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An interview with Roddy MacLeod

Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Roddy MacLeodRoddy MacLeod is senior subject librarian at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland. He edits the Internet Resources Newsletter and is manager of TechXtra (a free service for technology information which cross-searches over 4 million items from 30 top sources), and also the PerX Project.

He was the Information World Review Information Professional of the Year in 2000, and has led initiatives which have won three marketing and publicity awards.


What are you working on at the moment?

I’m very much looking forward to some new initiatives, but at the same time I’m also tidying up on some existing projects. To explain further, on April 1 2007 I started work with a new project, called ticTOCs. ticTOCs is an extremely exciting prospect – it holds much more potential than anything else I’ve been involved in. It’s aiming to transform journal current awareness, through the aggregation and innovatory presentation of RSS table of contents feeds. It’s exciting because if we succeed with ticTOCs, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t, we will not only be doing something beneficial for most of the academic community, but also contributing to the improved exploitation of a particularly important aspect (the latest journal issues) of the $5 billion per year scholarly journal industry.

It was funny how ticTOCs originated. I first got the idea over four years ago, at a JISC conference, when I’d had too much coffee one evening and couldn’t get to sleep, and I’ve been planning it on and off since then. There was a clock in my conference hotel room, which didn’t help, as I find it difficult to drop off if there’s a tick-tocking noise. It was something of a minor eureka moment when I made a potential connection between the tick-tock of the clock, and journal tables of contents, or TOCs as of course they are called. Being full of caffeine, and more interested in marketing than anything else at the time, I started to play around with promotional ideas associated with a potential service called "TIC-TOC". Instead of thinking about how the service might work, or what it might actually do, which would probably have been more sensible, I started to devise possible logos, mainly because I’d been talking to someone earlier at the conference about logos and whether they were important or not. The sleepless mind games continued, as I thought about ways to promote a service called ticTOCs at conferences and elsewhere.

In fact, beyond the idea that it would have something to do with ticking, and tables of contents, I didn’t give the potential service much thought at the time. However, in the intervening period since that conference, RSS emerged as a useful method of subscribing to TOCs (amongst many other things, of course). Two problems with RSS TOCs are that, firstly, it can be difficult for academics to locate appropriate RSS feeds for different journal TOCs on any subject, as each one may well have a different publisher and therefore different website, and secondly, that the whole concept of RSS is unfortunately rather technical (nerdish might be a better term). So, it wasn’t a big step to combine the original ticTOCs ideas with ticking selected journal TOC RSS feeds from a simple, jargon-free online directory listing titles from numerous publishers, and thereby allowing academics to subscribe to journal tables of contents of interest to them.

There’s a great deal more to the ticTOCs service we will develop than that, for example users will also be able to leave the website and the content will still be there on their return, and we shall use Ulrichweb’s subject headings to organize the journals’ list, and it will be very easy to click on a journal title and get the table of contents, but those are the basics. The more complete idea for ticTOCs is to develop a fully-fledged, interactive, freely available service which will enable academics and researchers, without having to understand the technical or procedural concepts involved in the process, to discover, subscribe to, search within, be alerted to, aggregate, personalize to their areas of interest, export and reuse standardized TOC RSS feeds for journals, from any networked PC, at their convenience.

It will also enable commercial and open access journal publishers, library and information services (e.g. from journals lists), gateways, content aggregators and journal directories to allow their users to embed journal TOC RSS feeds of interest, with one click from these external sites, into the ticTOCs web-based interface which will subsequently act as a current awareness environment. In addition, it will facilitate the re-purposing of aggregated journal TOC content on a subject or topic basis by gateways, subject-based discovery services and library services. An important aspect of ticTOCs is that it will help in the exploitation of recently published journal content – something which will become increasingly important for journal publishers in the light of open access and the deposit of articles in open repositories after short "embargo" periods. ticTOCs may also, eventually, act as a simple online directory of current journals.

A very strong consortium of partners, led by the University of Liverpool Library, and including Heriot-Watt University, CrossRef, CSA, Emerald, MIMAS, Cranfield University, Nature Publishing Group, Institute of Physics, SAGE Publishers, Interscience Publishers, DOAJ (Directory of Open Access Journals), Open J-Gate and Intute, will develop ticTOCs over the next two years, with funding coming from the Users and Innovation strand of the JISC Capital programme.

We shall also mention products that may be of interest to users, using marketing in a helpful rather than an "in your face" sense. This will also potentially provide some money to help maintain ticTOCs when we no longer have JISC funding.

So, helping to put plans for ticTOCs together has kept me quite busy for the last year. I’m particularly amused by the fact that it started as a semi-serious marketing idea, because I’ve always felt that marketing is an important aspect of information service provision which is often neglected in the academic world. Whether or not we actually get round to producing ticTOCs mints or wafer thin clocks is another matter, as marketing techniques in the online world are rapidly changing.

