The more I learn about the potential of Linked Data, the more I am convinced that Linked Data’s biggest payoff for scholarship will be that it will rationalize and democratize a certain kind of scholarly serendipity. The scholarly value of serendipity usually comes up in discussions of browsing, and in calls for maintaining large, open, physical collections of library materials.
Scholarly serendipity generally involves the unexpected discovery of some connection among people, places, things, or concepts that others have not yet discovered.
Serendipity, by its nature, is unpredictable, time-consuming and elitist. One pictures the mythical lone humanities scholar prowling the stacks, sifting through piles of archival material, chatting with librarians, archivists and other colleagues, all the while (perhaps unconsciously) hoping something she reads, hears, or sees triggers the realization of a here-to-for unknown connection. Linked Data will speed up that process by exposing the relationships between entities on the open web. Linked Data will also make the process more rational, as the relationships in a Linked Data environment are transparent, replicable, and based on explicit factual connections between entities.
Following links in a linked data environment will not only make serendipity more efficient, but also more democratic. In the current information environment, access to the resources and the time needed to make the kinds of serendipitous discoveries that drive scholarship is distributed unequally, with many key scholarly resources available only to scholars at elite institutions. In an Open Linked Data environment, the relationships between entities are exposed to all. For example, the connection between Buckminster Fuller and the Monterey Jazz Festival is currently discoverable only to those with access to both of those archives at Stanford, plus access to the other archives and materials that make up the connecting chain, plus the time to wade through all of them. That particular chain of connections, and any number of other chains of connections, can now be exposed to all once each relationship in that chain is published as an RDF statement in an Open Linked Data environment.
While some might flinch at the idea of making scholarship (especially humanities scholarship) more efficient, I am convinced that every time technology makes some part of the scholarly process more efficient, it frees us up to spend time and brain power on more complex tasks that can’t be accomplished by technology alone. I am convinced that Google did not kill library reference, but instead freed librarians up to provide more in-depth research consultation. I am similarly convinced that the realization of an Open Linked Data environment will free up much of the time and brain-power that scholars currently use on the time-consuming and unpredictable quest for serendipity, enabling them to devote increased attention and thought to interpreting those connections in new and creative ways that advance our understandings and appreciations of the world.