between hand-crafted manuscripts and printed books, the digital libraries of today have one foot in traditional libraries and one foot in future libraries. He cited as an example PDF documents. Listening to his talk, I envisioned a number of possible features of future digital libraries:

  1. true separation between content and presentation,
  2. recombinant (repurposed) data,
  3. dynamic data, and
  4. books that talk with one another.

Examples of some of these technologies include: 1) XML dictionaries, 2) unique identifiers for individual paragraphs in texts, 3) Wikipedia, 4) highlighting words in texts and looking them up in dictionaries, 5) libraries as "living" entities where there are true relationships between library and document and reader, 6) contextualizing the user's experience, such as knowing the word "Washington" may mean a place or a name, and that the place or name might mean something different depending on when the document was written.

Google Books

Michael Keller (Stanford University) presented the final keynote of the conference, and he described aspects of Google Book Search in "One good turn deserves another: How the Google Book Search project is benefiting everyone". Keller began by describing how his library experienced a fifty percent increase in book usage when the Stanford library's card catalog was digitized. Similarly, since Google began indexing Highwire Press titles, the use of those materials has increased tremendously. He predicts the same phenomenon will occur as the books from Stanford's library are digitized. Google is digitizing between three and ten thousand books per day. Naturally, the process has raised copyright issues dramatically. Keller compared and contrasted different types of access from the Google Book Search project: non-display, limited preview, and full view. He then defended the project against publishers (who seem to want a slice of the "revenue pie"), people who think the project commits a type of violence against books ("books should be read sequentially and cumulatively") and those who view the Google Book Search project as cultural imperialism ("Maybe and maybe not, but a rising tide floats all boats"). Finally, Keller noted that the Google Book Search project challenges what he thought were over-protective copyright laws, and he advocated a reform of copyright law that would make copyright look more like patent law, with shorter time limits than copyright law allows now.

Image of Dame del Elche Image of Science Museum Image of Castillo de Santa Barbara
Dame del Elche Science Museum Castillo de Santa Barbara

Photographs from Spain. Copyright © Eric Lease Morgan.

Access is everywhere but where is the context?

As I noted in the beginning of this report, the overriding theme of the conference was about context. "Discover the 'why' of a person's information need and provide access to the information from the digital libraries accordingly." ("AI" was alluded to a few times, and I don't mean "abstracting & indexing".) As fewer and fewer people physically visit traditional libraries to address their information needs, it becomes increasingly difficult for librarians to build relationships with users. In the past these relationships provided context. This problem is compounded in a digital environment when so much emphasis is put on privacy and the fear exists that the government might inquire about a person's information seeking habits. In order to "save the time of the reader", the answer to the problem of context seems to lie in making the user-computer interfaces "smarter". The answer is not just about returning a list of records from an index matching a query, but presenting the list in a way that is meaningful and useful from the user's perspective.

Last thoughts

ECDL 2006 was well organized. Alicante and the surrounding region provided a venue that was nice to experience. The conference papers were interesting, and the social events provided plenty of opportunity to mix and mingle. The proceedings were nice to have on hand, and the souvenirs, especially the memory stick, were greatly appreciated. I wish, however, that the attendance list had been created and distributed at registration time. More information about the conference can be found at its web site <>.

I sincerely appreciate and respect participants' ability to speak English at events like ECDL, though I often feel like the "ugly American" because of my own lack of fluency in multiple languages other than my own.

Next year's ECDL will take place in Budapest, Hungary on September 16 - 17, 2007. For more information about ECDL 2007, see <>.


Copyright © 2006 Eric Lease Morgan

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