Bulletin, December 2006/January 2007

A Reflection on Progress

by Frances McConihe

Frances McConihe graduated from Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in May 2006. She now works as a senior designer/information architect in the Web design office at Simmons. She is one of the two student members of the Advisory Board of the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. She can be reached by email at mcconihe <at> simmons.edu.

Writing this column as I prepare for this year’s ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Austin brings back memories of the first ASIS&T conference I attended, just two years ago, in Providence, Rhode Island. I had started the master’s program at Simmons College two months before and immediately found a home in the ASIS&T Student Chapter, though at the time of the conference, I still didn’t know all of my chapter-mates. Coming into the keynote lecture hall just before Tim Berners-Lee took the stage, I felt like a tiny, lone mote amid the buzzing crowds. When Berners-Lee took the stage and began to talk about his vision of a Semantic Web, the crowd quieted. I listened raptly, and though I was aware of the Semantic Web concept before the conference, the keynote speech inspired me to learn more. After the talk, the air lit up again with heated discussions. The talk around the Simmons table at the International Reception that night was all about the sleeping potential of the Web that could be realized with semantics.

As time passed the talk and excitement cooled. Some businesses adopted “semantic technologies” using traditional information science tools like controlled vocabularies and thesauri or attempted semantic analysis of full text, but the dream that Berners-Lee had proposed seemed further and further away from reality. Despite the increasingly cynical talk, I wrote papers, read articles and discussed the issues with classmates and colleagues, hearing more and more, “It will never happen” or “It was a little too idealistic.”

Now Tim Berners-Lee is back in the news talking about the Semantic Web, a little less enthusiastically and a little more defensively, but still promoting all the benefits and possibilities of such an environment and calling for greater cooperation. I still believe in Berners-Lee’s vision and mission, but I think he may be selling himself and his idea short. While he and the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) were working on meticulous, overarching standards and protocols, individuals and organizations, both big and small, have been busy making bits and pieces of the Web more semantic, using what’s available now. Web standards have made great inroads in the past year:

  • Google launched its accessible search, which gives priority to pages with cleaner, semantic-structural markup

  • The New York Times launched a (more) standards-compliant site

  • RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and XML (the eXtensible Mark-up Language) are now everyday technologies, despite their status as “works in progress”

More and more businesses are coming to understand the value of Web-standard coding practices now that smaller businesses and organizations have demonstrated the value and versatility that properly marked-up information can provide. Using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) to style XHTML, separating the structural and display markup data, is almost old hat these days (though there are many sites out there still using tables). With the recent splash of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation) is increasingly used to style data stored in XML. Sites pull data from Amazon and Google Maps and manipulate it from afar. Microformats.org is creating small, self-contained markup standards that work together and integrate with existing applications and standards – Yahoo has embedded the calendar and address card microformats into its local services, upcoming.org and Flickr. XFN (XHTML Friends Network) and FOAF (Friend of a Friend), two methods of describing social relationships across sites using markup, are gaining momentum. OCLC (the Online Computer Library Center) is working on several projects to create Web services with controlled vocabularies (Bulletin, June/July 2006), making consistent term assignment across organization lines easier and more accessible. OpenURL – an approved NISO standard – durably links a searcher with a library’s scholarly publishing services, and CoinS (Context object in SPAN) – a new NISO specification – allows free services to do the same. And while they remain largely hidden behind security walls, ontologies developed in government and science are reported to be increasingly successful at linking related content.

All of these projects demonstrate the increased versatility, durability and utility that semantic markup enables. They are also small initiatives being worked out in practice, with no complete blueprint of the final product. Granted these are just small corners of the net, with people creating their own solutions, but perhaps that is just how the Semantic Web will be built, a thousand tiny pieces slowly attracting one another until the benefits of such cooperation and communication are tangible and the time for a more cooperative, coherent solution arrives. In the end, this piecemeal approach may be more likely to result in a robust, creative and unexpected solution that will creep up on us until we suddenly realize we’re in its midst.

While Berners-Lee’s keynote of two years ago outlined a magnificent and momentous undertaking, I find myself even more excited to be entering the information science field when it is not the massive organizations but the individuals, collaborative groups and even students who are creating dynamic and creative solutions that will help us make our way through the ever increasing buzz of information.