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San Diego Conference provides forum for exploring issues and challenges
by
Posted On November 22, 1999
An enthusiastic group of over 2,400 gathered in San Diego for the third year of the popular Internet Librarian conference sponsored by Information Today, Inc. This year, the "Nothin' but Net" event moved south from its previous, quaint Monterey Bay location to the (mostly) sunny and fun-loving southern California spot. It was held November 8-10 at the San Diego Concourse, in the heart of downtown, and an easy walk or trolley ride to many restaurants, attractions, shopping, and entertainment.

The 3-day event included over 100 exhibiting companies, 12 tracks of conference sessions, two evening sessions, a 2-day Internet@Schools conference within a conference, over 100 expert speakers, plus 23 pre- and post-conference workshops. New this year were morning cybertours and evening cybercruises in various subject areas, conducted by Web experts and held in the CyberCafe. Sponsored by LEXIS-NEXIS, the 1950s-style CyberCafe provided workstations for Internet searching and checking e-mail, and even phone lines for plugging in laptops. Obviously, this was an extremely popular place.
 

Triple-Play Keynotes
Also new this year was a plenary session keynote speaker to open each of the 3 days of the conference. These were held in the Concourse's Golden Hall, a venue for many notable performers. However, as Tom Hogan of Information Today, Inc. pointed out, he wasn't sure he felt good following in their footsteps, considering the fact that performers such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Marvin Gaye are all dead. At any rate, the three keynoters all gave stimulating, thoughtful—and funny—presentations to a ballroom full of attendees. These keynote speakers are very well-known and regarded in our industry: technology and information industry consultant Steve Arnold; author and editor of the SuperSearchers series Reva Basch; and Danny Sullivan, author and editor of Search Engine Watch.

Building a Business Plan for Earth's Biggest Library
by David Hoffman

After the splash that Los Angeles County Public Library's Steve Coffman made with his March 1999 Searcher magazine article "Building Earth's Largest Library"—for which he was just awarded Bell & Howell Information and Learning's 1999 Excellence in Writing award, by the way—Internet Librarian conference organizers decided to help keep the ball rolling with a all-day track devoted to the concept. Coffman was there, front and center, to moderate through a day of practical-minded discussions. Sessions titles—each prefaced with the question "How Would It Work?"—included Building the Catalog and Inventory System, Building an Ordering and Shipping System, and Calculating Costs and Revenues.

He opened by framing the concept laid out in his article: the mega-collection of book titles and other items—43 million of them; the enhanced catalog (think Amazon.com kinds of "finding" and "discovery" features); the circulation system plus delivery and return logistics; and cost and funding issues.

What followed was a series of sessions in which speakers and audience members defined the logistical scope, proposed numbers and models for funding, and debated the feasibility and, intermittently, the philosophical validity of the project. Coffman brought the experience of experts to bear. Just to name a few, we heard from Terry Noreault, director of the Office of Research at OCLC, an institution that, in Coffman's words, "has the necessary parts [for such a project], but scattered around"; Bob Doran, of Baker & Taylor's Electronic Business Information Services—which was heavily involved in the construction of some of Amazon.com's functionality; Mary Jackson, senior program officer for access services at the Association of Research Libraries; Ron Wohl, principal of LibraryExpress; and Cindy Cunningham, director of the Browse Program of Amazon.com. Check out some of the facts, figures, and theories in their presentations, which should be available soon via the Presentation Links button on the Internet Librarian page at the Information Today, Inc. Web site (http://www.infotoday.com).

At the end of the day, Coffman asked the audience and panelists to ponder what had been discussed and to return and revisit the subject in final panel session the following evening. That panel included some new blood, including Searcher editor in chief Barbara Quint (patched in to the session by phone)—who started all this by publishing Coffman's article. It's evidence of the interest the idea of the Earth's Biggest Library has generated that a good 70 or 80 people were there.

When all was said and done, I'd say that this core group of deeply interested individual librarians and apparently committed representatives of organizations such as OCLC got a dose of reality in closely examining the infrastructure logistics and the financials of building the earth's biggest library. I'm not sure they were any closer to agreeing how to implement the concept, let alone beginning that implementation. But their enthusiasm remained strong, and the attention they garnered by running this track was invaluable.
 
 

David Hoffman is editor of Information Today. His e-mail address is hoffmand@infotoday.com.
 


Arnold on Technology
Before diving into his topic, "Web Strategies for the Millennium: New Metrics for Selection and Evaluation of Internet-Enabled Infrastructures," Arnold first intrigued his audience by announcing the important technologies and issues that he would not be discussing—but they were obviously areas for our industry to watch for developments. These included Windows 2000 Digital Network Architecture (which will enable small businesses to use networked information), the Open Source software movements (Linux, PLS, MySQL), network cache technologies (which raise the issue of currency), non-text data explosion (such as Webcams, MP3, and images), wireless links and persistent connections, and Applications Service Providers (ASPs). Since Arnold is usually 6 to 12 months ahead of the rest of us, I'd bet that if he speaks again next year (yes, please ask him), many of these will be part of the featured discussion.

He then discussed what he called "Seven Transformational Technologies," some of which are easily observable (faster computers, denser and cheaper storage, bandwidth driving delivery of rich media). The others operate more behind the scenes (object-oriented programming environments offering flexibility, smart software fueling ease-of-use, the use of XML breaking data barriers, and Internet technology supercharging communications). The total context of these set the stage for his proposed metrics, which included basic costs, "what-if" analyses, detailed results analyses, and "pivot points" to measure the perceived payback of a technology.

