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Meet the editor of... The Electronic Library

An interview with: David Raitt

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Image: Dr David RaittDr David Raitt, FCILIP, FRAS is Senior Technology Transfer Officer with the European Space Agency in The Netherlands.  He has worked with ESA since 1969, as an information scientist responsible for introducing online interactive information systems throughout Europe, as a librarian and as an advisor on internet strategy. Currently his activities involve:

  • identifying and researching new breakthrough technological opportunities to ascertain their subsequent spin-off/spin-in possibilities in new markets
  • facilitating and fostering synergies and contacts between potential users of space technologies
  • making the general public more aware of space technologies and concepts and the benefits that can result from technology spin-off
  • conducting and managing studies on advanced space technology concepts to ascertain their technology transfer and promotion potential in the most important socio-economic sectors
  • championing the case for art and culture relating to space
  • helping to develop scenarios and strategies for sustaining human life in space. 

He has also been active in the area of digital librarianship and is currently co-Chair of the Internet Librarian International conference held annually in London. He was also Chairman of the International Online Information meetings for some 18 years, and formerly Chairman of the annual conference on World Wide Web Applications held in South Africa. He founded The Electronic Library in 1983 to cover the applications of technology in information environments. 

The Electronic Library aims to be a comprehensive source of information on all aspects of the digital library all over the globe. It covers the applications and implications of new information technology, including automation, user interfaces, networks and the Web in library and information centres, and aims to report research results, describe and recommend applications, and provide news and reviews.

Dr Raitt talked to Catherine Ebenezer, Information Systems Manager at the Royal College of Midwives. Catherine holds an MSc in Information Science (computerized library systems), and her professional interests include website design, web usability, electronic journals, library system technologies, and clinician information use. She has written for Emerald journals and reviews articles from The Electronic Library for the journal eLucidate.

Editorial philosophy

Why did you found The Electronic Library?

At that time, in 1983, I was the chair of the International Online Information Meeting, and I also and wrote columns for Online Review and Electronic Publishing Review on new technology. These professional activities provided the impetus to setting up the journal as I felt that there was a niche for a publication which dealt with issues on information technology and library automation.

It also helped that both the journals and the conference belonged to the publisher Learned Information, so there was a ready-made "home". In February 2000, The Electronic Library (TEL) was bought by Emerald which had already acquired a number of librarianship journals, and therefore saw TEL as a relevant addition to its portfolio.

From your viewpoint as editor of TEL, how would you briefly characterize the main trends and developments in library technologies since then?

When I first set up the journal, and in the years afterwards, I pushed very strongly for IT developments in libraries. From my vantage point working for ESA, I was aware of technological developments both in practice and also in the literature. This was before the consumer ICT boom, but there were devices mainly aimed at business executives: hand held computers, electronic books with information stored on a credit card, and eyeball sized small screens which would project a computer screen apparently at normal size. I was interested in how such developments could be used in libraries and took pains to explain this to my audience. However, I was way ahead of my time – they didn’t catch on and then they were soon left behind by developments concerning the Internet, but now, particularly with the quantum leap in consumer IT products such high-tech devices are making a comeback and making people far more used to this sort of thing in libraries.

Nowadays, library technology is much more likely to be web rather than mainframe based, with less interest in automation issues. However, that’s not so true developing economies, such as in Africa and Asia.

Would you describe The Electronic Library as written by practitioners for a practitioner audience? Or does it have a readership in Library and Information Studies Departments?

It’s a practical tool for librarians. The idea is that if libraries know what each other is doing, then that helps to improve their systems and procedures. It’s written by practitioners for practitioners, but it does have a readership in library and information studies, students use it for case studies, and it is much cited in doctoral dissertations.

What are the main issues in researching and publishing in such a fast-moving, multidisciplinary field?

Dating back to the journal’s early days when there were very few papers, I’ve always been a very proactive editor. I come across articles in journals, at conferences, or I meet potential contributors at meetings, and contact people to persuade them to write for the journal. However, TEL benefits now from being part of the Emerald machine, with its network of journals and researchers, so the journal is better known and we get a lot more unsolicited papers, and particularly from parts of the developing world.

I try and broaden the experience of readers by accepting articles which tell them things that I think perhaps they might like to know about because they could be useful in their work and which they might otherwise not readily come across – an example might be security issues surrounding computer gaming. TEL is a scholarly journal, not a glossy news magazine, so the articles are fairly timeless and not subject to obsolescence as they would be if they were just concerned with reporting news and the latest trends and developments. We can be flooded with papers for our six issues a year, so sometimes the delay between acceptance and publication is longer than we would wish. I try and get a balance for each issue with different types of articles from different parts of the world.

What differentiates TEL from its competitors? Does it have a particular market "niche"?

There are two main competitors – both of which are also published by Emerald – the American Library Hi Tech, and Program, which is smaller but which takes up much of the UK market. In addition, there are several journals in the digital librarianship field, many of which are web-based. 

The "niche" occupied by TEL is its global scope in coverage and readership: it is read in, and receives papers from, just about every country in the world. That gives it a very wide perspective on developments in library information technology.

The difficulty here is getting people to be interested in developments in the less developed world, when the rest of the world has moved on.  Some countries, like Taiwan or China or Malaysia, are relatively advanced technologically speaking, but the African and Indian countries are catching up with initiatives such as OPAC, the World Wide Web, CD-ROM, etc. However, I see it as important to give people a chance to describe where they are currently – for them, writing up such developments and programmes is just as important as they were for us in Europe or the USA some 10, 15, 20 years ago. The UK and USA led the world then in say OPAC and CD-ROM research and while they have long dropped off the horizon as new technologies in libraries – they are just starting to be used in some developing economies, who can justly be proud of their advancement and who want to tell other countries in the same situation what they are achieving. For those people, TEL is a good medium to learn from.

