Project Pride wants to simplify the process of getting information from the world's libraries. Mike Holderness reports.
While the International Workers of the World sang about One Big Union, librarians whispered about One Big Union Catalogue. It is not going to happen - but a research project launched in September aims to give library users all the benefits, virtually. Pride (People and Resources Identification for Distributed Environments) however, also indirectly throws into question the nature and particularly the funding of libraries.
The problem which Pride confronts is that library systems barely talk to each other. Within the UK, for example, the NISS service lists 139 university library catalogues accessible on the internet. To track down an uncommon book or journal, you will have to visit candidate libraries in turn. You will have to re-enter your search request for each library's catalogue, following different software search conventions. Many of the libraries require a user name and password. When or if you find your document, you will probably have to fill in an inter-library loan slip and drop it in the snail mail.
Pride aims to provide a virtual one-stop shop. As Lorcan Dempsey, director of Pride partner the UK Office for Library Networking puts it, Pride is about reducing the friction in the system: "Many of the resources which are out there are under-utilised because people are not able to locate them."
The project aims to do this by developing a standard for a "broker service" which will be able to collect one information request from a user and submit it to individual online public access catalogues in formats they can understand. It will locate electronic documents and initiate their delivery, as well as finding traditional works and requesting inter-library loans.
Much more is required than knowing a document's shelfmarks or web addresses. Pride will broker information about the libraries themselves. It will also offer means for sending the libraries relevant information about the user, for example to carry out instant registration. This will require developing a standard for secure exchange of private data or a meta-standard for communication between different secure communication protocols.
Robin Yeates at South Bank University, another Pride partner, points out that Pride "won't attract users if it's not secure - but customers will be prepared to give out information if there's a reasonable return."
Pride will need to organise information about document ownership and permitted uses, particularly with electronic delivery. For example, the article in Science (September 4) proposing that academics should retain ownership of their articles is owned outright by the journal, not its authors - and Pride will need to tell users this.
All the services which Pride will network cost money to run. Pride will therefore include methods for authorising and making payments, for the costs of searching or for the documents themselves. Yeates says that whether libraries choose to implement the option of passing charges on to individual users is not part of the project: "In an academic environment where a department is charged for ILL requests, it may help to simplify the accounting."
He sees libraries' existing highly-informal use of ILL request slips as a parallel international currency as a model.
Nevertheless, fundamental issues about the role of libraries rear their heads. As Dempsey says, in traditional media the legal requirement that documents be deposited with national libraries produces a "national memory". But "at the moment electronic documents are not generally available in this way because of the absence of legal deposit rules or a new media equivalent". It is natural for a virtual library to catalogue electronic documents which are not covered by legal deposit. Arthur Andersen consultancy reports at Pounds 5,000 a copy, for example. What should the University of East Mummetshire at Stony Broke do when a user requests one of those?
Several of the commercial partners in Pride are interested in the National Grid for Learning, a project that has officials in the Department of Trade and Industry gnashing their teeth over its failure yet to grapple with the issues of content and intellectual property. Dempsey firmly believes that "if you're serious about lifelong learning you have to ensure that there are not excessive barriers to anyone getting information." More generally, "In The Third Way, Anthony Giddens proposes that we need an expanded 'public sphere': that must include instruments for democratic participation, and they have to be paid for somehow. This implies a parallel to the debate about the role of public service broadcasting in a multimedia environment. We may need to be talking about public service information more generally."
Getting the computers talking to each other, let alone the politicians, is an ambitious task for a two-year project with a dozen primary partners. The Pride proposal reads like a glossary of digital librarianship and commerce. The project will need to integrate Whois++, Harvest, PICS, the Dublin Core and its Warwick Framework for data about data, the Visa/Mastercard SET Secure Electronic Transactions standard, Ecash, ISO X.500 directory services and the Z39.50 effort to produce a standard for library catalogue transactions which is, within its own small world, already famously tangled.
The project aims to produce a demonstration service which will offer integrated access to catalogues in France, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom and also in Hungary and Australia. As its focus is on standards more than on a particular implementation, it will be open to others to produce sophisticated user interfaces.
And no, Yeates is sure we are not talking about "the death of the library":
"Traditional services will remain much as they are now." We are talking about a bright future for a virtual global library - as soon as we can figure out how it is paid for.