October 3, 2007

Interview with Richard Akerman, Technology Architect at CISTI

Welcome to the latest installment in my occasional series of interviews with people in the scitech world. This time around the subject is Richard Akerman, Technology Architect at the Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information (CISTI). While I've never met Richard in person, I've long followed the provocative and insightful commentary on his blog, Science Library Pad. Provocative and insightful are certainly words I would use to describe his responses in this interview. Enjoy!

Q0. Richard, please tell us a little about your background and career path to this point and how you ended up at CISTI.

I didn't start out with any particular plan, at university in the late 80s I found I had an aptitude for computer science, and science in general. From there I spent a while building expertise in computer networking and system administration. I worked for six years at a company called AMIRIX Systems, initially as a network admin, and later as a software designer. From there I ended up at CISTI in 2002, again initially as a network admin, and now as a technology architect.

If I look at the threads that run through, the main aspects are working with and understanding computers and networks at a very technical level, and the analytical aspects that computer programming, network troubleshooting, and science all share. What I guess isn't obvious is that software engineering and technology architecture are also highly social activities, that require a high degree of communication skills to gather information and requirements from a wide variety of people, translate those into technical details, and then explain the technical details in an understandable way back to a variety of audiences.

There is another thread which is that from the time of High School on I have been required to do presentations for school or for work, and I've always been comfortable and enjoyed doing so.

Q1. Why did you start blogging and what keeps you going?

For my personal blog, I started in 2001 when there weren't really any good bookmarking management tools. From the early days of the MOSAIC browser, when you had to hand-edit the MOSAIC.INI file to arrange bookmarks, I have always had an interest in being able to re-locate useful information I've found on the net. (Perhaps there is some librarian in me after all.) In 2001 del.icio.us unfortunately hadn't been invented yet, but Google and other search engines had, so the easiest way for me to maintain bookmarks with a rich enough set of metadata that was meaningful to me was to blog them.

When I went to my first library technology conference, Internet Librarian in 2004, I started taking conference notes (mostly since I have a terrible memory when it comes to things people have said). But I shortly decided it didn't make much sense to have my work-related notes mixed in with pictures of my cat, so I launched Science Library Pad (SLP) as a more "professional" location for that sort of information.

And somehow I managed to get noticed in the library blogosphere.

I think in a way I was just lucky to hit a moment when library conferences were just starting to get connected out to the web, it would be very different if I started now, when library conference blogging and wikis are common.

From there I started to use SLP as a venue for work-related bookmarks or items of interest, and also to work out some of my thinking about libraries and technology. Working in a public sector science library was a very different experience both in terms of technology and culture from my previous employment at a very technical private sector firm, and I used the blog to sort out some of my thoughts about both the pure computer systems aspect of libraries, as well as my perceptions of how librarians thought about those systems.

From those not particularly auspicious beginnings, I have found my blog has led to incredible and entirely unexpected connections and opportunities.

Q2. Tell us a little about CISTI and it's current and future roles in the library and scientific worlds? If we can imagine a world where everything is open access, what's the role for an institution like CISTI?

CISTI is Canada's national science library and provides science publishing services as well, both of these roles are derived from sections of the National Research Council (NRC) Act, CISTI is an institute of the NRC. We're in a challenging position as we're not an academic library in the university sense - we do serve a campus, but it's a campus of research institutes. Our publishing role is carried out through the peer-reviewed journals of the NRC Research Press. Our library role includes services by reference librarians to every NRC institute, as well as document delivery.

In my personal opinion, three forces have radically reshaped the scientific information provision landscape: the Internet, plus digital content, plus "good enough" search capabilities. I think all academic libraries are reeling from the implications of content directly available from publisher sites to students and researchers. I don't have the answers to what the future holds, but I think it's clear that the library role has to involve an understanding of network computing, and that academic libraries have to examine issues related to scientific data and digital preservation.

