Library hackers FTW

Yesterday I went along to Mashed Library UK 2008 in London. Quickly abbreviated to 'mashlib', the event was the brain-child of Owen Stephens. Owen did most of the organising, aided by David Flanders who provided the space at BirkBeck college, and our excellent events team at UKOLN. The event was sponsored by UKOLN, using funding from the JISC.

I thought the balance of activities on the day was excellent - a healthy mixture of short presentations, demonstrations and a good amount of hands-on hacking. The group was comprised of commercial vendors ( Talis, ExLibris, OCLC), academic-library folk (the majority), a lone representative from the public library world (Paul Bevan for the National Library of Wales), and a few developers from various (mostly JISC-funded) services.

Rob Styles from Talis gave us a demo of the Talis Platform. There is an open API which you can play with - it's quite impressive. I was very struck by some of the language Rob used in his demo - he talked about dipping, where a result-set from a query (in RSS 1.0 format) is "dipped into" another - with the original data-set accreting more infromation from the second. ( Jim Downing and I had an interesting chat about this over lunch, with Jim proposing that we could visualise data-sets as molecules - having a certain shape which allows them to bond with other molecules which have a complementary shape). Rob also talked about mixing in in a smiler vein. The Talis Platform APIs appear to be quite RESTful, with a good deal of passing URLs around rather than result-sets. I plan to have a closer look at this.

Timm-Martin Siewert spoke next about the ExLibris Open Platform. I did get a URL for this but it takes me to a page whcih challenges me for a username and password which I do not have. The Open Platform is , apparently, open to paying customers only. Edward Corrado suggested via a tweet that:

I think they mean open in the sense of the open systems movement of about 20 years ago

Next up was Mark Alcock, standing in for Tim McCormick and representing OCLC, to talk about the WorldCat Developer Network. Mark came armed with a bunch of limited life API keys, so that people could try out some of the WorldCat services. OCLC appear to be offering a spectrum of services, from the commercial pay-for-use variety, to the 'affiliate' model - i.e. form a business partnership with us and use our services, to some free services. I'm interested in several of the WorldCat services but am wary of getting too fond of something I cannot, in the end, afford to use. Unfortunately, I did not get time on the day to make use of Mark's API keys.

I noted that the three vendors represented seem to be spaced evenly along a spectrum of openness, with Talis at the 'very open' end of the spectrum, ExLibris at the 'closed' end, and OCLC (specifically WorldCat) somewhere in between. I can't yet see how Talis are going to monetise the completely open model, and I think ExLibris will certainly need to open up somewhat. Perhaps OCLC have hit a sweet-spot of openness? I really don't know enough about these services in detail, but I noticed some comments from Dorothea Salo which are somewhat critical about the business model behind WorldCat.

Ashley Sanders followed, with a quick description of an Atom (APP) based object store he is developing as part of his work extending the COPAC service. I'm following COPAC developments with interest - I'm very much in favour of the general direction they seem to be taking (I recently blogged about one aspect of this).

Tony Hirst, mashup maestro, gave a tour-de-force demonstration of using Yahoo Pipes and Google Spreadsheets as mashup tools. This went down very well with the technically-minded-but-mostly-not-developers group - especially Yahoo Pipes. I gave a presentation at the Shock of the Social in March 07 where I remarked that the potential of Yahoo Pipes was to do for web development what the spreadsheet did for non-web development before it (Microsoft Excel has been described as the most widely used Integrated Development Environment). Tony showed us how the spreadsheet is certainly relevant in a web-mashup world with his demonstrations of using Google Spreadsheets to mashup data-feeds.

Later on, after lunch, the group got down to some general hackery. On Twitter, Chris Awre (who wasn't at the event but had been following comments on Twitter) remarked:

Silence from #mashlib08 this afternoon. The mashing must be going well...

And he was right! There was a fair stream of Twitter commentary in the morning - but it dried up as people got absorbed in hacking code and testing interfaces. I saw people exploring the Talis Platform and, in particular, Yahoo Pipes. I expect there will be some blogging about this activity - look out for the official tag:


Andrew McGregor of JISC has already written up his experience of this , as has Jo Alcock - I think these posts describes representative experiences of the event.

Paul Bevan rounded off proceedings with a view from public libraries - the National Library of Wales to be precise. I learned a lot from this presentation about the unique challenges facing the public non-academic sector.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day - kudos to Owen for getting the right balance of people, subjects and activities. There was a 'buzz' generated as the day went on which was excellent. I have been to a fair number of 'hacker' events where the emphasis is on the tools and the running code - I generally enjoy this kind of thing. But mashlib08 was different - what was really good about this day was that the enthusiasm came from doing stuff with information, more than from the actual development.

I think Tony Hirst deserves a special tip o' the hat for firing up a real enthusiasm for mashups on the day.

We should definitely do this again!