Porter Anderson meets Laura Dawson

Porter Anderson meets Laura Dawson

One of the leading go-to people in our industry, Laura Dawson has a lot of nicknames.

As Bowker's director of identifier services - and alternate director of the board of directors of the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI - rhymes with "Disney") - she's a mainstay of conference panels and sometimes called Bowker's "data queen" or "metadata maven."

My favorite for her is Madame Defarge. I tagged her that way years ago at an O'Reilly Tools of Change conference where I discovered her knitting caps through day-long rounds of publishing sessions (and angst) at the Sheraton on W. 53rd and Seventh in New York.

Taking on Bowker's SelfPublishedAuthor.com programme for writers amid myriad other duties, Dawson has a dizzying list of specialities (metadata, ontologies, taxonomies, semantic tagging, identification schema). She was a founding member of the ONIX Committee, holds a seat on the BISAC Metadata Committee...she's on the planes, in other words.

But she started almost 30 years ago as an editorial assistant at Doubleday before becoming assistant manager at the Fifth Avenue Barnes & Noble flagship store.

In short, this is a bookseller who now knits together a keen concern for our book culture and its people with a resilient fondness for the struggle to define and categorize that culture in digital terms.

Last week, she made an unscheduled appearance in Kristen McLean's metadata session at Writer's Digest's Annual Conference in New York. She took over from McLean (of Bookigee and Nielsen), to face a room of conferees who wore that stark-staring look of mild desperation you always see after a metadata presentation. For authors, it can be a hard question, which would make them leap from a 10th story window first? -- marketing or metadata?

Dawson's message to the data-shocked, however, was hopeful. You could catch it in her presentation title, "Into the Stratosphere." And in parsing the whole business into 140-character chunks of data called tweets with her for #PorterMeets, I asked Dawson to explain to us what the whole overall goal of publishing's metadata really is. She told me that new initiatives in data organization and deployment and adoption are meant to create almost a parallel universe to our world of books:







If successful over the next half-decade or so, Dawson and colleagues in many parts of the world will have built and orchestrated a series of machine languages, if you will, that can map the categorization and retail data of publishing's booming output in ways that will walk right through language barriers as if they didn't exist. A mom and pop bookshop in Peoria will be able to pull up the same sturdy, clean, rich data about a book that the mightiest servers in Seattle might find.



Where all this might lead us some day is not simply to better-looking sales pages for books online and more accurate handling of details about our books in catalogs, but toward the dream of many potentials, often captured in the phrase "the networked book." It's a purposely amorphous idea -- to allow development naturally -- of a "book" that no longer walks like a book nor talks like a book as we know it, but lives in cloud-connected dimensions of linked information and shared intelligence.

And getting there, Dawson tells us -- echoing Brian O'Leary's construct of an "architecture of collaboration" -- requires us to achieve something we don't have yet, not widely, anyway: "structured content."


Not only must we harness great asteroids of confused, tangled, crazy data, but we also have to bring bookishness closer to webbiness. What on Earth have I just written? Dawson says it better:




This is where one of the innovations she's talking about comes in -- the work of an outfit called W3C, the digital publishing interest group.





Our #PorterMeets conversation went over several more innovations which, if all goes well, will converge in the future in content-structuring harmony to start making sense out of a lot of current chaos. There's the ISNI, for example. Not unlike the ISBN, which identifies a book. But in this case, the ID is for the author, the creator of a work.



That got the attention of Kate Pullinger, the Canadian-born, London-based "digital author" who has just helmed the Letter to an Unknown Soldier World War I commemoration, and is not only a novelist and transmedia producer but also a Bath Spa University professor and opera librettist.







Dawson, so "currently her," also told us about Thema, a mapping system that takes BISAC coding (categorisation for books at retail) into international settings:


And ramping up alongside Thema is Schema.org:







Once more, mapping comes into play with Schema, as a means of speeding and automating the translation of one body of information to another:





We're about five years, Dawson estimates, from "having Schema/ONIX fully implemented. The rest depends on business decisions" which will guide how readily the various corporate players in publishing adopt the new standards and structuring of content.


And, as she always does, Dawson reminds us that the human touch? -- will not be lost in all this heady "stratospheric" manipulation and movement of data.

That's because at some point, there's always the initial input, the starting stuff, the moment that somebody on a keyboard must hit the right keys to put the right info into play in this planet-spanning dance of data. A typo can be replicated into the ages, a bad spelling can send endless searches off to Neptune...and yet we have this tradition of entrusting such elementally important tasks to workers who may not be fully prepared or conditioned for it: