14 November 2001



Exploring the Library Metaphor in Developing a More Inclusive NSDI

By Professor Harlan J. Onsrud

Department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering and National Center for Geographic Information & Analysis


We need to explore in much greater depth the ability and willingness of data holders to make spatial datasets available through library-like operational environments defined by contractual arrangements. The term "library" is intended as a metaphor in this context to describe an institutional arrangement under which the rights and obligations of spatial data collectors, archivists, disseminators and users are well defined through contract language and any organization choosing to bind themselves to the specified rights and obligations may join the arrangement.


A "chaordic" organization approach has been suggested in the U.S. as an appropriate means to rapidly populate the NSDI with data from multiple sources and to make spatial data and services far more accessible and useful to larger numbers of potential users. Chaordic organizations have the characteristics of allowing structure, people, and practices to continuously evolve in pursuit of their purposes (chaos) while, in a narrow band of activity essential to the success of the whole, they engage in the most intense cooperation (order). (Dee Hoc) The chaordic relationship is ultimately defined by binding operating agreements to which all parties choosing to participate must abide.

The problem with the approach as discussed to date within the NSDI/GSDI context is that the only chaordic model held up as being operational and "successful" is one based almost exclusively on a marketplace model. The implication is that if the NSDI or GSDI are to accommodate this model, society must move to treating data, information, and knowledge primarily as commodities. Yet other values and policies are at stake. Data, information, and knowledge are critical to learning, communicating, and supporting democratic processes. To treat them primarily as commodities harms other valuable societal functions of information. In addition, unlike money or consumable goods, data, information and knowledge possess the classic characteristics of "public goods" which makes them very difficult to manage through a marketplace or e-commerce model.

The "library system" is a far more appropriate chaordic model to explore relative to possible future directions for the GSDI and as a means for providing incentives to data collectors to document their spatial datasets. Libraries as a system have almost all of the characteristics of a chaordic organization and yet the library system supports strong public goods, access and equity principles while fully protecting the intellectual property rights of authors and publishers. The library system also fully engages and depends upon the private sector and government to provide the content that it shares or otherwise disseminates.

A major difference between a typical nation's library system and its evolving NSDI is that authors have sufficient incentives to produce traditional books and maps and make them available through the library system while incentives to make spatial datasets available are lacking. The incentive structure involves both technical and legal framework issues. It should be noted that direct monetary incentives are often not a motivating factor or are a very minor one for most scholars and others whose intellectual works are made available through the traditional library system. Thus, although the marketplace is one factor, one should not assume that monetary reward will be the primary incentive for encouraging most parties to make their spatial data available through an NSDI. This is a very different situation from the VISA chaord. Libraries (and typically GIS operations) were not created and are not supported in our communities because of marketplace dynamics. Libraries are supported by communities because of their direct and visible benefits to the public. Arrangements between libraries, such as for shared cataloging and interlibrary loan, are defined by contractual "charters" which any library may typically join. Yet the charters are not "one size fits all." Equity and fairness principles are supported such that small libraries are able to contribute in other ways than large libraries (e.g. often contributing labor rather than cash, cataloging local collections that otherwise would not enter the system, etc.) and thereby all libraries gain from the process. The library as a social institution is without a doubt the most successful data, information, and knowledge sharing chaordic institution the world has known. If the NSDI community desires to emulate another chaordic institution, the library would be a much better model than any chaordic model defined primarily by marketplace dynamics.

Having said this, the balance of laws has become skewed in electronic library environments due to rapid technological advances and the inability of lawmaking to keep pace. One way to reestablish a balance that would provide sufficient incentives for producers to make works available within NSDIs is through a set of operating agreements to which all parties taking advantage of the system might bind themselves.

If a binding contract approach is to be pursued, I believe the focus of working groups should be on exploring the conditions under which incentives could be sufficient to allow a wide range of spatial data producers from across the globe at many levels to make their works available through electronic library-like arrangements while maintaining substantial access, use, and equity rights for users. Stated another way, we should explore the extent to which the library as a chaordic organization has lessons to offer for allowing the NSDI and GSDI to become far more useful for their potential users. I envision that the types of agreements to be explored and developed might ultimately be similar in nature to those that currently establish the frameworks within which libraries worldwide develop, exchange and share resources.