As well, there has to be a rethinking of reference services to ensure that librarians are positioned to provide a large degree of added analysis - the simple queries are gone, what's left is much more intensive partnerships and collaborations between librarians and their patrons to take the best advantage of their abilities.

On the publishing side, again as a personal opinion, I think the business models will sort themselves out. The scientific community sees substantial value in peer review and readable papers, and both of those cost money. I think we will see "papers" become much richer online objects, and alternative types of publishing (e.g. video), but the fundamentals of the system remain.

Q3. SciFoo must have been cool beyond belief. What are some highlights and insights you could share with the scitech library community? What were people's reactions when they found out that you work at a library?

SciFoo was a very interesting event. For those who haven't heard of it, it's an invitation-only scientific "unconference" organised by Nature Publishing and O'Reilly, and hosted by Google. The schedule is self-organised at the conference itself, there is no programme published or arranged in advance. The method in their madness is to try to maximise the amount of discussion between participants, to make it a much more interactive event.

So there were a lot of very smart people, of varying degrees of famousness, with lots of interesting ideas. Interesting, but not necessarily convergent ideas. There were a lot of different opinions, perceptions and solutions for the scholarly communications system.

And unfortunately, I have to say for the most case people indicated they didn't seem to see their libraries stepping up to participate in the conversation. They welcomed such participation, they just didn't see it.

Q4. Can academic/research libraries change fast enough to stay relevant? Similarly, can libraries rush to transform themselves into the wrong things, and just a different path to irrelevance?

I think there was a big, big intermediation role that libraries just have to let go of. It isn't coming back. And there's also a big, big technology investment, in catalogues and ILS systems that worked in ways that librarians understoood, that were basically library operations, turned into computer programs and databases. As the library operations radically transform, there is a huge challenge in transforming the supporting technology systems.

For public libraries, I think the library as both place and service has an enduring role. For academic libraries, I think the library as place role continues, but the library service role is going to be a big challenge. For libraries whose role was almost entirely in providing access to information, such as CISTI, the challenge is tremendous when digital files over the Internet, obtained directly by researchers, becomes an easier pathway for access.

I don't think libraries should worry about transforming too quickly. I do think however it is important to separate technological change from organisational change. Libraries made that mistake before. An entire organisation built around serving up Web 2.0 pages is going to be just as brittle as the one that is breaking because it is built around serving up WebOPAC pages. "You are not the technology you use." To some extent, don't worry about the technology, it's not the important part. We have computers and networks that are fast enough that we no longer need to be constrained by technology. Decided what you want to do FIRST, and then implement flexible technology solutions SECOND.

I see far too often a tendency for people to say "we need federated search solution XYZ", when they really should be saying "I think we could serve our patrons better by making it easier for them to find relevant materials, how can we solve that problem?" and then putting in place the organisational structures, processes, and technology to meet your needs.

Technology should never be the driver. As long as libraries remember that, I don't think they will fall into a "change trap".

Q5. What's it like to be a techie working with a bunch of librarians? Don't worry, they won't read this, so you can be honest.

We come from very different backgrounds in terms of training, approach to problem solving, and analogies that we use to understand the world. It is a huge challenge. People from a techical background think of computers, web sites, networking and information quite differently from librarians. But I think the surprising aspect may be that often people with a technical background are less concerned about the details of the particular technology of the moment, than with the problems to be solved.

I think the best hope for a common meeting ground is mutual respect. In a pre-searchable-digital-Internet world, librarians were the Masters of All Information. They have to cede many of the technical aspects of that to the people who are trained in technology. That's hard to do, it's just human nature. I would say that's the biggest single source of friction, on one side of the table you have technical people who have years and years of training in their fields, basically pleading to have their expertise recognized by the librarians. On the flip side, the technology people have to appreciate that librarians draw upon a rich tradition of information management and document preservation, and that the solution to everything isn't necessarily to hand all information over to Google and close up shop.

