Magazine article Information Today

The Emergence of the Open Archives Initiative

Magazine article Information Today

The Emergence of the Open Archives Initiative

Article excerpt

Lately, it seems like every new concept, movement, or technology is "open." While being open is surely a good characteristic for a computer system, the term has found its way into so many names and acronyms that it's hard to keep track of them all. Several open movements have recently developed in the library and information systems world: the Open Archives Initiative (OAI); OpenURL, the basis for reference-linking environments; Open Source, for software development; and the Open Archival Information Systems framework, for creating reliable information repositories. This month I'll talk about the Open Archives Initiative. I plan to cover each of the other movements in future columns.

Open Archives Initiative

OAI, an emerging specification in the digital library arena, was developed only within the last few years. Many of the major players in digital libraries and scholarly communications have lent strong support to this new approach to information discovery, search, and retrieval. Although it's still in the early phases of its deployment, OAI is gaining significant momentum and will likely be a key piece of the future digital library landscape.

The Open Archives Initiative evolved out of the scholarly communications field to provide interoperability among multiple information sources. OAI relies on a model of metadata harvesting to support the creation of information services that span multiple sources or that offer other value-added features. The OAI universe is based on information repositories, or "data providers," that make their metadata available (by using a prescribed set of protocols) to "service providers" that build new information resources. End-users can benefit from OAI-based services that aggregate the metadata of many OAI repositories. Note that OAI operates with metadata, not complete works of digital content. In most cases the metadata include links back to the original information repositories for access to the documents or other digital objects.

As a publicly available, well-defined specification that was developed collaboratively by a large group of stakeholders, OAI can truly be considered "open." Any public, private, or commercial entity can build systems that comply with this protocol. The use of the word "archives" has proven to be somewhat controversial. For many, an archive refers to a physical or digital collection that meets very specific expectations about the management and preservation of materials. The OAI community regards the word in a much more general way, using it to refer to any kind of digital content repository.

The Open Archives Initiative makes no distinctions with information access. An OAI service provider can offer free and universal access, restrict access to specific communities, or impose fees for access. OAI takes a neutral stand on access control and business models.

Simplicity Is the Key

The OAI metadata-harvesting protocol operates behind the scenes only between data providers and service providers. No special software is needed to search an OAI-- based information service. The users need not even be aware that OAI was used to collect the metadata.

The OAI protocols were designed to be very simple and efficient. By avoiding complexity, enabling an existing information repository to function as an OAT-compliant data provider is a relatively simple process that generally requires only a few days' worth of programming effort. Building services is somewhat more challenging.

OAI vs. Z39.50

OAI's metadata-harvesting approach stands in distinct contrast to search-and-retrieval protocols such as 239.50. In essence, both 239.50 and OAI accomplish what's often called "federated searching," which allows users to gather information from multiple related resources through a single interface. One search query can return resuits from many resources, thus increasing the comprehensiveness of the available information without forcing the user to search several places individually. …

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