Why the Jane-athon -- and the Jane-athon format -- matters

by Mike Lauruhn 

"As a matter of fact, I am registered for the SF #janeathon", the tweet proclaimed. Yes, it was an all-day Jane Austen-related workshop taking place at the American Library Association Annual conference. And no, it was not an endurance competition reading Jane Austen novels or watching their film adaptations. In the official event description, it was stated that "participants will explore the very real issues inherent in using Resource Description Framework (RDF) statements in aggregated “packages” ready to contribute to the Linked Data world."

Over the past five years, I had attended various Linked Data and RDF events at both ALA Annual and ALA Midwinter -- and even participated on panels at such events. The format often followed a familiar template: person representing an organization stands up, shows their organization's vocabularies, shows concepts from the vocabularies marked up as RDF, yada yada yada, they show some amazing mash-ups, visualizations, and UIs that they are thinking about offering. I fear that many people left these with similar sentiment: "I understand Linked Data, I get RDF, we've used vocabularies and authority control forever, I want to be able to offer next gen applications to my users, but what about the middle part? Where is the actual legwork? What will our daily tasks look like? What will the tools be like?" 

The Jane-athon adopted a hackathon format to facilitate a hands-on approach, putting attendees in the driver seat with tools for describing Jane Austen resources with software specifically designed to use RDA.

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In the month prior to the event, the attendees were contacted by organizers with instructions leading to a goal of arriving in San Francisco ready to hit the ground running. This included downloading the RIMMF software (RDA in Many Metadata Formats) and familiarizing ourselves to it through tutorials. I was personally impressed with the RIMMF capabilities to access and incorporate trusted vocabulary and authority records from LC and other providers, in addition to providing access to Wikipedia and other resources. We also took a brief survey to help designate our tables and coaches we would be working with. Deborah Fritz hosted a pair of webinars to answer questions that had arisen. Finally, we were given instructions on collecting Jane Austen-related works to bring.

At the opening of the Jane-athon, Gordon Dunsire and Deborah Fritz welcomed attendees and introduced fellow organizers, coaches, and team leaders. We sat at assigned tables based upon interests of work types: print books; audio & ebooks; sequels, prequels, & spin-offs; criticism; film & television; etc. The stated goal was to "have fun" and "make as many Jane records as possible for exporting to RDF for experimentation." After the intro and overview, nearly two solid hours were allotted to RIMMFing. It was fun to see all the interaction at the various table: Coaches and team leaders making the rounds; people looking over shoulders; participants helping each other out. Individuals imported data, established relationships between entities and descriptions in metadata records. Tables tackled and shared a variety of questions about representing relationships, translations, spin-offs, and compilations. In the end, just over 400 Jane Austen records were created to be curated and added to the rballs site. (R-balls "contain linked data and Semantic Web representations of cultural heritage resources".) 

In the afternoon, there was a discussion about experiences from the morning and a chance to address questions that arose. Then, Diane Hillmann and Jon Phipps led a discussion on the implications of RDA for Linked Data in libraries. What the conversation, and the day as a whole, confirmed to me was that the tools and expertise are maturing and that Linked Open Data adoption is less about technology and more about governance and trust.

Putting on a workshop is hard. Hands-on ones are even harder. And getting a large diverse group of attendees ready and able to hit the ground running is an enormous feat. The core organizers** of the Jane-athon should be commended for the time and effort in putting together another Jane-athon. Here's hoping the model can be replicated.

(** Gordon Dunsire, JSC; Diane Hillmann and Jon Phipps, Metadata Management Associates; Deborah Fritz and Richard Fritz, TMQ; and James Hennelly, ALA and the RDA Toolkit.)