While flying into Portland, Oregon, for the second Joint Conference on Digital Libraries (JCDL 2002), I realized I was feeling anxious. I'd never before been to an event organized by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and IEEE. The people who would be presenting were academics. I knew a few of them by name or reputation, but most were strangers. I was afraid the papers would be completely theoretical, full of mathematical formulas, and way over my head. I was prepared to be intimidated and joked before leaving my office that if there were too many formulas, I was walking out.
It's been common knowledge for the past 9 months that conference attendance in all disciplines is down. The reasons cited are travel fears and the economic slowdown. Apparently neither has had an effect on those interested in digital libraries. This year's event actually attracted more people than last year's--about 450 from 19 countries. It's a tribute not only to the power of digital libraries but also to the organizers at the Oregon Health & Science University. They include general chair William Hersh and Lynetta Sacherek, the event's treasurer, local arrangements organizer, and all-around troubleshooter extraordinaire. The program chair, Gary Marchionini, from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, was unfortunately unable to attend, but sent remarks by video.
Although I worried that the practical would be overlooked in a flurry of high-technology, blue-sky prognostications, the first day's opening speaker reassured me. Jessica Litman, a law professor at Wayne State University and author of Digital Copyright, has a very clear view of copyright from both the librarian and computer scientist perspectives. She began by noting that electronic information is dynamic, ubiquitous, and shared. Since the Internet has made searching quick and easy, people are finding that it's fun to look things up and share what they discover. This transforms information space and leads to public policy issues surrounding the archiving of constantly changing information, evaluating the quality of Web information, and preserving privacy and anonymity.
Litman, in both her talk and her answers to questions, kept repeating that copyright is frustrating. One of her primary frustrations: The Constitution says that copyright exists to advance and spread knowledge, but recent interpretations of copyright law are aimed at preventing knowledge sharing. She advised all coders in the audience against designing copyright protections into digital libraries. First of all, even lawyers aren't sure what the rules are. This makes it impossible for a coder to get it right. Second, we don't know what the courts may rule going forward. "If we code to protect information, it destroys wild information. It does violence to how people interact with information," Litman said. She offered the analogy of checking out a book from the library: "The librarian doesn't phone the publisher to ask permission." Ending with a call to optimize digital libraries for storage and information use rather than copyright, Litman reminded us, "There are no certainties in copyright law."
Following the opening session, the conference split into three concurrent sessions, two of which featured paper presentations. The third was billed as a panel discussion. I found this slightly confusing, as the panel members usually presented a paper, a few of which are in the proceedings.
I was not particularly impressed by the papers in the "Summarization and Question Answering" session. The University of Arizona's TXTRACTOR project utilizes sentence-selection heuristics to rank text segments. Daniel McDonald explained how his group uses artificial intelligence to create indicative summaries and talked about why he thinks text extraction is superior to an abstract. He didn't convince me.
David Pinto's presentation about QuASM (pronounced "chasm") did have one screen of mathematical formulas, but I stayed put. …