One continuing theme of the recently concluded DC-2010 is that of the perpetual search for consensus on what the hell DCMI should be doing. I know this continual search for identity is a common phenomenon with this sort of organization, as it is for the human adolescent hovering around the age of 15 years. Like with the teenager, it should be seen as a healthy thing, and as most of us older than 15 know, it pretty much goes on for the remainder of life.
For me the conference was preceded by a half day DCMI Advisory Board meeting, where one topic was the revision of the DCMI mission statement as well as the perennial topic of the conferences and how the conference series can be optimally funded and continued, and what exactly is its value for the organization. As usual, there was not much consensus, either at the beginning or the end of the discussion, though it must be said that the conference itself probably shifted some opinions about the value proposition. Generally the AB meeting has been scheduled after the conference, with the idea that this shift in perspective is a good thing for sparking discussion, but for logistical reasons the meeting was held prior to the conference this year.
As it turned out, this change in placement of the AB meeting was unfortunate, given that Mike Bergman’s keynote on Friday morning contributed some important outside opinion to that basic question of mission. (Mike’s post about the keynote is here.) The fact that Mike arrived in time to sample a good chunk of the conference and to talk to a variety of participants gave his opinion the credibility that only exposure to the culture of the organization and the personalities that affect that culture can bring to a keynote. It was clear to me, in talking to him during the conference, that his view of DCMI was not the insider view of a contentious, financially strapped and sometimes dysfunctional organization, but instead one that included recognition of the experience, knowledge and potential there as well. In a nutshell, Mike Bergman was telling us that DCMI’s role in the emerging linked data world was critical, and should be focused primarily on expanding the presence of useful semantics available to the the web world, closing the ‘semantic gap’ he sees limiting the growth of linked open data.
Later in the day, my task was to lead a discussion of the work of the DCMI/RDA Task Group, of which I’m co-chair with Gordon Dunsire. Gordon and I had both prepared slides for that meeting—mine covering the history and work of the task group, what we’d learned, and what remained, and Gordon’s covering the related important work he’d been doing in parallel with IFLA. I’ve been frustrated for some time with the lack of attention and traction we’ve received for this important work, both from DCMI and the Joint Steering Committee for the Development of RDA (JSC). We have found ourselves at the stage where DCMI is waiting for JSC to make some statement about the work done (in the form of approval), and the JSC is waiting for DCMI to endorse the Task Group’s assertions made about the work done and its usefulness for the Semantic Web—or at least this is the way it seems from the point of view of the co-chairs. It’s as if both groups are standing opposite one another in a middle school gym, the ‘boys’ and the ‘girls’ waiting for someone to move towards the middle. Nobody seems to want to make that first move, and though in the case of the TG, each conversation with representatives of both parties seems to be positive, resolution of the concrete issues moves at a frustratingly glacial pace.
But as I spoke about this work to various people, continuing to think about the ongoing conversation about what the role of DCMI should be, particularly in the context of Mike’s keynote, it struck me that the DCMI/RDA Task Group was in some sense a model for what DCMI could do to fulfill the role Mike saw for us in the world. In essence, the TG came into being because Don Chatham at ALA Publishing took the initiative to bring DCMI and the JSC together, where the DCMI message was “How can we help?” The rest is history, but we seem not to have learned from that how powerful that simple question is, and where it could lead. DC-2010 brought a number of new communities to the conference, representing a variety of groups interested in moving into the wider web world of information, but lacking in-house knowledge and skills necessary to make progress. Helping them move forward requires much more than attracting them to the conference and talking to them in the hall or after tutorials. We need to offer more concrete help, like we did for the JSC, and move the knowledge and experience that the DCMI Community has assembled into the broader world of information.