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Beyond books: Virginia Tech libraries in the digital age


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 27, 2007 – A fisherman catches something he can't identify. He photographs it with his cell phone, sends the image to a database, and is able to identify what's in his boat--all before going ashore, where he can use a tablet PC to show the results to his friends and family.

The technology to make such identifications is being developed in a project on archiving digital images led by Virginia Tech computer science Professor Edward A. Fox, working with fisheries and wildlife science Department Head Eric M. Hallerman and Professor Ricardo da Silva Torres of the Institute of Computing at the University of Campinas, Brazil.

Fox, who is director of both the Digital Library Research Laboratory and the Networked Digital Library of Theses and Dissertations, is using a variety of digital technologies to allow people to store and retrieve information in new, ever more accessible ways.

His work has drawn the attention, and financial support, of Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Sun Microsystems, among others. Both Microsoft and Google have donated money to Virginia Tech this year specifically to support research overseen by Fox.

Microsoft is funding the project described above, which in the short term could benefit anglers or scientists who study fish, and down the road could lead to a whole new way of searching for information based on visual clues. Fish were chosen as a test subject because their telltale fins can convey identifiable information even if the entire animal is not visible, Fox said.

A separate, Google-funded project in which Fox is involved has grown out of the dissertation work of Ryan Richardson, who remains at Virginia Tech as a postdoctoral associate. Their project has the potential to make it easier for scholars to sift though the hundreds of thousands of pages of dissertations in their fields to find the particular information they need for their own work.

Online dissertation archives have made it easier for academics to find information, but the process is not perfect. Dissertations are discovered and selected based on the information in their abstracts, but those are mere summaries of lengthier works.

It's quite possible that a researcher might overlook a chapter that had relevant information inside it but which is not discussed in the abstract, Richardson explained.

To address that problem, Richardson has developed a program that creates graphical concept maps of the information inside theses, dissertations, or other books. Along with giving a more accurate representation of the information inside the manuscript, Richardson said, organizing dissertation information into concept maps makes it easier to use translation programs to search through papers in other languages.

Fox describes his research as helping to reduce barriers to sharing information—a way of realizing the ancient mission of the library in new ways—through technology.

"Books came about to help person to person communication span space and time," Fox said. "We're still doing the same thing. We're getting people to communicate. It's a fundamental thing. I don't think it will ever go away."

At higher-education institutions, research like that done by Fox is often advanced with private support from corporations like Microsoft and Google. Increasing the amount of such support at Virginia Tech is one of the major goals of a $1 billion fundraising campaign that was launched Oct. 20.

With a total goal of $1 billion, The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future marks a new era in private fundraising for the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The campaign's funding priorities target five goals: academic excellence, the undergraduate experience, research facilities, Virginia Tech and the community, and the President's Discovery Fund, a pool of unrestricted funds.



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