End User's Corner - October 1997

Author PictFrom Surfing Smarter to Working the Net--Internet Scout Project Subject-Specific Scout Reports

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

October 1997

A long time ago, in a small Special Library far, far away, a professor came to me with an idea. This was in ancient personal computer times (the late 1980's), when desktop computers were just ending their roles as dumb terminals connected to large mainframes and beginning their roles as parts of Local Area Networks (LANs). It was also the era when some government agencies were starting to make data available on 5.25 inch floppy disks, the kind that make excellent drink coasters today. The library I worked in was largely a data library, with a small journal and book collection.

His idea was that our little library should cease to be a physical place and start to become a virtual place. The professors with their shiny new PC's should be able to access library data at their desktops, and at their convenience, through their connections to the LAN. I smiled and said that was a nice idea, and someday it might even come true. Then I went back to entering data from government publications into spreadsheets.

The Internet has made his visionary idea into a reality. At Internet Scout we try to put a little bit of that library on our readers' desktop every week with the Scout Report (http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/report/). It is a very popular current awareness readers' advisory tool that attempts to bring its subscribers the best of what is new and newly discovered on the Internet on a variety of subjects. Almost everyone who reads it will find something of interest in its 13-20 weekly annotations. It helps people "surf smarter," as we like to say.

However, it does not go far enough toward meeting the above mentioned professor's dream. That is why a major part of Internet Scout's charge, under its new National Science Foundation funding, is to begin to turn an Internet current awareness service into a targeted, specific information service. In the library world, we call this SDI (Selective Dissemination of Information). In addition to surfing smarter, we want to help researchers and educators cut through the information overload on the Internet, and to effectively "work the Net."

We are beginning that task now, with the production of subject-specific Scout Reports in Science and Engineering, Social Science, and Business and Economics. The idea is to deliver relevant, targeted information to a specific audience. That audience makes no effort to get this information, outside of subscribing to a mailing list. At present, these new reports are delivered biweekly.

SDI services have been proven to increase productivity in both the academic and corporate worlds. Researchers and educators simply do not have the time (or in many cases the inclination) to ferret out useful, information-rich Internet sources of interest to them. In Special Libraries, the duty of the librarian has always been not only to be reactive (answer reference questions, do literature searches on demand, etc.), but to be proactive, to anticipate the needs of the client, and produce relevant information before it is asked for.

The subject-specific Scout Reports are the beginning of what we hope will be a full-fledged SDI service for researchers and educators in higher education. Much development work must be done for that to happen. We realize that three bi-weekly subject-specific reports do not an SDI service make. Two major elements are missing. One is specific targeting. The other is timely delivery.

Both of these elements are being researched as part of the Internet Scout Project's charge under the new funding. "Specific targeting" involves more specific tagging of resources and is being researched by our Signpost (http://www.signpost.org/) unit. Specific targeting and specific tagging are two sides of the same coin. Targeting is the process by which users indicate specifically the subjects in which they are interested, for instance, Biology or Botany. This information will be used to create a specific user profile. Tagging is the process of annotating the specific content. When the tag meets the target, the annotation would, through push technology, go to those for whom the tag was targeted. At present, Internet Scout is in the initial stages of investigating these two options and expect to use their work cataloguing Scout Report annotations in a Library of Congress subject scheme as part of this effort. In the future, the Signpost unit's research will help determine how to tag subject-specific, Scout Report annotations so that they can be delivered to users whose interests match those specific tags.

Timely delivery is another area that Internet Scout researchers will investigate. At present, one of the best "push" technologies is targeted email. But there are other models as well. PointCast (http://www.pointcast.com) is one. The National Science Foundation's Custom News Service (http://www.nsf.gov/home/cns/start.htm) is another. In the future, there will be more refined targeted delivery methods, and we plan to use them for timely delivery of information.

For now, readers will notice a bit of a difference between the Scout Report and the Subject-Specific Scout Reports. In addition to site annotations related to research, learning resources, and general interest, we plan to maintain specific current awareness and new data sections. In these sections, we will provide selective notification of new books, journals, preprints, tables of contents, conference announcements, employment announcements, and datasets. We also plan to annotate sites that readers can bookmark to keep current in these areas. In addition to this, we will be building current awareness meta-pages - Web pages that will always be available to users - for this purpose.. These pages will help keep readers current at all times in the research areas of interest to them.

There is much information related to the print world that is available on the Internet, information that might be hard to come by via other channels. We plan to provide current and ongoing awareness of this information as well.

In this way, we will begin a process of helping researchers and educators to make the Internet work for them, rather than simply be a curiosity or a play toy. There are a phenomenal number of quality educational resources available on the Internet. In a sense, it has the potential to become the largest library in history. We are aiming to put that library on your desktop, and the subject-specific Scout Reports are a step in that direction.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

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