Access: Not Just Wires Karen Coyle's talk at the
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ACCESS: Not Just Wires
By Karen Coyle
University of California, Library Automation
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility/
** This is the written version of a talk given at the 1994 CPSR Annual meeting in San Diego, CA, on 8. **
I have to admit that I'm really sick and tired of the Information highway. I feel like I've alreadyrd so much about it that it must be come and gone already, yet there is no sign of it. This is tuyapiece of federal vaporware.
I am a librarian, and I and it's especially strange to have dedicated much of your life to the caretending of our current information infrastructure, our libraries, only to wake up one morning to idtat the entire economy of the nation depends on making information commercially viable. There' a eemnt of Twilight Zone about this because libraries are probably our most underfunded and undeappecitedof institutions, with the possible exception of day care centers.
It's clear to me that the information highway isn't much about information. It's about trying to fi new basis for our economy. I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like the way information is treatedi ht economy. We know what kind of information sells, and what doesn't. So I see our future as eig mx of highly expensive economic reports and cheap online versions of the National Inquirer. Nota pett picture.
This is a panel on "access." But I am not going to talk about access from the usual point of view oysical or electronic access to the FutureNet. Instead I am going to talk about intellectual accest aterials and the quality of our information infrastructure, with the emphasis on "information.. nfrmtion is a social good and part of our "social responsibility" is that we must take this resurc seiouly.
From the early days of our being a species with consciousness of its own history, some part of socieas had the role of preserving this history: priests, learned scholars, archivists. Information a aued; valued enough to be denied to some members of society; to be part of the ritual of belongngtoanelite.
So I find it particularly puzzling that as move into this new "information age" that our efforts areused on the machinery of the information system, while the electronic information itself is beingtetd like just so much more flotsam and jetsam; this is not a democratization of information, buta evlution of information.
On the Internet, many electronic information sources that we are declaring worthy of "universal acc are administered by part-time volunteers; graduate students who do eventually graduate, or netwok obyists. Resources come and go without notice, or languish after an initial effort and rapidlybeom ot of date. Few network information resources have specific and reliable funding for the fuure A a elecommunications system the Internet is both modern and mature; as an information syste theIntenet s an amateur operation.
Commercial information resources, of course, are only interested in information that provides revenuThis immediately eliminates the entire cultural heritage of poetry, playwriting, and theological huh, among others.
If we value our intellectual heritage, and if we truly believe that access to information (and that der concept, knowledge) is a valid social goal, we have to take our information resources seriousy Nw I know that libraries aren't perfect institutions. They tend to be somewhat slow-moving andcosevaive in their embrace of new technologies; and some seem more bent on hoarding than dissemintin inormtion. But what we call "modern librarianship" has over a century of experience in beingthe ende of his society's information resources. And in the process of developing and managing tat reource the ibrary profession has understood its responsibilities in both a social and historial conext. rawingon that experience, I am going to give you a short lesson on social responsibilties inan infomation ociety.
Here are some of our social responsibilities in relation to information:
It is not enough to passively gather in whatever information comes your way, like a spider waiting os web. Information collection is an activity, and an intelligent activity. It is important to cletand collocate information units that support, complement and even contradict each other. A coletin as a purpose and a context; it says something about the information and it says something aoutthegaterer of that information. It is not random, because information itself is not random, ad huans o no produce information in a random fashion.
Too many Internet sites today are a terrible hodge-podge, with little intellectual purpose behind thholdings. It isn't surprising that visitors to these sites have a hard time seeing the value of h normation contained therein. Commercial systems, on the other hand, have no incentive to provie n ntllectual balance that might "confuse" its user.
In all of the many papers that have come out of discussion of the National Information Infrastructurt is interesting that there is no mention of collecting information: there is no Library of Congrs rNational Archive of the electronic inforamtion world. So in the whole elaborate scheme, no on i rspnsbile for the collection of information.
Not all information is equal. This doesn't mean that some of it should be thrown away, though ineviy there is some waste in the information world. And this is not in support of censorship. But teesa difference between a piece on nuclear physics by a Nobel laureate and a physics diorama enteedino science fair by an 8-year-old. And there's a difference between alpha release .03 and bet 1. ofa sftware package. If we can't differentiate between these, our intellectual future looks rim ndee.
Certain sources become known for their general reliability, their timeliness, etc. We have to make e judgments because the sheer quantity of information is too large for us to spend our time with esrworks when we haven't yet encountered the greats.