I’d like to ask you more about marketing, but before that, are you planning anything else – you mentioned "initiatives" in the plural?

The other initiative I’m working on is a funding proposal for a project that would work towards providing innovatory solutions, for academics, to the problem of information overload. Information overload is one of the most pressing issues today. It’s a simple fact that a vast amount of information of various kinds is now being published each year, and this flow is not likely to decrease. What is needed are better, smarter ways to deal with this flow, to sift the relevant from the irrelevant.

As long ago as 1986, Herbert Simon wrote that, "The task is not to design information-distributing systems but intelligent information-filtering systems" (Simon, 1986).

That task is being addressed in some instances, and I’m particularly thinking of Amazon here, and how it can notify you of potential items of interest based on your previous purchases and also purchases of others, but the issue of intelligent filtering for academics, who usually have very specific interests, still needs to be tackled. For academics, we haven’t really progressed much from the days of SDI-type saved searches in traditional online databases. Just think about how much effort academics currently need to put in to find the latest items of interest to them.

With RSS, we have an excellent method for distributing metadata about new material. Think of the different types of materials for which various services can now produce RSS feeds containing details of new items – they include journal articles, new items added to institutional repositories, information about forthcoming conferences, calls for papers, funding opportunities, press releases, weblog posts, new theses and dissertations, and so on – there are many. A vast amount of RSS feeds are being produced, containing much of potential interest, but academics firstly need to locate and subscribe to these feeds, and secondly they have to manually sift through them for items of possible relevance. This is not an efficient use of their time, and to some extent one could almost blame RSS for increasing information overload – for example, I now subscribe to about 210 RSS feeds.

What we need to do, and this is what the proposed project would work on, is create ways to intelligently filter this new material. The project, which has been given the name of "Gold Dust", proposes to produce personal interest profiles (PIPs) from usage logs of the ticTOCs service, without the need for any input from users – this is an important point, because most existing current awareness services require initial effort on the part of the users. These PIPs could then be mapped to text-mined items within aggregations of RSS feeds of different kinds of materials. The aim would be to deliver current awareness alerts containing only relevant items to academics, from the vast amount of new material being published. If we succeed, and it has to be remembered that this would be more of a research proposal than a service proposal, the name "Gold Dust" would be very appropriate. Gold Dust is still at the drawing-board stage, though.

I’m also still working on the PerX Project. This is a JISC-funded project, and is part of the Digital Repositories Programme. PerX stands for Pilot Engineering Repository Xsearch, and it’s looking into various issues concerning subject resource discovery across a series of repositories. It’s a smaller project, and although we’ve produced a pilot cross-search facility which searches over 30 important collections, like many other projects its outputs are mostly reports which can hopefully inform future developments.

For me, PerX has been interesting because one thing it has confirmed is something I’ve always believed – that information retrieval needs, requirements and methods vary substantially according to the subject concerned. This is a generalization, but people looking for information in engineering, for example, tend to look for very specific things. Any search service aimed at engineers needs to have a very "long tail" so that it can potentially satisfy very specific queries. On the other hand, for example, people looking for information in the social sciences often have different needs. A student with a project on the economy of South Africa wants to find reliable sources of a more general nature than a construction engineering student looking for material on, say, photovoltaic-powered smart windows.

I started the Internet Resources Newsletter at Heriot-Watt in 1994, we make it available to anyone and it’s really taken off, with 40,000 readers receiving it by e-mail. It’s not a medium for comment, it’s a way of collecting anything that I come across that I find of interest so that people similar to me can also see it.

You mentioned that PerX is part of the Digital Repositories Programme. How do you see repositories developing in the future?

Institutional repositories will become increasingly important – there’s no doubt about that. Here’s a quote from the Knowledge Exchange[2]: "Repository infrastructure – whether institutional, discipline-based, or focused on primary research data – will form the backbone of science and scholarship in the twenty-first century" (see Knowledge Exchange). Every university should by now be developing its own repository, or repositories. In this process, there’s a need to develop local skills, experience and knowledge on how repositories work, and a need for LIS professionals, at the local level, to become involved in this process and also develop advocacy skills. They will have an important role to play in the future, in encouraging the deposit of materials within institutional repositories, explaining the benefits of deposit, and ensuring that repositories are exploited.

JISC is investing considerable funding (several millions of £s) in a digital repository infrastructure for the UK, and there are sizeable initiatives in several other countries. As is becoming obvious, institutional repositories will have an important influence on the development of the information landscape of the future, and the Digital Repositories Programme is currently at the centre of things. The latest funded projects are detailed on the JISC website.

