Interview with Library Tech Guru Michael Sauers Friday, Dec 2 2011
Michael Sauers is currently the Technology Innovation Librarian for the Nebraska Library Commission in Lincoln, Nebraska and has been training librarians in technology for more than 15 years. He has also been a public library trustee, a bookstore manager for a library friends group, a reference librarian, serials cataloger, technology consultant, and bookseller in addition to publishing five books through Neal-Schuman that deal with technology and libraries. Here, he talks to us about his forthcoming book, Semantic Web Technologies and Social Searching for Librarians, due to be published this spring and answers more general questions about the nature of technology in libraries.
• Your upcoming book, Semantic Web Technologies and Social Searching for Librarians written with Robin Fay, is coming out in April 2012 as part of THE TECH SET Volumes 11-20. What is the semantic Web and what is the purpose of your book?
The Semantic Web is the proposed next stage of development of data on the Web. Stage one was a lot of static presentation of content. Stage two, what we’re in the middle of now, is a combination of both static presentation and a massive amount of content creation and interaction. Stage three is the semantic Web, where the content/data is available in a way that is understandable by not just us humans but by the computers themselves.
As a simple example, if you have a Web page right now that contains a staff directory, chances are it’s marked up in HTML as a list with a bunch of different prices of information such as first name, last name, title, department, and phone number. We humans understand what each data item means and the relationship between those data points. A semantic Web staff directory would include code that specifically identified each data point as being some particular thing. With the addition of such code, we could then transfer that data from say, a Web page, to a payroll database, automatically, without having to explain to the payroll database what each data point meant.
Maybe most simply put, the semantic Web is the idea that content online can be more than just text, it can have meaning and with that meaning we can better manipulate it.
• Could you give us a preview of what’s ahead for searching and why it is important?
I think there are three key concepts that are becoming more important in search in many ways: customization, specificity, and re-intermediation. The trouble is, in some cases these three concepts may actually conflict with each other.
First, with customization, just think of how much Google tracks what you’re searching for and clicking on in their search engine. Then add services like Gmail, Google+, and location based services on Android phones, and it’s easy to realize that the same search performed by two different people can retrieve significantly different results. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing (although some do), but it does have an impact.
Second, specificity comes into play with services like Wolfram|Alpha. In this case you’re not searching in the more “traditional” way in that you’re looking for a match of keywords in a resulting document, but instead asking for data to be returned about a subject and in some cases also are looking for an interpretation of that data. If you’re not familiar with Wolfram|Alpha, try the search “population of New York and Nebraska” in Google and then again in Wolfram|Alpha and compare the results.
Finally, re-intermediation is something that was recently pointed out to me and I’ve just started thinking about. In this case, consider the Siri service from Apple. In this case you are having someone (a computer) basically do the search on your behalf and return what it believes to be the result to you. This may not necessarily immediately affect us as librarians in a reference situation, but it could be a sign of things to come and something that we should keep an eye on.
• Technology is consistently cited as the major sea change in the field of librarianship. Both as Technology Innovation Librarian for the Nebraska Library Commission and the author of many books on the subject, your work has brought you to the forefront of that change. What has been the most interesting facet of this change to you, and what do you most eagerly anticipate for the future?
Supposing I was being completely honest I’d have to say job security. Seriously though, what I think has intrigued me the most about the impact technology has had on libraries is, in enough cases to be noticeable and significant, the large number of librarians who just don’t want to accept that technology has changed librarianship in fundamental ways. I can accept that a librarian has made a conscious decision to not have an e-mail address. I may not agree with it but that’s their choice. However, what confuses me is that they then expect that they’ll be able to continue to be a librarian, just as they always have, and that everyone else should accommodate them. I just don’t understand the psychology of that despite having spoken to many people about it. The technology is here and has had, and is having, and impact. We need to adjust or face extinction.
As to what I most eagerly anticipate, that’s a harder one since I try not to make predictions about where technology is taking us. (Who would have predicted the iPad just five years ago?) Though if I had to pick one thing I look forward to the most is the stabilization of all the issues surrounding eBooks. Issues like owning vs. licensing, DRM, format standards, archiving, fair use are all things we’re dealing with right now. I don’t know how it will all fall out, though I have my preferences on most of these issues, but these important issues need to be settled.
• You also write the popular blog, The Travelin’ Librarian. What can readers expect to find there? Can you recommend other online sources that a curious librarian would enjoy?
My blog has been pretty random from the beginning and continues to be so. Yes, I post about library issues but I’m not afraid to share a Muppet video or two. So, if you’re expecting consistent extended essays about technologies and libraries you might be disappointed. If you’re interested in a peek into my brain, then my blog is the place to hang out.
When it comes to other sources, a question I get asked quite regularly, I think this time I’ll step away from the usual suspects (i.e. other librarian blogs) and give you a list of sites that help me out but aren’t necessarily library related:
Learn more about Michael’s upcoming book Semantic Web Technologies and Social Searching for Librarians on the book’s Web page and be sure to check out his blog for more of his perspective on technology and the occasional Muppet video.