The Challenge of the “Cyberinfrastructure”

Tuesday’s erudite and thought-provoking keynote by Clifford Lynch, Executive Director, Coalition for Networked Information, was a marked contrast to Monday’s entertaining one. Cliff opened by assuring the audience that he had no intention of breaking into song. Fortunately, he interpreted his lofty title as shown in the program, “Challenges of Cyberinfrastructure and Choices for Libraries” for the audience to mean how teaching, scholarship, learning are changing in very profound ways and the resulting implications for libraries and information professionals who do not necessarily work in library settings.

In most of the world outside the US, one hears talk about “e-science”, the practice of science as transformed by high-performance computation, analysis, or modeling; high-performance networking; and access to people through broad-area communications, all of which provides widespread access to expensive and unique research equipment (the Hubble telescope, large linear arrays, etc.). This process permits large-scale management, reuse, and compilation of data. A US government commission studying the corresponding process in the US coined the term “Cyberinfrastructure”.

Lynch cited national virtual observatory projects in various nations as a good example of the cyberinfrastructure. The data are contained in large sky survey databases that can be accessed and used as a “virtual telescope”, so there is no need for physical astronomical observations. One needs only to run the key parameters against the database to study the data. People with no access to the sophisticated telescopes, such as high school students, could also conduct astronomy experiments.

Most of the initial applications of the cyberinfrastructure were in the sci/tech area, but more recently, the same debates on digital study have begun to occur in the humanities disciplines. Some of the issues are: How do we get data reused and preserved? How do we help scientists structure their data? Museums and libraries have begun to enter these discussions and are launching digitization projects. Special collections (papers of key people, institutions, etc.) are very important for research in many areas of humanities. These collections are changing and becoming digitized. We must deal with how people not only practice scholarship but how they approach life.

Many scholars work from a small collection of documents which they study intensively. Now scholars cannot deal with the scope of available records because there is not enough time to read it all. Corporate litigation works on the same scale so information retrieval and data mining techniques are increasingly used to find relevant information.

Fifteen years ago, most information professionals worked for centralized IT departments. Now, more than half of them are found in departments and on research teams, closer to the end users. Scientists are becoming more interested in sharing and reusing data and the importance of its preservation, so they are turning to information professionals to help them in these tasks. Funding institutions are starting to realize that there is value in data, and they are starting to require grantees to include a data management and sharing plan in their applications.

Who will be satisfying these demands? Lynch envisions a new professional, a “data scientist”, emerging. What do they need to know? Will they be librarians or researchers? What expertise will they need? Will “data scientists” be working in libraries, schools, or research laboratories?

Libraries are constantly struggling with limited acquisitions budgets. In the physical sciences, the main role of libraries has been to pay for journals. But journals are now electronic, and many scientists think that e-journals are free, so they do not have a close relationship with their library. So libraries must change along with these major environmental shifts. They will have to deliver new services that do not fit well with today’s existing institutional infrastructure. The rise of amateur observational science is an important development. Libraries need to be mindful of broad-based changes in research and move of personal activity into the digital world.

I was stimulated and challenged by Cliff’s address. He gave us a view of the new world of information, which will be vastly different from the one we know today.

Don Hawkins
IL2006 Blog Coordinator and Columnist, Information Today

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