As part of my "Grand Tour" of the technical, library and publishing conference circuit, last week I attended the SSP annual meeting. This year the theme was Beyond Borders and Bindings.

The conference programme was very varied and of a high quality. The talks ranged across topics such as explorations of new revenue models for publishers, open access publishing (and those two topics aren't antagonistic, as I've learnt), preservation and archiving, new publishing technologies, online advertising and marketing, and a host of others.

The opening keynote was given by Marshall Keys (bio). Entitled "Chaotic Transitions: How Today's Trends Will Affect Tomorrow's Information Environment" the talk looked at the issues currently facing libraries (funding; disintermediation), the rapidly changing ways in which students and researchers are consuming information including ubiquitous, multiple format access to content, as well as similar issues for publishers, e.g. new ways that users are finding (and sharing) information, and how to support them.

The talk was a lively start to the conference, and raised a lot of interesting issues. Keys exhorted publishers to consider how to design "Scholarly products for a digital way of life". He listed the following items as topics for consideration:

  • Content must be portable

  • Personalization: RSS; links to personal research history; links to similar/relevant materials; multiple formats (audio articles)

  • Connections to community of practice

  • "Please god, No PDF ever"

  • No proxy server (i.e. authentication must be easy and seamless)

  • Tagged for retrieval beyond keyword

  • Easy Cut and paste between services

  • Open to standard search engine

  • Reasonable pricing

  • Direct to user pricing as well as institutions.

In typically geeky fashion I was most intrigued by Marshall's reference to this paper: "Crouching Students, Hidden Resources: Designing and Implementing a Virtual Library" (PDF) which discusses the exploration of a 3D learning environment for students. Time for librarians to get into Second Life?!

The other stand-out session for me was entitled "Hanging Together in a Multi-Format Landscape", featuring talks from Geoff Bilder, Roy Tennant and Cindy Hill.

This session continued many of the themes of the keynote, covering themes such as new technologies for enabling easier resource discovery, as well as ways to find some common ground between publishers and librarians who are both (independently, unfortunately) wrestling with similar issues: how to get content to the people that need it. Roy Tennant observed that the communities have common goals and different strengths and that by working together everyone benefits.

Cindy Hill explained her role as a corporate librarian at Sun, and how supporting their knowledge workers increasingly means being able to easily tailor licensed content for different uses. Hill noted that content needs to be "Mashable, Chunkable, Collaborative, and Embeddable".

In his talk, "Libraries & Publishers in a Googlezon World", Roy Tennant observed that we are now in the "Age of Ubiquitous Discovery", and that finding content is easy, and there's no longer a need for licensed databases of content; Google is everywhere. Tennant explained to publishers that based on the increasing level of referrals from Google searches that "Most users of your content will never see your home page...they don't want to learn how to use your site, nor should they have to...your brand identity has to be at article level". (We have statistics to support this at Ingenta which I'll try and get shared soon).

Tennant noted that linking needs to be transparent plumbing, and provided pointers to publishers on how they enable discovery, e.g. by making their content crawlable, by supporting deep linking, by offering APIs (e.g. SRU, OpenSearch, MXG) onto their content, and supporting standards such as OpenURL and COinS.

Tennant also commented that publishers need to rethink the cost model for academic articles, suggesting that they "think iTunes". Tennant also suggested that publishers should "lift the curtain" on the peer review process, and make it explicit how (and whether) content has been reviewed, e.g. by linking to a description of the review process.

Last up in this session was Geoff Bilder who dropped what he described as his normal "techno-messianic" viewpoint to deliver a presentation entitled "The Emperor's New Web". Bilder's central theme were the problems encountered by researchers attempting to find and access content on the web; in particular, the tangled mess of search engines, publisher websites, and link resolvers which makes online research a frustrating experience. He showed some diagrams which plotted out the different paths that a user can take to get an article, with endless click throughs from search results, link resolvers, etc.

Bilder explained how researchers are developing techniques to avoid this mess; essentially as a pain-limitation exercise, routing around areas of confusion or difficulty. He suggested that researchers are learning to avoid certain systems (both publisher and library) and/or URLs as they quickly learn which paths take the to content the quickest. And in many cases that may not be the "appropriate copy". Bilder observed that addressing this tangled web, and simply enabling users to go directly to the content they need with minimum fuss is crucial (echoing Tennant's "linking should be plumbing" idea).

Bilder noted that to help enrich the online experience (e.g. embracing Web 2.0, etc) the best thing that publishers and librarians can do is to open up data and work together on standards, rather than creating further silos. Services such as social bookmarking, etc. work best when aggregated across sites rather than being confined to a particular publisher or library website. Bilder explained that aggregators like Ingenta has a role to play here too, in particular supporting publishers as a technology partner. Quoting Uri Rubinsky, Bilder remarked that publishers and librarians should be working to build the "tunnels under Disneyland", not the "Disneyland" experience itself.

Bilder ended with a radical view of a publisher's website as nothing more than a content repository: no bells, whistles or clever functionality, just easy access to the content and metadata; a hard drive connected to the web.

I think this session and the keynote really echoed many of the central themes of the entire SSP conference, which was about how publishers can adapt during the "chaotic transition" that is currently occuring in academic research.

Overall SSP was a very enjoyable conference, and like most conferences much of the interesting discussion happened betwee
n sessions (over coffee and beers!). Next year the event is moving to San Francisco, see you there!