How linked data can help libraries make more of an impact online

Graphic banner for linked data blog post showing WorldCat Entities linked data text on a futuristic background

In a recent post, I introduced the topic of linked data for libraries and OCLC’s plans for moving forward. Today, let’s dig into the details on how linked data amplifies the knowledge in library collections and the tools we can use to make it happen.

This shift toward linked data isn’t just a technology upgrade, but a long-term strategy for enhancing the findability and accessibility of the important materials that libraries curate and manage. It’s a technical challenge, yes. But I also believe it’s a chance to better promote our values.

Easy to publish, hard to promote

We all know that for every piece of good, reliable information, we often have to wade through thickets of lower-quality work, dubiously sourced materials, unreliable second-hand summaries, and other bad options. We also find that excellent information from underrepresented communities can be harder to locate and access within the tangles of lower-quality, mainstream, dominant content.

The web has done a great job of democratizing the production and publication of content. If you want to share a blog post, podcast, videos, or music? There are all kinds of free options. And if your goals are personal—sharing photos with family, keeping a journal, tracking ideas for a neighborhood group—then findability isn’t an issue.

While it is possible to publish anything on the open web, the sheer volume of content available makes finding unique, curated content—often stored in stand-alone data silos—harder to find unless it’s provided through a platform that’s heavily advertised or very popular (in the sense of content that “goes viral”).

These options are rarely, if ever, possible for works that libraries uniquely curate. Which is where linked data fits in.

Automating connections

When information is published as linked data, it can be found and used by automated content generation systems in many more ways.

Linked data has been used like this for years to facilitate both discovery and economic transparency. Linked data facilitates a kind of “automated collaboration” among participating organizations. Examples include:

  • The Google Knowledge Graph: Snippets of information and links that appear next to search results, giving users access to commonly sought questions.
  • Wikidata: The shared linked data store for Wikimedia projects such as Wikipedia.
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC): The BBC organizes its content libraries using linked data to facilitate discovery on its own platforms and the wider web.
  • Retail companies: Best Buy and other retailers use linked data to enhance SEO and improve efficiency across their supply chains.
  • Scholarship in several areas of science: These include Linked Life Data (LLD) and Bio2RDF.

For libraries, linked data will promote integration with major web services, academic departments and disciplines, and research initiatives. By “unlocking” information held in previously siloed applications, linked data makes it possible to both automate discovery in new situations and easily promote the best results for users.

OCLC and today’s library linked data environment

In the mid 2000s, OCLC began converting and sharing data in ways that make library materials easier to find on the web. The OCLC Research team and the Research Library Partnership (RLP) have done some of the most important research on library linked data and prototypes. This includes Project Passage, which tested linked data methods and processes. As part of these efforts, we’ve added linked data elements directly to WorldCat records and within other workflows.

Earlier this year, OCLC took a major step forward, announcing that WorldCat Entities linked data can now be found within WorldCat bibliographic records. Those URIs (uniform resource identifiers) define and connect traditional MARC data fields about Works, Persons, Organizations, Places, Events, and other entities into the wider linked data environment. As a result, every library that catalogs with OCLC can benefit from new connections enabled by this more open, useful technology.

It’s a big deal. All at once, the hundreds of millions of records that OCLC and its member libraries have created and improved for 60+ years are more available and accessible to platforms and services within and outside the educational and library fields.

Research and rewards

Shifting to linked data also presents exciting research opportunities, allowing for new forms of comparison and contexts that can inspire fresh thinking about library services and programs. OCLC continues to be at the forefront of this exploration, seeking to understand and maximize the benefits for libraries and their users, providing the needed tools and infrastructure to connect the knowledge in library collections to the larger global knowledge graph that informs our lives.

As exciting as all of this change is, we know we’ll be working in a hybrid cataloging environment for a while. Shifting infrastructure and workflows takes time, not just for the technology implementation, but more importantly, to support the people who also have to learn and grow to effectively do next-generation knowledge work.

Our goal is to provide a bridge that allows libraries to move at their own pace while cataloging systems and infrastructures are improved in ways that won’t require undue strain or expense. For example, the upcoming launch of Meridian means catalogers and other library metadata workers will be able to add new entity and authority information to WorldCat Entities. Those improvements will also enhance MARC records.

Linked data is not just a new format for library metadata. It represents a fundamental and essential shift in how library data interacts with the world. It’s a commitment to make library resources more accessible, discoverable, and impactful than ever before.

I’m excited to be on this journey together with library partners, our members, and my OCLC colleagues. And I’m excited to continue to learn and grow with the global metadata community.

I can’t wait to see what we’ll be able to accomplish together.

Read Jeff’s earlier “Introduction to linked data” post and find more information about OCLC’s linked data strategy here.