in Books, Google, Library Catalog, NISO, Open Content, Open Data, Open WorldCat

Mining for Meaning

In David Lodge’s 1984 novel, Small World, a character remarks that literary analysis of Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot “would just lend itself nicely to computerization….All you’d have to do would be to put the texts on to tape and you could get the computer to list every word, phrase and syntactical construction that the two writers had in common.”

This brave new world is upon us, but the larger question for Google and OCLC, among other purveyors of warehoused metadata and petabytes of information, is how to achieve meaning. One of the brilliant insights derived from Terry Winograd‘s research and mentoring is that popularity in the form of inbound links does matter for web pages, at least. In the case of all the world’s books turned into digitized texts, it’s a harder question to assign meaning without popularity, a canon, or search queries as a guide.

Until recently, text mining wasn’t possible at great scale. And as the great scanning projects continue on their bumpy road, the mysteries of what will come out of them have yet to emerge into meaning for users.

Nascent standards

Bill Kasdorf pointed out several XML models for books in his May NISO presentation, including NISO/ISO 12083, TEI, DocBook, NLM Book DTD, and DTBook. These existing models have served publishers well, though they have been employed for particular uses and have not yet found common ground across the breath of book types. The need for a standard has never been clearer, but it will require vision and a clear understanding of solved problems to push forward.

After the professor in Small World gains access to a server, he grows giddy with the possibilities of finding “your own special, distinctive, unique way of using the English language….the words that carry a distinctive semantic content.” While we may be delighted about the possibilities that searching books afford, there is the distinct possibility that the world of the text could be changed completely.

Another mechanism for assigning meaning to full text has been opened up by web technology and science. The Open Text Mining Interface is a method championed by Nature Publishing Group as a way to share the contents of their archives in XML for the express purpose of text mining while preserving intellectual property concerns. Now in a second revision, the OTMI is an elegant method of enabling sharing, though it remains to be seen if the initiative will spread to a larger audience.

Sense making

As the corpus lurches towards the cloud, one interesting example of semantic meaning comes in the Open Calais project, an open platform by the reconstituted Thomson Reuters. When raw text is fed into the Calais web service, terms are extracted and fed into existing taxonomies. Thus, persons, countries, and categories are first identified and then made available for verification.

This experimental service has proved its value for unstructured text, but it also works for extracting meaning from the most recent weblog posting to historic newspapers newly scanned into text via Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Since human-created metadata and indexing services are among the most expensive things libraries and publishers create, any mechanism to optimize human intelligence by using machines to create meaning is a useful way forward.

Calais shows promise for metadata enhancement, since full text can be mined for its word properties and fed into taxonomic structures. This could be the basis for search engines that understand natural language queries in the future, but could also be a mechanism for accurate and precise concept browsing.

Glimmers of understanding

One method of gaining new understanding is to examine solved problems. Melvil Dewey understood vertical integration, as he helped with innovations around 3×5 index cards, cabinets, as well as the classification systems that bears his name. Some even say he was the first standards bearer for libraries, though it’s hard to believe that anyone familiar with standards can imagine that one person could have actually been entirely responsible.

Another solved problem is how to make information about books and journals widely available. This has been done twice in the past century—first with the printed catalog card, distributed by the Library of Congress for the greater good, and the distributed catalog record, at great utility (and cost) by the Online Computer Library Center.

Pointers are no longer entirely sufficient, since the problem is not only how to find information but how to make sense of it once it has been found. Linking from catalog records has been a partial solution, but the era of complete books online is now entering its second decade. The third stage is upon us.

Small world: an academic romanceDavid Lodge; Penguin 1985

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