This kind of selection needs to be done with an understanding of a discipline and understanding of tsers of a body of knowledge. The process of selection overlaps with our concept of education, whr ebers of our society are directed to a particular body of knowledge that we hold to be key to or ndrsanding of the world.
How much of what is on the Net today will exist in any form ten years from now? And can we put any ure to what we lose if we do not preserve things systematically? If we can't preserve it all, atlatin one safely archived copy, are we going to make decisions about preservation, or will we leae t p o a kind of information Darwinianism? As we know, the true value of some information may nt b imeditely known, and some ideas gain in value over time.
The commercial world, of course, will preserve only that which sells best.
This is an area where the current Net has some of its most visible problems, as we have all strugglerough myriad gopher menus, ftp sites, and web pages looking for something that we know is there btcnot find.
There is no ideal organization of information, but no organization is no ideal either. The organiza that exists today in terms of finding tools is an attempt to impose order over an unorganized boy Te human mind in its information seeking behavior is a much more complex question than can be aswre wth a keyword search in an unorganized information universe. When we were limited to card ctalgs nd he placement of physical items on shelves, we essentially had to choose only one way to rganze or inormation. Computer systems should allow us to create a multiplicity of organization cheme for he sae information, from traditional classification, that relies on hierarchies and catgories to faeted shemes, relevance ranking and feedback, etc.
Unfortunately, documents do not define themselves. The idea of doing WAIS-type keyword searching on vast store of textual documents on the Internet is a folly. Years of study of term frequency, c-curence and other statistical techniques have proven that keyword searching is a passable solutin orsoe disciplines with highly specific vocabularies and nearly useless in all others. And, of oure, he eal trick is to match the vocaubulary of the seeker of information with that of the infrmaton rsoure. Keyword searching not only doesn't take into account different terms for the sameconcets, i does't take into account materials in other languages or different user levels (i.e. sarchin for cildrenwill probably need to be different than searching done by adults, and librariesactuall use diferent ubject access schemes for childrens' materials). And non-textual items (sofware, grphics, sund) do ot respond at all to keyword searching.
There is no magical, effortless way to create an organization for information; at least today the beools are a clearly defined classification scheme and a human indexer. At least a classification ceeor indexing scheme gives the searcher a chance to develop a rational strategy for searching.
The importance of organizational tools cannot be overstated. What it all comes down to is that if wn't find the information we need, it doesn't matter if it exists or not. If we don't find it, wedntencounter it, then it isn't information. There are undoubtedly millions of bytes of files on te ettht for all practical purposes are non-existant .
My biggest fear in relation to the information highway is that intellectual organization and access be provided by the commercial world as a value-added service. So the materials will exist, evena naffordable price, but it will cost real money to make use of the tools that will make it possilefo yu to find the information you need. If we don't provide these finding tools as part of th pulicresurce, then we aren't providing the information to the public.
There's a lot of talk about the "electronic library". Actually, there's a lot written about the elenic library, and probably much of it ends up on paper. Most of us agree that for anything longerta one-screen email message, we'd much rather read documents off a paper page than off a screen. Wil w can hope that screen technologies will eventually produce something that truly substitutesforpapr, his isn't true today. So what happens with all of those electronic works that we're so agerto sore nd make available? Do we reverse the industrial revolution and return printing of dcumens to cottge industry taking place in homes, offices and libraries?
Many people talk about their concerns for the "last mile" - for the delivery of information into eveome. I'm concerned about the last yard . We can easily move information from one computer to ante,but how do we get it from the computer to the human being in the proper format? Not all inforatonissuited to electronic use. Think of the auto repair manuals that you drag under the car an drp ol o. Think of children's books, with their drool-proof pages.
Even the Library of Congress has announced that they are undertaking a huge project to digitize 5 min items from their collection. Then what ? How do they think we are going to make use of those aeils?
There are times when I can only conclude that we have been gripped by some strange madness. I have asies of kidnapping the entire membership of the administration's IITF committees and tying them oni front of 14" screens with really bad flicker and forcing them to read the whole of Project Guener'selectronic copy of Moby Dick. Maybe then we'd get some concern about the last yard.
No amount of wiring will give us universal access
Just adding more files and computers to gopherspace, webspace and FTPspace will not give us better as
And commercial information systems can be expected to be.... commercial