That’s another reason for balancing issues – we need to mix the technologically advanced with the less technologically advanced, so when I get several papers from emerging economies I will balance these with articles about the web, going after top notch authors. Ideally, I like each issue to contain something for everyone – I see it as the National Geographic magazine of the library and information world!

How do you envisage the journal developing over the next few years?

More of the same, with the balance going towards the hi tech articles. A number of trends – the advent of consumer technologies and the price for these coming down, the growth of mobile and wireless technologies, and the increasing use of solar power – all these mean that internet technologies spread wider and wider including into rural areas worldwide. These trends will spill over into the library world, and will mean that the time of catching up for emerging countries will be much shorter.

Journal direction and coverage

The articles in TEL are classified as research reports, case studies, technical papers, and literature reviews. What balance are you looking for between different types of article, within an individual issue and in your overall coverage? Are there any types of submission that you are seeking more of?

I’m not looking for any particular balance or editorial mix of article types. I like practical papers. Many people submit research type papers which have a very heavy review of the literature component – but I’m not too keen on these on their own as they tend to be mainly a rehash of the author’s degree thesis and the references are woefully out of date and over-quoted. I really don’t care or need to know, for instance, that Joe Bloggs opined in 1986 that computers could be used for journal circulation. The sad thing is that in some parts of the world, the resource base may be out of date if the library is poorly stocked and access to the Internet is limited because of the state of the telecommunications infrastructure in the country.

What would be your dream article?

One that was in perfect English and laid out very well! I like papers that are interesting to a wide readership, and that grab the reader’s attention. It can be something to do with the Web, or a description of setting up a butterfly museum in Taiwan; we recently did a special issue on computer games (these are now often part of a library’s collection just as are books and music), and we published articles on issues which librarians should be aware of, such as the problems of stealing code. I like to get people to read up on issues which are in different areas from their normal interests.

What are your main criteria for assessing research articles?

Articles should be between 3,000-6,000 words, and at that length you are not going to be able to say all that much about the research methodology. Thus the article must stand alone and be sufficient to make the reader understand what the author did without being too long and detailed – in essence it’s like a good executive summary.

The regular reader cannot fail to be struck by the international scope of the journal, particularly its focus on information services in developing countries. How do you ensure that this is maintained? What particular value do you think this has for your readership within the developed world?

It was not a deliberate policy to make TEL a developing-world journal, but it has evolved a bit that way through the international nature of Emerald, which has got many subscribers in developing countries. We have contributions not just from academic libraries but also from, say, military academies, research associations, government offices, national libraries – and discussing all types of topics – use of the Web for digitizing and disseminating data from weather stations, use of IT by petroleum companies, introduction of cybercafés, websites being used by native American librarians and so on. Several members of the Editorial Advisory Board are from the developing world – they may have contributed a couple of articles to TEL, and I then invite them to join the Board and also request them to look around for other contributors in their region.

I feel that the journal provides a great opportunity for authors in developing economies, in that if someone has something to say, they will have as much chance to say it as if they were contributing from the USA, UK or Europe. Thus it provides them with an outlet or voice for getting their views and progress into the wider world, better than other local journals. It also provides them with useful stature when it comes to tenure and promotion – just as it does with authors from the USA.

How are decisions made concerning the topics for themed issues?

Sometimes they come as a result of a conference, as with the computer games issues, which was a way of bringing to the attention of librarians the security and networking matters which they needed to be aware of. A couple came from a library conference in New Zealand, including a special issue on the impact of information technology on indigenous people. Sometimes, they are suggested by receiving a large number of papers e.g. we got a lot of papers from Nigerian contributors so we decided to have a special issue on Nigeria. On another occasion, I had two or three unsolicited papers on e-books so I persuaded others I knew to write additional papers in order to create a special issue on that topic.

The decisions as to special issue topics are always the editor’s. The downside, if you can call it that, is that it means extra papers, and therefore increases the wait for the other articles already in the pipeline.

"Making Botswana an information society: current developments" by Stephen M. Mutula (Vol. 22 No. 2) won an Outstanding Paper Award.  What was it that made this paper exceptional?

Every year I select a number of papers from the year’s issues and send them to the Editorial Advisory Board for comment. I also invite them to make their own recommendations. Mutula’s paper was a very good and detailed paper, well researched, well-written and well worth reading as a serious contribution to the literature.

Publishing issues

What happens to papers once they hit your desk? Are they peer reviewed? How long does it take for an article to be published?

All articles now come via e-mail, and I print them out and take them home to read. The journal is peer reviewed – every article goes to one or two reviewers, and I also review every article myself. The only time when I won’t get an article peer reviewed is if I’m either very familiar with the topic or if I trust the source. The peer review process is generally trusted by authors as a quality indicator – they prove to the interested subscriber that the article has been looked at – and accepted – by others who have a certain professional standing and are familiar with the subject being discussed.

The peer review process happens fairly quickly; reviewers know I like their comments back within a week or so and they also know that I will chase them if necessary. Authors usually send their revisions back quickly.

I do have a bit of a backlog of accepted articles, so I try and make sure that the earlier papers get published first. However, I have to consider the balance of the issue: I may want to include a brand new paper right away if the topic is right or to have a perspective from say a more technologically advanced country.

So, the time to publication can vary from 3-12 months from acceptance.

What is the best means of ensuring successful electronic dissemination of articles?

Emerald’s structured abstracts help here, but it’s also important to have keywords and make the title short and punchy. I add keywords myself if I think they would improve retrievability of the article and I also sometimes modify a longer (thesis-type!) title.

Publisher's note

Dr David Raitt was interviewed in October 2005.