This is, of course, just a gloss-over of all that Arnold touched upon. He then discussed how a number of interesting companies were implementing the new technologies. One company, NetReality (http://www.netreality.com), which provides a 3-D fly-through of content (data visualization), uses all of his list of seven. Some other products and companies were equally fascinating, and are worth checking out: X-Portal from KCSL (an in-context searching tool; http://www.kcsl.ca), KnowAll from Worldfree.net (natural language searching; http://www.worldfree.net), and Oingo (a new search engine in beta; http://www.oingo.com), among others. His predictions included rising security and privacy concerns, continued entrepreneurial ventures, and significant re-engineering of business models.
 

Basch on the Human Side
On the second day, Reva Basch provided an interesting counterpoint to Arnold by delving into the human side of the Net, instead of technology developments, as she often does. Her presentation, titled "Content + Commerce + Community: Rediscovering the Human Element Online," examined how the human element has returned to the forefront—just in time for the millennium. She noted that the distinction between looking for information online and interacting with people online isn't as clear-cut as it used to be, and that many of our current technologies attempt to replicate human intelligence.

She reviewed the major modes of communication online, noting that it doesn't have to be fleeting and transient, and discussed some of the dynamics of online communities. Successful people know how to connect and how to leverage those connections. Certain community elements can be successfully incorporated into intranets, enterprise portals, and into our own personal and professional lives. While we may not all choose to spend as much of our waking life communicating using a keyboard as Basch does (The Well-junkie that she is), certainly her reminders about the untapped potential for utilizing human intelligence were well received by the audience.
 

Web Tools from Sullivan
Those of us who've been relying on the Search Engine Watch for a heads-up on major developments were delighted to hear the author in person. Danny Sullivan gave a review of the year's events and improvements in Web search engines, and a look at where trends are leading in the future. The size wars are very much in evidence, with the race to claim to be "the biggest" touted as a marketing claim. This is countered by the "better, not bigger" camps, many of which are exploring various human-powered enhancements. Sullivan concluded that size matters to professionals, especially to locate unusual or obscure material. As he put it, "What good is half a haystack?" Size is less important for average users who really need better relevancy—"Average users don't need the whole haystack. They really need a metal detector."

Since "words on the page" sometimes have little to do with what's relevant for a Web search, Sullivan pointed out the rise in helping with human power to go beyond the words, especially noting efforts like the Open Directory (http://directory.netscape.com) and LookSmart (http://www.looksmart.com). Other "off the page" criteria are also being used to obtain better results, including link popularity and click-through data. For the future, he expects to see continued growth in directories, more use of nontraditional searching criteria, more use of programmed results (which provide information and not just Web sites), and a trend toward more specialized collections and less emphasis on comprehensive Web crawling.
 

Session Highlights
The four simultaneous tracks of sessions truly offered something for everyone. There was a very successful 2-day track called Wired for Success, which focused on what "wired libraries" are doing and how they are handling the staffing and organizational issues as they adopt a virtual or digital model. Speakers represented all library sectors: academic, public, and corporate.

Other tracks explored issues relating to public libraries and virtual communities, strategies and trends for the millennium, how intranet librarians are managing knowledge assets, and strategies for managing content. A large group of attendees even managed to make it back after dinner for an evening session that examined the Southern California Online Users Group (SCOUG) guidelines for search quality. See the sidebar by David Hoffman for a report on the Earth's Biggest Library track, another one that drew attendees back for an evening session.

The sessions ranged from very detailed—such as those in the WebWizard learning track, where topics covered usability testing, Web site design, and how to build dynamic Web pages—to the broad discussion of issues and trends. Sessions that discussed Web tools, search engines, directories, and metasites were all very popular. A number of themes seemed to reappear regularly through sessions I attended, including human decision making and classification, content aggregation, integration, standards, and Ran Hock's special "p" list of Web trends: personalization, portalization, and popularity. And, no doubt about it, this was a Google-endorsing crowd. I can't even count the number of speakers who professed that Google (http://www.google.com) was their current search tool of choice.

Though it might seem unfair to single out a presentation from the many good ones, Bonnie Snow's treatment of "Black Holes in Cyberspace" was excellent. She discussed ways to cope with the content missed by search engines, known as the "invisible Web." Snow—a longtime biomedical search specialist and Dialog trainer, and now with Caredata.com—is one of the most logical and articulate writers and speakers that I know. She categorized and analyzed the various approaches, including annotated, searchable classified directories, such as IntelliSeek's InvisibleWeb (http://www.invisibleweb.com) and Direct Search (http://gwis2.circ.gwu.edu/~gprice/direct.htm), and solutions augmented with search forms and numerous variations, including WebData.com (http://www.webdata.com), All Seeing EYE (an investment metasearch engine; http://www.streeteye.com/cgi-bin/allseeing.cgi), CiteLine Professional (http://www.citeline.com), and others.
 

A volume of conference proceedings and tapes of the sessions are available for purchase from Information Today, Inc. (800/300-9868). The company Web site (http://www.infotoday.com) has the Internet Librarian conference schedule of sessions, with links to exhibitors and speakers, as well as links to many of the electronic resources used in speakers' presentations, including outlines and PowerPoint slides.

The fourth Internet Librarian conference, scheduled for November 6-8, 2000, will move back to the Monterey location. The evaluation form for this year included a question about location preference, asking about a number of Western cities, including San Francisco; San Jose, California; Los Angeles/Anaheim; Palm Springs, California; Monterey; and Seattle. If you want to express a preference to the conference planners, drop an e-mail to custserv@infotoday.com. The ITI Web site will have a call for papers, and a schedule as it develops. See you in beautiful Monterey!
 
 


David Hoffman is editor of Multimedia & Internet@Schools

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