The change from a web of documents to a web of data has taken its time, but in recent years there have been huge changes in both our perception of open data and in the development of an infrastructure to support it. Much of the time, however, the web of data continues to take the form of data silos: dispersed resources with little or no connections between them. Even in the same repository, synergistic potential may be unrealised because terminological differences mean that connections between data are never made.
Such problems are not insurmountable however, and library and information professionals have a long history in the development of controlled vocabularies for information retrieval and organization. Ontologies - formal representations of knowledge with rich semantic relationships between terms – are just another type of controlled vocabulary, suitable for a distributed web and a higher level of granularity.
So, why do librarians need to know about ontologies?
1) …because libraries are moving from AACR2 to RDA
Ontologies are not something librarians can choose to opt in or out of as they are increasingly central to a library's activities, as evidenced by the development of Resource Description and Access vocabularies and the FRBR model.
2) …because 'Every user his data'
"Data is the new book", and facilitating the publishing and accessing of this data requires librarians to have an understanding of data modelling and the vocabularies used.
3) …because Facebook is too big
The dominance of a small number of social network sites, such as Facebook, can potentially have negative consequences for things librarians are interested in like privacy, freedom of speech, and innovation in social networking. Open ontologies can provide the building blocks of distributed social networks.
4) …because modelling the world is too important to leave to Google
The potential of open ontologies for information retrieval is recognised by the major search engines in Schema.org, but the interests of search engines are not the same as a search engine's users and there is a need for alternative perspectives on what and how the world should be modelled.
5) …because the promise of undiscovered public knowledge is exciting!
New knowledge does not have to be found through investigation of the real world, but may be discovered through the combination of existing public knowledge. Libraries have always been a key resource in the discovery of undiscovered public knowledge, and the development of new ontologies can facilitate more rapid discovery on a global level.
Library and information professionals have a long tradition of being double experts, coupling postgraduate information science qualifications with a subject specialism. Not only are they ideally placed to contribute to the development of new ontologies, and facilitating access to the web of data, but such contributions are essential if the potential of the web of data is ever to be realised.
About Practical Ontologies for Information Professionals
Practical Ontologies for Information Professionals, a book by David Stuart, provides an accessible introduction and exploration of ontologies and demonstrates their value to information professionals.
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