Fast and flexible Microsoft and Trinity College


Irish universities are getting in on the idea of digitised, interactive libraries, with a new partnership between Trinity College Dublin and Microsoft setting the tone, writes ADAM MAGUIRE

THE MOVE towards digitised university libraries is gaining momentum worldwide with copyright concerns creating the only real doubts about how the transfer to digital will pan out.

As part of a partnership announced recently Trinity College Dublin is to work with Microsoft on the development of a user-friendly online environment for its digitised works, which includes some historical documents and work from the humanities department. Dubbed a “Virtual Research Environment” the infrastructure will attempt to draw all of this content in to one network, making access and collaboration between academics easier.

However, while the deal is ground-breaking by Irish university standards the move towards a digitised and interactive library is not new internationally. In countries such as the US and UK most large universities have long-established digitisation units that are working to make printed works available online – particularly those of historical significance.

“In the US there’s been quite a long tradition of digitising what’s called ‘special collections’, which would be rare and unique things,” says MacKenzie Smith, associate director for technology in the MIT libraries. “Quite a few institutions in the UK have also done that . . . typically they’re put on a website in public.”

In many cases the main motivation for digitisation has been preservation of work. However, the most important driver has been increasing the accessibility of content to a wider audience.

“[Some works] are very difficult things to get to today unless you’re a researcher with a lot of money to travel,” says Smith. “I think access is the bigger problem although preservation is part of that.”

Smith adds that the rate at which this move to digital is happening has increased significantly of late, particularly since Google undertook its aim to digitise millions of books for its Book Search service.

Digitisation is also happening at the other end of the timescale among modern books, although in this case at source. Many publishers now – particularly in the science and technology fields – accompany their printed works with “ebook” and “ejournal” editions which can be read on a standard computer or compatible eReaders.

“The trend is very much to go electronic in all areas,” said John Kennedy, systems librarian at the University of Ulster. “There are a number of pluses in doing that; one of which is that you can have several people access something at the same time, another is that they can do so whenever and wherever they want.

“Another big benefit for us is that it cuts down on the kind of space we need to stock the physical copies in the first place.”

Of course when publishers create digital copies of their own, the ownership rights around them are relatively clear – the same cannot be said for work produced long before the digital age.

This fact is the one thing creating real concern among universities, as there is legal uncertainty over whether they can digitise at all under existing agreements.

As yet, no one knows how far “fair use” stretches and libraries are having to seek agreement with rights-holders on a case-by-case basis in order to free up the work for users.

A failure to get such clearance could have a dramatic impact on the potential of the digitised library, which can be used to turn static work from a book into something adaptable and modular. In fact, a more integrated and layered communication platform is an integral part of what Microsoft is promising Trinity College, including what it calls web 2.0 features like tagging, instant messaging and RSS feeds.

“When something is digitised the computer has the power to process the information in a way that I don’t have the time to do,” says Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, the Erasmus Smith chair of modern history at Trinity College. “You want to be able to get the machine to do all that tedious cross-matching for you.”

At its most basic level this social media edge allows people to edit and discuss documents in real time from opposite sides of the globe but the benefits can go far deeper than this. One example often cited is the new potential for data “mashups”, which involves the combination of two independent sources of information to create something entirely new.

Where in the past this may have involved laborious grunt-work on the part of the academic as they siphoned isolated pieces of information from pages to compare and contrast, attaining such results is now as easy as the click of a mouse.

“The trajectory here is pretty clear – eventually all of our texts will be digital,” says MacKenzie Smith. “I don’t think there’s any debate about whether we’re going to create digital libraries, it’s just a question of how quickly we can make it happen.”

Fast and flexible: Microsoft and Trinity College

TONY HEY, the man spearheading Microsoft’s partnership with Trinity College Dublin, is “genuinely excited” by its potential despite admitting he had previously ignored the potential for innovation in the humanities.

Hey, who is corporate vice president at the external research wing of Microsoft Research, says that he has since seen the folly in this and understands just how important the area of study is to the research work Microsoft and others are doing at present.

“My work in the past has generally been around science which lends itself more to cutting-edge technology and new research techniques,” says Hey while in Trinity College for the announcement on the partnership. “There is so much content there, though, and making all of it more accessible is very exciting.”

With that increased accessibility comes the potential for greater collaboration according to Trinity College and Microsoft. However, Hey argues that the infrastructure now being created through the agreement has potential far beyond academia, stretching into the wider world of education and the country’s economy.

“If you look at the example of the Book of Kells, people going to see it only ever get to see two pages at any one time,” he says. “If it was all digitised and available to view at any time, anywhere it would have an enormous benefit to Ireland’s culture and would vastly increase the interest in Ireland globally.

“Something like that would also be a valuable educational tool and I think the case needs to be made to the Irish Government that this could be very useful.”

However, Hey makes no pretence about Microsoft’s motivation in striking the deal with Trinity, adding that it was going to benefit both sides.

“It would be dishonest to say that this was entirely altruistic – of course it wasn’t,” he says. “This partnership will be very useful to our research department and what comes out of it could eventually become features and services in future products.”

Hey adds that his preferred approach is to build something tangible as quickly as possible, growing it from there. The plan is that as the software and infrastructure develops what works can be built on and what does not can be discarded.

The infrastructure is also being built heavily on open source code, something that Microsoft has begun to embrace after years of resistance. By making itself faster and more flexible – and by establishing partnerships like this one early – it helps Microsoft stay ahead of its competition.

Microsoft abandoned its short-lived plans to digitise books en-mass in the middle of 2008 opting instead to work with institutes on a one-by-one basis.

Another big benefit for us is that it cuts down on the kind of space we need to stock the physical copies in the first place.