Cross-browsing and RDF

Cross-browsing and RDF

While cross-searching has been described and demonstrated through this paper and associated work, the problem of cross-browsing a selection of subject gateways has not been addressed. Many gateway users prefer to browse, rather than search. Though browsing usually takes longer than searching, it can be more thorough, as it is not dependent on the users terms matching keywords in resource descriptions (even when a thesaurus is used, it is possible for resources to be “missed” if they are not described in great detail).

As a “quick fix”, a group of gateways may create a higher level menu that points to the various browsable menus amongst the gateways. However, this would not be a truly hierarchical menu system, as some gateways maintain browsable resource menus in the same atomic (or lowest level) subject area. One method of enabling cross-browsing is by the use of RDF.

The World Wide Web Consortium has recently published a preliminary draft specification for the Resource Description Framework (RDF). RDF is intended to provide a common framework for the exchange of machine-understandable information on the Web. The specification provides an abstract model for representing arbitrarily complex statements about networked resources, as well as a concrete XML-based syntax for representing these statements in textual form. RDF relies heavily on the notion of standard vocabularies, and work is in progress on a ‘schema’ mechanism that will allow user communities to express their own vocabularies and classification schemes within the RDF model.

RDF’s main contribution may be in the area of cross-browsing rather than cross-searching, which is the focus of the CIP. RDF promises to deliver a much-needed standard mechanism that will support cross-service browsing of highly-organised resources. There are many networked services available which have classified their resources using formal systems like MeSH or UDC. If these services were to each make an RDF description of their collection available, it would be possible to build hierarchical ‘views’ of the distributed services offering a user interface organised by subject-classification rather than by physical location of the resource.

From Cross-Searching Subject Gateways, The Query Routing and Forward Knowledge Approach, Kirriemuir et. al., D-Lib Magazine, January 1998.

I wrote this over 11 (eleven) years ago, as something of an aside during a larger paper on metadata for distributed search. While we are making progress towards such goals, especially with regard to cross-referenced descriptions of identifiable things (ie. the advances made through linked data techniques lately), the pace of progress can be quite frustrating. Just as it seems like we’re making progress, things take a step backwards. For example, the wonderful lcsh.info site is currently offline while the relevant teams at the Library of Congress figure out how best to proceed. It’s also ten years since Charlotte Jenkins published some great work on auto-classification that used OCLC’s Dewey Decimal Classification. That work also ran into problems, since DDC wasn’t freely available for use in such applications. In the current climate, with Creative Commons, Open source, Web 2.0 and suchlike the rage, I hope we’ll finally see more thesaurus and classification systems opened up (eg. with SKOS) and fully linked into the Web. Maybe by 2019 the Web really will be properly cross-referenced…

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