He scarce had ceas’t when the superior Fiend
Was moving toward the shore; his ponderous shield
Behind him cast; the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic Glass the Tuscan Artist views
At Ev’ning from the top of Fesole,
Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers or Mountains in her spotty Globe.
. . .

So wrote the poet and so l learnt at school from Paradise Lost that the valley of the Arno was indeed a paradise, and that from the “top of Fesole” you could indeed seek out new lands, on earth as well as the moon. And, a week ago, with the annual Fiesole STM Retreat back at home in that town, courtesy of the wonderful hospitality and organization of Casalini Libri I responded eagerly to an invitation to apply my Optic Glass by way of summing up and closing the meeting.

But you cannot get away with a few genial generalities and then open the Prosecco with these people. This is a rare meeting – a mixed audience of librarians, publishers, scholars and technologists. How Katina Strauch, Becky Lenzini, Ward Shaw and Anthony Watkinson, representing the Charleston side of the agreement that keeps Fiesole’s agenda in shape, manage to do so speaks well of their acute ear for market discordance. The series has now run 18 years and you can see the results – and this year’s slides – at http:digital.caslini.it/retreat/. As an example, look at the pre-conference session on eBooks. Now, what is there left to say about eBooks? Ann Okerson described this session, which she chaired, as as the parable of the blind men and the elephant. And her speakers duly obliged by touching the beast and describing its very different characteristics. Sven Fund saw it as a business with flaws, needing to move the model away from the apparent print parent. Eileen Gardiner and Ronald Musto saw it as an original format underdeveloped, Lauren Schoenthaler of Stanford exposed the legal protection weaknesses while Wolfgang Mayer of Vienna’s massive University was clearly intent on never buying a book again where digital was available. All fascinating, and a reminder that whenever we wish upon the new name of the old, we imprison it in false expectation and limit its development. We should offer a prize for the renaming of the Object formerly known as eBook – especially when they become fully interactive with each other and, as Marvin Minsky once foretold, the books on our shelves really do talk to each
other.

The conference was blessed with two main speakers – Roly Keating of the British Library and Mike Keller of Stanford. Roly has now fully conquered the brief and the plan has wonderful dynamics and is shaping up brilliantly as a sector of the Kings Cross Knowledge Quarter. But how I wish we did not fall into PR-speak in trying to make libraries seem relevant. “Living Knowledge” and “living Science” – to distinguish them from the dead, hidden-in-print versions? Or the work of living as distinct from dead scholars? Or do you need to be alive to visit the British Library? Like Milton’s apparitions, I carried these thoughts into three great sessions on discovery and discoverability. On reputation management, and On new business models. This is one of the few audiences I know which can have a lively discussion on standards, so Todd Carpenter of NISO faced lively questions, while Graham Stone made a strong case for resource discovery tools.

Reputation management really ignites audiences at STM conferences these days. I sense a sub-text, never frankly stated, in which some in the audience are saying to themselves “Is this all it is about – what happened to scholarship?” While others are murmuring “I knew this was the endgame – why not cut to the chase and just create a new index of Scholarly Worth?”. Charlie Rapple of KUDOS and Sara Rouhi of Altmetrics laid out the new territory while Andrea Bonaccorsi of ANVUR, the Italian Research Evaluation Agency, created the framework of need very effectively and charmingly. I have a feeling that we all now recognize the terrain, but I had promised the conference that in my Optic Glass I would fit a new lens suitable to our times. I suggest that, from Snowden to the Panama Papers, the business model we should be applying is the leak. We would get a far shrewder evaluation of scholarly reputation if all the data was known but all the judgements were secret. Then someone could leak the rankings of institutions and individuals onto a website in Kazahkstan, which would demand we all paid attention and made positive contributions to ensuring that ratings were reasonable.

And new business models took us satisfyingly all over the map. Stephen Rhind Tutt deserves a prize for getting data collections into our focus. How we treat and make data available and searchable should be a subject for the 18th agenda. France’s Pinter rightly celebrated the gathering strength of Knowledge Unlatched and Toby Green of OECD described his freemium model in detail – a gloriously left field business model for a very conservative organization, but one which succeeds excellently in adding value and growing revenues for an institution which is bound to release its data free of charge, with excellent topicality we ended with Daniel Schiff describing Thieme’s successful experience of Open Access.

No one on the hill of Fiesole could have used an optic glass without seeing new lands. The new map emerging is no longer journal-centric, and the meaning of Collections is shifting. How we measure the worth of a far more productive scholarly community, and how we effectively map their communications, remains on the dark side of the moon, though community suggests some answers and yet more questions. But there cannot be a better place or a wiser crowd amongst whom to consider the issues.


keep looking »