Why libraries need to move to Linked Data

From On the Web, of the Web

LITA 2011 Keynote, October 1, 2011 by Karen Coyle

“The advantages of linked data are real. The primary reason to move to linked data is that it is a metadata format designed for data that lives on the Web.

… [It] means being able to interact with web resources; it means being visible to web users; it also means being able to take advantage of the web as a platform. This latter cannot be understated: the web is a huge system based on solid technology that is much more reliable than any small organization can create in house. (Google, not a small organization, may have a private network that rivals the web, but the rest of us cannot get anywhere near that.)  I’m talking not about ‘web scale,’ but ‘on the web.’

There are other excellent reasons to move to linked data. Linked data provides a flexibility that previous technologies do not. Linked data allows expansion in a non-disruptive way; just as anyone on the web can link to documents on your web site with, anyone can link to your data. And that linking has no effect on what it links to, other than providing new paths of access. Not only can others link to your data, you can link to your own data. This means that you can build up your data incrementally without having to modify your data structure or the systems that manage that data.  No more waiting two years to add a code to our record format, then having to coordinate implementation on a broad basis so that all systems are in sync.  Systems can ignore “new” data until they are ready to make use of it.

Linked data allows some communities or some segments of communities to add more data where they need to, and still remain compatible with the larger data sharing activity.  One can add new controlled lists or expand general lists to express greater detail in some areas. Others don’t have to adjust to that if they don’t need that detail. This flexibility also extends to internationalization. Because linked data uses identifiers instead of names or terms, those identifiers can be presented to natural languages users (e.g. humans) in any language you wish. RDA elements and controlled lists in linked data format are already being translated by interested libraries in Europe.  And if there are particular needs in one country or region, those needs can be met by extending the metadata.

We only need to be the same in some areas to achieve linking. Where in the past, when we exchanged records, the record itself had to be a known and controlled unit. With linking, any part of the data can be compatible, but not all of it has to be. You can exchange or link to portions of someone else’s data, say to an author and title in a bibliography. Linked data can be as simple or complex as you wish it to be.

There are the Semantic Web purists who have a fairly rigid notion of linked data, and admittedly the way they express their concept of linked data is abstract and obscure. I also think that the Semantic Web ideal of highly atomized, pure data is unrealistic. That doesn’t negate the value of linked data.  It just means that we have a flexible approach to the concept if we are to bring our real-world complexity and messiness into the linked data realm.

[Source: http://kcoyle.net/presentations/lita2011.html]