[XML4LIB] Re: The impact of XML/RDF on digital libraries

Jerome McDonough jerome.mcdonough at nyu.edu
Thu Feb 21 10:58:52 EST 2002

At 09:40 AM 2/21/2002 -0500, Rhyno Art wrote:
>So what does this do? Well, consider the dozens of variations of the term
>"author", and then factor in works that sort of have the concept of
>"author" but not quite, such as someone who has modified a GIS dataset.
>RDF-savvy databases can possibly let you deal with some of the many nasty
>semantic issues associated with information retrieval and, if resources
>like WordNet and MetaNet can be tapped into, allow you to take advantage of
>worldwide efforts to deal with language and communication issues.

If this were true, I could see a point to RDF, but I'll be honest; I don't 
RDF can deliver this.  RDF is a sufficiently flexible mechanism for describing
things (it *has* to be) that given any reasonably complex set of metadata, I'm
betting 5 librarians could sit down and come up with 5 utterly different RDF
encodings of the same set.  There are ways to deal with that problem.   We
come to agreement on element sets; we come to agreement on element
relationships; we come to agreement on descriptive practices.  You can then
do an RDF implementation of all that, sure.  But note that the basis of that
semantic interoperability is *the agreements*, not RDF.  And I've yet to
see a DL metadata project where those agreements existed where we couldn't
do an implementation without using RDF by specifying a DTD or an XML schema,
and have something that was easier for other libraries to adopt and use.

I think the clearest expression I can make of the belief that Roy and I 
share is that RDF isn't *unworkable*, it's just that it's unnecessary.  So, 
yes, there
are many projects out there using RDF, but are there any of them that *had* to
use RDF to accomplish what they wanted to do, or who realized benefits from
using RDF that they couldn't have achieved without it?

I suspect that the whole RDF argument boils down to another instance of the
debates about artificial intelligence; if you believe in the ability to 
create real
semantic/pragmatic understanding in machines, you believe in RDF's promise.
I feely admit that I'm in the opposite camp that believes that the AI people
need to go re-read Saussure a few times, particularly that bit about
the arbitrariness of the relationship between the signifier and the signified,
and then follow it up with Donna Haraway's work on situated knowledges.
As I said earlier, when pushed, every discussion I've had regarding RDF's 
comes back to building the semantic web; if you really don't have any faith
in that coming to pass, I don't think you're likely to see a big benefit to 

Jerome McDonough
Digital Library Development Team Leader
Elmer Bobst Library, New York University
70 Washington Square South, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10012
jerome.mcdonough at nyu.edu
(212) 998-2425

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