Staff Q&A: John Mark Ockerbloom

While studying computer science in the late 1980s and early 1990s, John Mark Ockerbloom couldn’t help but notice that little invention called the Internet.

He was particularly struck by the impact the Web had on university libraries—and the potential it held for revolutionizing the business of books and information.

“It was clear the Internet had the potential, and was already starting to revolutionize the way people were gathering, creating and sharing information,” Ockerbloom says. “That was something I wanted to be involved in—and not just on the theoretical level, but also on the practical level and really making it happen.”

As digital library architect and planner for Penn, Ockerbloom today is doing just that.

Along with the rest of Penn’s digital library team, Ockerbloom is constantly searching for ways to use digital technology to better serve the library’s customers.

It’s a job, he says, that provides never-ending challenges.

Q. What exactly does a digital library architect do?
What I do is look out for technologies and projects that would be useful for the library down the road. Our business is becoming increasingly digital, and it isn’t just that we have a print library over here and then a digital aspect added onto that. Digital technologies now permeate everything we do.

Q. When did Penn really begin to pursue digital library projects?
They’ve been doing it, to some extent, for some time now, even before I got here, with things like the online catalog and stuff. But it really got going five years ago when they began hiring a number of people, myself included, to start planning digital services for the library. They charged us with helping to move the library forward in an increasingly digital age.

Q. What kind of things are you working on now?
A lot of what we’ve done are projects having to do with getting people connected to the information they need. You can see some of that on the web site right now. One project was called PennText, and the idea behind that was this: increasingly, when you look for things, you want to be able to get other things cited in the articles, and the traditional way of doing that is with hyperlinks. But there are problems when links break, or web sites go away, or maybe when it links to a site where you need a subscription. PennText, though, uses special links called open URLs, so if you click on one of them, it pulls up a new window that will show you different places where you can get that information. … The idea is to basically make a link work in a wider variety of contexts.

Q. Has the system been popular with Penn users?
This is being used pretty heavily. One way we can tell is that interlibrary loan requests are going up. That means that people are using this tool to find things, no matter where the information is.

Q. What are some other projects that you are personally interested in?
One of the things I worry about is the whole issue of preservation of digital information. We’re more and more dependant on these resources, but because of that we need more assurance the information is still going to be available in a few years. For example, we’re getting more and more of our journals electronically. Before, we could just bind up those journals, put them on the bookshelves and not worry about it. But when we get those journals electronically, it’s different. The site can go away, or the publisher can go out of business. And the question is, where are we then? So one of the projects we’re working on with a number of other universities is a project that will harvest journal content and share it among all of the people with access. Then if someone’s copy gets corrupted, we can recover it, and we can preserve this information even if the site goes away in the future.

Q. I would imagine preservation is an issue for physical collections, too.
Yes, physical books do age as well. And we do have to worry about that. So some of what we’re doing in digitization is trying to cut down on the wear and tear on those physical things. There’s one good reason for digitizing these special collections—you can literally have people all over the world looking at the first edition of the King James Bible, for instance, without having to have all of those people touching it.

Q. Looking to the future, do you expect to see a lot more library content online?
Yes, there’s going to be a lot more. I don’t think the demand for non-electronic information is ever going to go away, and certainly not at a place like Penn that does groundbreaking research. You’re always going to want many different sources, but there are going to be larger amounts of information online. I know of projects right now, both academic and commercial, that are talking about … digitizing millions of titles. That’s already standard in some areas—you can already search across all of published 17th-century literature, for instance. … The other thing I think you’ll see more of is the data itself more widely available and easier to get to, which gives a whole new dimension on research, so you can see not only a researcher’s conclusion (in a paper), but also go back and look at the data and see if there was anything the researchers missed. That may be something in the sciences and social sciences that I think will be increasingly important.

John Mark Ockerbloom