opportunites of benign-neglect

notes from a great talk by Cathy Marshall

4 min, 701 words

Cathy Marshall of Microsoft Research gave a keynote at the wonderful code4lib 2010 conference that provided a useful nudge to my thinking about repository layers.

I've suggested elsewhere that university libraries contemplating a repository should consider developing policies around repository 'layers'. This notion involves both an inner long-term, high-guarantee archival layer -- and an outer services-oriented work-space layer. Reasons for the archival layer are obvious. Perhaps less so are reasons for and benefits of the work-space layer: it fulfills a library mission to further scholarly work; it strengthens the library's position as a central part of the academic campus community; it creates opportunities for valuable work to be moved easily into the archival layer.

Though my Library doesn't conceptualize our repository in this way, it's compelling enough that I think about this layered approach regularly. Given some exciting video initiatives at my University, much of my recent work-space layer thinking has focused on how to avoid the possibility of having precious library disk space overwhelmed with hypothetical services-layer low(er) quality materials. Strategies I've considered to deal with this concern are combinations of limiting the size of an entity's (person/department) work-space, and/or limiting the number of years items may remain in the work-space. Given my strong belief in providing useful and friendly user-services, in this 'limiting' scenario, we would provide terrific charts and notifications which would allow work-space users to easily monitor their usage of this temporal, useful space -- and provide tools and Library staff assistance to easily move appropriate items into the archival layer.

But regardless of the intention to have this work-space be used productively, there would be a high likelihood that the more control we give users over their Library work-space, the more likely that a significant portion of this work-space would fill up with materials that exist simply because it's more of a hassle to delete things than it is to neglect them -- one of Marshall's key points.

While Marshall specifically noted the problems of benign-neglect as a user-strategy for handling materials, she also noted that benign neglect offers opportunities. This was the nudge. I'm finding this notion of opportunities fascinating to reflect upon; it offers new realms for thinking about interesting services that could be built for this work-space layer.

The simple accretion of data from benign neglect suggests the now-common mining strategy associated with usage-data, popularized by amazon: "you may also be interested in this". A colleague recently told me about 'mallet', software than can mine texts to discern topics. It would be a worthy experiment to use such a tool to offer repository users an optional discovery service based on their text-based work-space materials.

Two additions to Apple's iPhoto application in the last year or so suggest other possibilities. 'Faces' scans a user's iPhoto library, using pattern-recognition routines to create groupings of people. 'Places' scan's the library and extracts geo-location coordinates if available, and, if I recall correctly, timestamp data, to create a map view over time of photo-locations.

Other scans could be run on work-space data, looking for patterns of government data-sets or citations. And combinations of embedded metadata such as geo-location and mime-type and date could be gathered, so that if, for example, a pattern of images taken at a certain location on a certain date was detected, not only could auto-grouping of those items be presented, but external sources such as flickr could be queried as well, offering the user the ability to see other external views of this 'event'.

Many of these scan/mining ideas would also be useful to apply to the repository as a whole. Such scans could offer both automated randomized general-discovery displays, as well as offer researchers additional focused discovery-views to permitted items. But to the extent that such services enhance the quality of users' work-space experience, it might help to keep the materials in the work-space more relevant: using benign-neglect to minimize benign-neglect.