Info science revisited

Welcome to the world of the 'Semantic Web'

By the good fortune of marriage, I happen to know a lot of librarians. I’ve attended their conferences, sat in on some spirited discussions, and come to appreciate the many contributions they make — individually and collectively — to the public pursuit of knowledge. (Yes, dear, I really do.)

One of the things librarians have witnessed and wrestled with professionally in recent years is the phenomenal ascent of the World Wide Web and, more specifically, online search and so-called Web. 2.0 social-networking tools.

The Google search window has all but replaced the traditional library reference desk as the place where people go to get answers to their questions. Wikipedia, the online knowledge base written by its users, is now the first go-to source for people to share what they know with each other and the rest of the world.

More than that, Google, Wikipedia and their contemporaries in the Web applications world have replaced the reference librarian as the expert gatekeeper to the vast storehouse of human knowledge. That storehouse has millions of doors, cubbyholes and interconnecting passageways — most of which, we search maniacs are still finding out, lay beyond the ken of relevance rankings and crowdsourcing.

This is the fact that both troubles and invigorates today’s librarians and information technologists. The vital service that reference librarians always provided — backed by a highly developed infrastructure of knowledge collection, sorting, organization and cross-purposing — was the ability to find answers to complex questions and make connections between seemingly disparate datasets. For mission-critical research, especially from the many government databases now accessible to any and all of us, the primal but still-primitive brainpower of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 can only get you so far.

My librarian and information science friends predicted this years ago, before Google replaced Boolean logic with “I’m feeling lucky.” They’ve been working on — not just waiting for — sophisticated search technologies that will make it easier for people to find, share, analyze and (here’s the mother lode) understand the masses of information that are so readily available to us via the Internet.

Welcome to the world of the “Semantic Web.” It’s a generational leap from everything we know so far about how to leverage the power of the Web, though it’s not such a stretch (in theory, at least) from the old reference-desk paradigm. And as contributing editor John Moore writes in this week’s cover story, it promises to transform the way we connect the dots of the known universe.

Web 3.0 is not here yet; even as Semantic Web software applications step out of the shadows and into the light of day, a more sophisticated browser infrastructure must be built and installed to make it work. And, as John points out, we still don’t know the Heisenberg Effect — or how our own use of the Semantic Web will affect its ultimately viability.

But of this I have no doubt: Librarians will lead the charge.

About the Author

David Rapp is editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week and VP of content for 1105 Government Information Group.

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