Q6. And the other side of the coin: What kind of insights on the way science is done, science is published and the way to serve a science community do you think you, as a technology person, have brought to a library organization. (ie. Have you been a disruptive influence...evolutionary or revolutionary?)

Although I do have a background being a physics and computer science grad student, I don't think that experience brought insights into the organisation in any specific way. Academic librarians have a good general sense for the way science is conducted, particularly as many of them have degrees in the sciences themselves.

I think the technology background, the analytical approach to troubleshooting and problemsolving, the understanding of what is possible with networking and computers, these are much more disruptive, revolutionary elements for the library.

Q7. You post a lot on e-science. How do you thing computing will affect the way science is practised (and communicated) in the future?

I think computing has already started to transform some of the sciences, and this trend will only continue and grow over the next decades. Get used to seeing -informatics attached to all scientific areas. Bio-informatics is already a huge area, but chemo-informatics and others are following quickly behind.

It is inevitable that much of scientific communication will move into one continuous workflow, a scientific discussion, with links, data, computation, and visualisation all seamless elements. Just as today we don't give a second thought to moving between a phone call, an email, an IM window and a browser window, the future of science will be that computers and networking will be used whenever appropriate, without a second thought. Scientific discussions will move naturally from virtual environments, to a written page, to an interactive graph, depending on the message, the audience, and the research.

It is a huge challenge for libraries to think about how in the world we ever preserve an understandable scientific record for the future in this kind of dynamic, "participative science web" environment.

Q8. Peer review and other scholarly publishing issues are also among your favourites: Can you envision a day when journals as we know them no longer exist? What do you think will replace them? The recent experiments in alternate forms of peer review: no big deal or long-awaited revolution?

I think in the short term, journals become much more semantically-rich online documents, with linkages out to data and analysis tools, as well as to other articles and relevant content. In the long term, they turn into the sort of continuous scientific discussion I described above.

One of the big things I heard at SciFoo was time-to-publication. I think that is going to drive radically improved ways to do timely peer review. But I don't think the underlying concept of peer review is going away. It is imperfect, but better than anything else anyone has been able to come up with.

Q9. What are your current obsessions and preoccupations? What do you think the Next Big Thing will be?

Impact factor, specifically evaluation of scientists based on impact factor, is driving people up the wall. This was a big theme both at the ICSTI conference and at SciFoo. I think the feeling in the community against the misuse of impact factor is actually much stronger than other issues that may get more press, for example, I think fixing the IF issue is of more interest to the broad science community than sorting out Open Access.

I think we are going to see a lot more screeds against impact factor, and a lot more experiments in terms of both technological approaches (new computable metrics) as well as processes.

I think in order to imagine the Next Big Thing, the easiest approach is to just imagine the Current Big Expensive Unattainable Things become small, cheap, and ubiquitous. So e-Science, the stuff of multi-million-dollar computing and networking, is going to become me-Science, with vast computer power and storage available to everyone, as well as the opportunity for huge "citizen science" networks gathering data and contributing valuable insights.

Things like the Great World Wide Star Count will be a common part of the school and citizen experience in the future. Basically anyone with an interest in science will have opportunities to contribute and participate throughout their lives.

One of my particular interests is what it means to have ubiquitous access to geographic information. What does it mean if everyone has Google Earth in their cellphone? And they can share their position with anyone in the world? Considering that Nokia just bought mapmaker Navteq, this direction seems inevitable.

So I think the future in the near term is something about more e-science, and more participative web. I've actually got an upcoming blog post on the trends that I see, based on an internal presentation I did at CISTI recently. I'm also excited to have been invited to blog the OECD Participative Web Forum this Wednesday, October 3, 2007.

Which I guess in a way shows the limits of my foresight, as I never imagined that when I was sitting in Ottawa making a web storage place for some conference notes that it would lead me to be contacted by an international organisation based in Paris.

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