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Internet Scout Project develops better tools for online research

As the information revolution took hold, some groups envisioned the need to find structure among growing volumes of electronic files. The Internet Scout Project was established in 1994 to develop better tools and services for finding, filtering, and presenting online information. The Scout Project team combines library and computer science organizational concepts with the latest Internet technology to create information and software solutions for educators, librarians and researchers.

“We try to find better ways to help people get to high-quality online information,” said Rachael Bower, co-director of the Internet Scout Project in Madison. “And we do that through utilizing standard and developing standards that apply to how you categorize, chunk up and catalog things that are already floating around on the web.”

One example is the Scout archives, an organized and searchable database of electronic newsletters dating back 10 years. Each referenced news source has been verified for credibility by knowledgeable staff, and each entry is placed within a larger framework of related resources.

“So if you we’re doing research, it’s much easier to dig around in [the Scout archives] than in Google, for example, because you know everything in here has been handpicked by somebody who knows what they’re doing. It’s been classified and it’s been checked to make sure that it is accurate information,” Bower said.

The certification performed by Scout staff creates a bank of online resources, but it is a small piece of the entire breadth of Web resources. Bower and others contend that a few reliable resources placed in context are more valuable than many scattered within a gauntlet of blogs and opinion-driven sites.
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“Getting information is not the problem any longer,” said Ken Frazier, director of UW-Madison libraries. “You can get to a million hits on even a fairly obscure subject, just by doing a keyword search on the Internet. One of the more interesting challenges is to develop and efficient way of getting to the information that optimizes your own productivity and success.”

Hierarchy and organization put many of the Internet’s resources into context, yet electronic files do not constitute all of the original or unique information the world has to offer. Books, pamphlets, journals, and letters from years gone by hold volumes of knowledge that will lose deserved circulation and use if not properly converted to the digital realm.

Finding valuable information can be difficult, but the digitization and role of computers makes relevant information easier to locate within a database or collection.

“The ability to find things is considerably greater once it’s in a digital format because if it’s a textual thing, and you can provide ‘full-text searching,' and obviously you're more likely to find things that might be more relevant than you think,” said Nolan Pope, assistant director of technology for UW-Madison libraries.

In this spirit, UW system libraries are digitizing select collections to create access for Internet users. Collections include those that are too fragile for physical circulation, in heavy use, or unique to Wisconsin and unlikely to be found elsewhere.

Major projects include the Ecology and Natural Resources Collection, Wisconsin Pioneer Experience, and Africa Focus. Many of the current collections are for educational purposes, but the libraries have also begun digitizing DNR publications and technical reports. Funding is a large consideration and ultimately determines which collections will be digitized.

“We have a strong outreach mission in terms of supporting the Wisconsin Idea and services to the entire state. So our goal was to make this as openly available as possible and our view is if it’s a value here it’s may well be a value to people at other institutions. And many libraries across the country are digitizing materials and then sharing those digital collections with anyone else,” Pope said.

Large digitization efforts, like those of Google and other universities, are tackling large chunks of history, science, and literature. Wisconsin libraries possess many of the same resources, but the effort is to complement other projects and contribute unique knowledge within this unwritten digital collaboration.

In a truly collaborative effort, many online resources are harnessing the knowledge of its users and asking for contributions. Other online resources have begun publishing scholarly research and discoveries. Both mediums promise more unique retrievable content in a structured format, but raise questions of authority and accountability.

Scholarly publishing is also taking a new route in recent years. Preliminary research and newly formalized research is making its way onto the Internet via repositories.

“The whole [scholarly publishing ] system is failing because there’s not enough buyers in order to sell enough copies to make the project break even,” Frazier said. “So the whole model of scholarly publishing now has to completely move to the Internet in order for it to survive. [This] may be a really strong signal that preliminary, early work is going to appear first on the Internet even before it appears in it’s authoritative final form in a journal.”

Arxiv is one such repository serving the physics, mathematics and computer science fields since 1991. By providing instantaneous communication among scientists, Arxiv remains a valuable resource for prepublished science material even as many print journals are now online. Arxiv lacks a peer-review for posted material, but providing research months in advance of journals makes these repositories invaluable for the entire scientific community.

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