Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Geography of Linked Data and Ready Reference

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

The Geography of Linked Data and Ready Reference

Article excerpt

The tech bunch is always buzzing about something. I judge the "buzziness" in part by whether it's hit the mainstream library world, and I judge that by watching to see if Roy Tennant's talking about it. Tennant has an amazing ability to track tech trends and find just the right way to explain what's cool and what's important about any new acronym in the right way for any kind of audience he addresses--and at just the right time. So I took note when he started 2009 with a positively charged blog post about linked data (www.libraryjournal.com /blog/1090000309/post/1930038793.html).

Like Tennant, who explains his skepticism about the "semantic web" in a companion post, I never much expected or wanted the web to "think for me." I also think that the hype promoting resource description framework (RDF)--often mentioned as a key enabling standard for the semantic web--has been a distraction, roughly as much as the hype denigrating MARC (at which Tennant has slung his share of arrows and then some) has been a distraction. I agree with Tennant again about linked data in 2009. It's interesting, it's right at the cusp of being useful, and it's getting to be time for the trendy to take note and see what we can and can't do with linked data. There was even to be a full-day preconference workshop on linked data at code4lib 2009 in late February, so dozens of us geeky code4lib types were probably blogging at length about it by March. So when you read this, there should be a lot more to find and read online about linked data and what it can do for your library.

What Is Linked Data?

According to linkeddata.org, linked data is about "using the Web to connect related data that wasn't previously linked, or using the Web to lower the barriers to linking data currently linked using other methods." The web itself is already data full of links where the pages at both ends of the links are really just more data, so this definition doesn't quite cut all the way through to what's important. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, defined how to think about linked data (www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Linked Data.html) the following way:

1. Use URIs [uniform resource identifiers] as names for things.

2. Use HTTP URIs so that people can look up those names.

3. When someone looks up a URI, provide useful information.

4. Include links to other URIs so that they can discover more things.

The same "But isn't that what the web already is?" question applies here, but he's getting at something else. To me, what Berners-Lee and others are trying to say with linked data is the following:

* Here is a way to make the web more meaningful.

* We do this by being more explicit about what things on the web mean.

* We also do this by being more explicit about how things on the web relate to each other.

* The way we are more explicit is by adhering strictly to specific new patterns in web publishing.

But that's just my interpretation.

I doubt I've sold you yet on how this is new and why this is important, so I'll stop being so abstract. It's easy enough for you or me to read a news story on a webpage and to see a name of something new to us--a place, say--in that article and go look up that place separately in Google or Wikipedia. Maybe finding the right Wikipedia page about that place answers a few questions we might have, but it also leads to new questions, so a few more links in Wikipedia later, and we're following a link out of Wikipedia and onto another site. This is how the web works, and it's something we all do all the time. It's also something the Googles of the world do too, but there's a difference between when we humans follow these links and when Google's crawler and indexer code follows these links.

For us, it's a cognitive path. You see something new, you have a question about it, you find an answer somewhere else, and that maybe leads to more questions and more "somewhere elses. …

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