SSP Conference Weighs Innovation Against History

Jun 06, 2008

Information tools such as taxonomies, social networking, blogging, and multimedia content are as important as methods of research and collaboration in the academic world as they are in government and the enterprise. The Society for Scholarly Publishing’s (SSP) annual conference on May 28–30 at the Copley Westin hotel in Boston explored these common themes from a scholarly perspective. "Empires of the Mind: Inventing the Future of Scholarly Publishing," the 30th anniversary SSP conference, drew a record attendance of over 760 participants, including publishers, vendors, and librarians who serve scholarly and STM (scientific, technical, and medical) researchers and authors.

Scholarly and scientific research requires a high degree of both precision and recall in online literature and database searching in order to yield meaning to complex questions. For this reason, a popular pre-meeting seminar, which drew 56 registrants, was "Say What You Mean: How Semantic Tagging Makes Content More Discoverable, More Useful, and More Valuable." Instead of focusing on documents, semantic tagging focuses on content and meaning, explained Jake Zarneger of Silverchair, the first of five presenters during the half-day session.

Scholarly work also requires collaboration and being aware of the research and writings of other in the field. Therefore, Web 2.0 or social networking tools are also of particular interest to scholars. "Web 2.0: Beyond the Hype" was another half-day pre-meeting seminar, which drew an audience of 74 registrants. As the opening speaker, Leigh Watson-Healy of Outsell Inc., explained, Web 2.0 "is where the power of information, application, and peer-to-peer collective intelligence meet to do something." Copyright issues of content redistributed through RSS feeds and mash-ups was another topic addressed during the presentation.

The conference keynote was delivered by Alex Wright, an information architect at The New York Times and author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. Entitled "The Deep History of the Information Age," his presentation gave insightful and sometimes amusing analysis of periods in history when an old information system was disruptively replaced by a new one. He spoke not merely of information systems, but on the use of hierarchies and taxonomies in particular.

This historical view of information technology was balanced with a more futuristic view, as presented in the afternoon plenary by M.I.T. Media Laboratory professor Pattie Maes. With photo slides and videos, Dr. Maes explained M.I.T. inventions, such as Reachmedia, which enables users, who wear an electronic wrist band with wireless access, to obtain information about products embedded with electronic ID tags simply by picking them up. Another invention she described was electronic sticky notes that can send handwritten messages to electronic media.

The balance between past and future was reflected in comments of the SSP president, Susan Nayer Kesner, who said that a record number of people attended the conference to "hear sessions focused on the possibilities afforded by new technologies while learning lessons from our past."

The conference program consisted of 16 daily sessions, each lasting 90-minutes, with four sessions being held during each time block. Each featured a panel of three to four experts discussing a common theme, such as e-books, blogs, taxonomies and folksonomies, e-learning, global marketing, interactive marketing and advertising, and accessibility. For continued discussion on some of these themes and others, topical roundtables were organized for the second day’s lunch.

A lively exhibit hall was open throughout the conference. The 38 exhibit booths included representatives from a wide array of publishing service companies, with an emphasis on digital and electronic services, along with some database vendors. One exhibitor commented that the activity on the exhibit floor was much busier than the exhibit of the conference of the Professional Scholarly Publishing division of the Association of American Publishers that he had attended earlier this spring.

The Society for Scholarly Publishing includes 882 members from companies, educational institutions, and other nonprofit organizations involved in publishing, printing, online products and services, technical services, editorial services, and library/information services. As SSP president Susan Kesner explained: "SSP is perhaps unique among organizations in that it caters to the interests of all those involved in the many facets of scholarly communication." The diversity of the SSP’s membership was also reflected in the diversity of the speakers: commercial publishers, nonprofit publishers, commercial vendors, academic scholars, and librarians all came together to share their knowledge in this conference.