Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Semantic Librarianship

If I had my stocks for Web 3.0, where would I put them?

How about a neat web service called Freebase. It’s a semanticized version of Wikipedia. But with a bigger potential. Much bigger. Freebase is said to be an open shared database of the world's knowledge, and a massive, collaboratively-edited database of cross-linked data. Until recently accessible by invitation only, this application is now open to the public as a semi-trial service.

What does this have to do with librarians? As Freebase argues, “Wikipedia and Freebase both appeal to people who love to use and organize information.” Hold that though. That’s enough to whet our information organizational appetites.

In our article, Dean and I argued that the essence of the Semantic Web is the ability to differentiate entities that the current Web is unable to do. For example, how can we currently parse Paris from Paris? Although still in its initial stages with improvements to come, Freebase does a nice job to a certain extent. Freebase covers millions of topics in hundreds of categories. Drawing from large open data sets like Wikipedia, MusicBrainz, and the SEC, it contains structured information on many popular topics, like movies, music, people and locations—all reconciled and freely available via an open API.

As a result, Freebase builds on the Social Web 2.0 layer, while providing the Semantic Web infrastructure through RDF technology. For example, Paris Hilton would appear in a movie database as an actress, a music database as a singer and a model database as a model. In Freebase, there is only one topic for Paris Hilton, with all three facets of her public persona brought together. The unified topic acts as an information hub, making it easy to find and contribute information about her.

While information in Freebase appears to be structured much like a conventional database, it’s actually built on a system that allows any user to contribute to the schemas—or frameworks—that hold the data - RDF, as I had mentioned. This wiki-like approach to structuring information lets many people organize the database without formal, centralized planning. And it lets subject experts who don’t have database expertise find one another, and then build and maintain the data in their domain of interest. As librarians, we have a place in all of this. It's out there. Waiting for us.

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