In the early days of the internet, around 1991, we used to refer to online researching as “drinking from a firehose.” As text-based tools such as Archie, Gopher, and Yahoo were replaced with the World Wide Web, we found out just how apt that concept was. By 1995, it seemed possible to have online access to all of humanity’s most significant information right there on your computer screen. Sadly, we also found out that we had access to all of the world’s stupidity. Attempts were made to separate the wheat from the chaff, but these were swept away in the tsunami of digital information.
A few years ago, I was teaching a library skills class to undergraduates in Lower Manhattan, and I worked to disavow my students of the idea that Google maintains some kind of quality control on the data it indexes. To prove it, I created the nonsense line, “Sarah Palin can see the planet Jupiter from her back porch,” and added it to my webpage. The next week, I searched that line in Google, and it came right up. I wish I could tell you that all of the class got the question about this correct on the final exam, but many of them did not.
The key issue in online scholarship is locating the best information and getting the maximum value out of it. That has been addressed by a man whose LinkedIn banner shows a road sign warning, “Road not maintained. Travel at your own risk.” Christopher Warnock is no stranger to forging his own path.
A New Company Is Formed
ebrary was an archive of scholarly electronic books that was founded in 1999. It was acquired by ProQuest in 2011, and then replaced with a similar product in 2015. Warnock, one of ebrary’s co-founders, continued to be fascinated by the possibilities of the PDF for scholarly research. He said a study several years ago showed that the internet was populated with more than 2.5 trillion PDF files. This content is substantially scholarly in nature, containing the entire contents of JSTOR, ProQuest, and Gale, among many others. He also claimed that the format holds possibilities that had gone largely untapped.
Enlisting a team of ebrary veterans and others, he founded a new company, Helper Systems, and now serves as its CEO. The press release announcing the company’s launch describes it as “[a] motley crew of library and publishing industry experts and aficionados, musicians, artists, vintners, Ukrainian freedom fighters, engineers, firefighters and robot builders [who] have launched Helper Systems and aim to change the information landscape forever. Their goal is to make the world’s information easier to find, manage and comprehend, and a lot more fun to use.” I don’t know about you, but this description had me at “fun to use.”
The company name was taken from the location of its headquarters: Helper, Utah. This small, seemingly idyllic western town is home to about 2,000 people. In the 19th century, Helper was a favorite spot for outlaw Butch Cassidy, and it has eluded the extinction that was common to other coal mining towns in the region. The name Helper was derived from the fact that the town is on a plateau, and westbound trains could not make the steep grade on their own—they were aided by helper engines that pushed them up the hill.
The company has devised a new software product named kOS (pronounced “chaos”), which can search, index, and manage large groupings of PDF files. Warnock told me that using this at the hard drive level helps to ensure privacy while delivering the kind of wide access to multiple files that is a feature of online services. He told me that people should have the freedom to control their data, and kOS will help them unlock the hidden potential of the internet.
Demonstrating the New Software
On Nov. 2, Warnock took time out from promoting Helper Systems at the Charleston Conference to give me a preview of kOS in a Zoom teleconference. I expected to see something visually interesting, and it certainly lived up to that. In the initial screen, the left-hand column is a text listing of each of the files being searched. The center is a visual display of the PDF books consulted, and the right-hand column includes a word cloud and workspace for processing the information derived from a search. When a search is entered, the listing of files shows the number of hits in each PDF for the term entered.
Once you choose a file to examine, the center becomes a workspace to see snippets or the entire work and then to select data to be added to word-processing or other files. As the work progresses, a dynamic interactive index is made available. The word cloud adds to the focus and shows other related concepts to be explored.
For demonstration, Warnock chose the topic of black holes, and he included a number of astronomy-related PDF documents. In looking for secondary terms, he found that a number of the documents showed rich clusters of related terms, such as “quantum physics” and “singularities.” He then switched to a look at information about the Antikythera Mechanism, a tool that dates back to ancient Greece and was discovered in a shipwreck in 1901. Surprisingly, it has an elaborate system of gears, and inscriptions inside claim that it can predict the positions of the planets and even specify upcoming eclipses. Again, the kOS program called up a rich array of information about the object and how scientists have reconstructed it to the point of confirming that it would track planetary positions.
Where kOS Is Going
The release of kOS version 1.0 is said to be in the near future. The initial release will only be available for Apple users, with a Windows release to follow eventually. Much of the functionality described here will be available as a free program. An advanced version will be available for institutional subscriptions or for individual power users. Given the obvious implications for medical research, Warnock said that Helper Systems is partnering with medical professionals to show how kOS helps to tame the information glut and addresses the privacy concerns of doctors.
A Positive Response
The PDF is likely to remain the standard tool for preserving scholarly information. A program such as kOS will give users the ability to give added value to their research and will surely find a home with scholars around the world. In a post about the Helper Systems launch in the Charleston Hub, a commenter enthused, “Anything Christopher puts his mind to will result in greatness!!!” Another wrote, “This is a much needed simplification tool in our lives.”
Helper Systems is clearly the work of a man who is not afraid to travel on unproven roads. Let’s see where this one leads.