Friday, March 19, 2010

Where next for BHL?

You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new. - Steve Jobs

It's Friday, so time for either a folly or a rant. BHL have put another user survey into the field I loathe user surveys. They don't ask the questions I would ask, then when you see the results, often the most interesting suggestions are ignored (see the Evaluation of the User Requirement Survey Oct-Nov 2009). And we've been here before, with EDIT (see this TAXACOM message about the moribund Virtual Taxonomic Library). Why go to the trouble of asking users if you aren't going to deliver?

I suspect surveys exist not to genuinely help figure out what to do, but as an internal organisational tool to convince programmers what needs to be done, especially in large, multinational consortia where the programmers might be in a different institution, and don't have any particular vested interest in the project (if they did, they wouldn't need user surveys, they'd be too busy making stuff to change the world).

So, what should BHL be doing? There's lots of things to do, but for me the core challenges are findability and linkage. BHL needs to make its content more findable, both in terms of bibliographic metadata and search terms (e.g., taxa, geographic places). It also needs to be much more strongly linked, both internally (e.g., cross referencing between articles where one BHL article cites another BHL article), and externally (to the non-BHL literature, for example, and to nomenclators), and the external links need to be reciprocal (BHL should link to nomenclators, and nomenclators should point back to BHL).

There are immediate benefits from improved linkage. Users could navigate within BHL content by citation links, for example, in the same way we can in the recent literature. If BHL cleaned up its metadata and had a robust article-level OpenURL resolver it could offer services to publishers to add additional links to their content, driving traffic to BHL itself. Better findability leads to better links.

One major impediment to improving things is the quality of the OCR text extracted from BHL scans. There have been various automated attempts to extract metadata from OCR scans (e.g., "A metadata generation system for scanned scientific volumes" doi:10.1145/1378889.1378918), but these have met with mixed success. There's a lot of scope for improving this, but I suspect a series of grad student theses on this topic may not be the way forward (grad students rarely go all the way and develop something that can be deployed). Which leaves crowd sourcing. Given the tools already available for correcting Internet Archive-derived book scans (e.g., Wikisource discussed in an earlier post), it seems to me the logical next move for BHL is to dump all their content into a Wikisource-style environment, polish the tools and interface a bit, and encourage the community to have at it. Forming and nurturing that community will be a challenge, but providing BHL can demonstrate some clear benefits (e.g., generating clean pages with new taxon names, annotated illustrations, OpenURL tools for publishers to use), then I think the task isn't insurmountable. It just needs some creativity (e.g., why not engage EOL users who land on BHL content to go one step further and clean it up, or link with Wikipedia and Wikispecies to attract users interested in actively contributing?).

I doubt any of this will be in any user survey...