One thing which slightly concerns me, if that’s the right word given the circumstances, is the large amount of funding available for various information-related initiatives and projects in the UK. Via the Capital Programme, for example, JISC is providing funding of £81 million over three years to enhance the network infrastructure, to digitize key resources for the academic community, and to support the development of e-learning; e-infrastructure; virtual research environments; users and innovation; and repositories and preservation. Whilst of course all of this is very welcome investment, that is in fact a large amount of money – so large that it may well have an effect on the "academic information economy". So much effort will be going into mainly short-term projects that more traditional academic information services may actually suffer from a skills shortage.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all in favour of the various investments in the electronic information infrastructure, and in fact, several of the projects being funded will enhance local services – but the average academic information service also need investment in these times of change.

You are a subject librarian. Do you see the role of subject librarians changing in the future?

I’d like to be more positive, but it certainly looks like the writing may well be on the wall for traditional subject librarianship. Increasingly, I’m coming across articles that feel the need to justify the existence of libraries and librarians (the most recent example being "33 reasons why libraries and librarians are still extremely important" (Sherman, 2007)). These are often excellent articles, but it’s not a good sign that we feel the need constantly to justify what we are doing.

Subject librarians, and librarians of all kinds, now need to adapt to constantly changing technologies. They need to be at least au fait with such things as cron jobs, SRU/SRW, OAI-PMH, Service Orientated Architecture (SOA) and so on, also what has become known as Web 2.0 – and they need to embrace Web 2.0 rather than just tinker with the latest fad, which would be just like shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic, as it were. I’d like to see subject librarians and other information professional playing more of a role in, for example, subject-based wikis produced by academics and other subject-based services such as iMechanica. We need to play an active role, and this involves much more, in this type of situation, than simply cataloguing Internet resources. There’s a developing band of library bloggers in the UK, but we are still far behind those in the USA in this respect. It's no use simply joining the blogging bandwagon for the sake of it, though – library blogs need to be embedded as an integral part of the library website. There are some interesting things going on at various universities just now – for example, Oxford Brookes Library is developing podcasts for students, the University of Huddersfield Library has a Library Service's Electronic Resources Wiki, the University College Dublin Library has a presence in Second Life, and the Library and Information Services at the University of Teeside uses instant messaging for reference purposes.

Having said all of that, it’s not easy. There are so many new initiatives, Web 2.0 services, and other interesting "things" appearing every day, that it’s a major job simply keeping up to date. Scribd is today’s hit – but what will be tomorrow’s hit? If you read the TechCrunch blog you’ll see that there’s plenty to choose from.

What are your thoughts on how marketing of information services is changing?

Marketing techniques in the online world are changing so rapidly that I feel I’m no longer up to date with the latest methods. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau, British advertisers spent more than £2 billion online last year, with ever more sophisticated ways to reach their audience. Google UK has more revenue than Channel 4. At the macro level, marketing and advertising has transformed in the past few years and new methods are being used to reach the YouTube generation, which of course includes students. Marketing techniques within academia need to take account of this new situation.

Warwick University has a MySpace presence and its own student TV station with an online presence. That’s one example of how academic institutions are embracing social networking and generational change to deliver their message and at the same time promote themselves. Information services need to keep all of this in mind when marketing their services.

I got some good ideas from Melinda Kennaway speaker at UKSG 2007 on "Marketing the library – using technology to increase visibility, impact and reader engagement", especially about how libraries have to adopt more interactive techniques, like guerilla marketing. However, there’s an element of jumping on the bandwagon. Take podcasts for example – a lot of people listen to very few podcasts.

I’m more involved with marketing of relatively small-scale projects and development services rather than library services as a whole. Traditionally, information-related projects would consider it necessary to do little more than give a conference paper in order to promote their findings. This has all changed and there are many new techniques. Nowadays, if I have something to promote, the first thing I do is create a web page press release. Then I make sure there’s an item on the relevant news RSS feed which points to this press release. I then send some personal e-mails to relevant LIS bloggers, and similar messages to newsletter and magazine editors. I follow this up with messages to various e-mail listservs, press release services, community websites such as the Free Pint Bar, and Google Groups. Only then will I think about more traditional methods such as presenting at seminars or conferences, or producing leaflets, etc.

So, online marketing methods are changing all the time, and LIS professionals must take this into account when planning their promotional campaigns.

If you had to have your library rebuilt, what would you consider to be its most essential feature?

You can’t just say one thing. All things are interconnected and the building is the space where lots of different activities take place, and all activities interact with one another. Good space for the staff is important, but they shouldn’t be cut off; they should be able to work with other people on projects, both students and faculty coming into the library. So you can’t just pick one thing out as important. If you did, you’d end up with a very lopsided building.

References

Sherman, W. (2007), "33 reasons why libraries and librarians are still extremely important", downloaded from Degree Tutor website April 2007.

Simon, H.A. (1986), "The impact of communication on organizations", in Wolff, R. (Ed.), Organizing Industrial Development, W. de Gruyter, Berlin, Germany.

This interview was conducted at the UKSG conference, April 2007.