Karen Coyle, University of California, Library Automation
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility/Berkeley Chapter

** This is the written version of a talk given at the
         1994 CPSR Annual meeting in San Diego, CA, on Oct. 8. **

I have to admit that I'm really sick and tired of the Information
Highway.  I feel like I've already heard so much about it that it must
be come and gone already, yet there is no sign of it.  This is truly a
piece of federal vaporware.

I am a librarian, and it's especially strange to have dedicated much
of your life to the careful tending of our current information
infrastructure, our libraries, only to wake up one morning to find that
the entire economy of the nation depends on making information
commercially viable. There's an element of Twilight Zone about this
because libraries are probably our most underfunded and underappreciated
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 find a new basis for our economy.
I'm pretty sure I'm not going to like the way information is treated in
that economy.  We know what kind of information sells, and what doesn't.
So I see our future as being a mix of highly expensive economic reports
and cheap online versions of the National Inquirer.  Not a pretty picture.

This is a panel on "access."  But I am not going to talk about access
from the usual point of view of physical or electronic access to the
FutureNet.  Instead I am going to talk about intellectual access to
materials and the quality of our information infrastructure, with the
emphasis on "information." Information is a social good and part of our
"social responsibility" is that we must take this resource seriously.

From the early days of our being a species with consciousness of its
own history, some part of society has had the role of preserving this
history:  priests, learned scholars, archivists. Information was valued;
valued enough to be denied to some members of society; to be part of the
ritual of belonging to an elite.

So I find it particularly puzzling that as we move into this new
"information age" that our efforts are focused on the machinery of the
information system, while the electronic information itself is being
treated like just so much more flotsam and jetsam; this is not a
democratization of information, but a devaluation of information.

On the Internet, many electronic information sources that we are
declaring worthy of "universal access" are administered by part-time
volunteers; graduate students who do eventually graduate, or network
hobbyists.  Resources come and go without notice, or languish after an
initial effort and rapidly become out of date.  Few network information
resources have specific and reliable funding for the future.  As a
telecommunications system the Internet is both modern and mature;
as an information system the Internet is an amateur operation.

Commercial information resources, of course, are only interested in
information that provides revenue.  This immediately eliminates the
entire cultural heritage of poetry, playwriting, and theological
thought, among others.

If we value our intellectual heritage, and if we truly believe that
access to information (and that broader concept, knowledge) is a valid
social goal, we have to take our information resources seriously.  Now
I know that libraries aren't perfect institutions. They tend to be
somewhat slow-moving and conservative in their embrace of new
technologies; and some seem more bent on hoarding than disseminating
information.  But what we call "modern librarianship" has over a century
of experience in being the tender of this society's information resources.
And in the process of developing and managing that resource, the library
profession has understood its responsibilities in both a social and
historical context.  Drawing on that experience, I am going to give you
a short lesson on social responsibilities in an information society.

Here are some of our social responsibilities in relation to information:
collection, selection, preservation, organization, and dissemination.


It is not enough to passively gather in whatever information comes your
way, like a spider waiting on its web.  Information collection is an
activity, and an intelligent activity.  It is important to collect and
collate information units that support, complement, and even contradict
each other.  A collection has a purpose and a context; it says something
about the information and it says something about the gatherer of that
information.  It is not random, because information itself is not
random, and humans do not produce information in a random fashion.

Too many Internet sites today are a terrible hodge-podge, with little
intellectual purpose behind their holdings.  It isn't surprising that
visitors to these sites have a hard time seeing the value of the
information contained therein.  Commercial systems, on the other hand,
have no incentive to provide an intellectual balance that might
"confuse" their users.

In all of the many papers that have come out of discussion of the
National Information Infrastructure, it is interesting that there is no
mention of collecting information:  there is no Library of Congress or
National Archive of the electronic information world. So in the whole
elaborate scheme, no one is responsible for the collection of information.


Not all information is equal.  This doesn't mean that some of it should
be thrown away, though inevitably there is some waste in the information
world.  And this is not in support of censorship. But there's a difference
between a piece on nuclear physics by a Nobel laureate and a physics
diorama entered into a science fair by an 8-year-old.  And there's a
difference between alpha release .03 and beta 1.2 of a software package.
If we can't differentiate between these, our intellectual future looks
grim indeed.

Certain sources become known for their general reliability, their
timeliness, etc.  We have to make these judgments because the sheer
quantity of information is too large for us to spend our time with
lesser works 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 the users of a body of knowledge.
The process of selection overlaps with our concept of education, where
members of our society are directed to a particular body of knowledge
that we hold to be key to our understanding 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 measure to what we lose if we do not
preserve things systematically?  If we can't preserve it all, at least
in one safely archived copy, are we going to make decisions about
preservation, or will we leave it up to a kind of information Darwinism?
As we know, the true value of some information may not be immediately
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 struggled through myriad gopher menus, FTP
sites, and web pages looking for something that we know is there but
cannot find.

There is no ideal organization of information, but no organization is no
ideal either.  The organization that exists today in terms of finding
tools is an attempt to impose order over an unorganized body.  The human
mind in its information seeking behavior is a much more complex question
than can be answered with a keyword search in an unorganized information
universe.  When we were limited to card catalogs and the placement of
physical items on shelves, we essentially had to choose only one way to
organize our information.  Computer systems should allow us to create a
multiplicity of organization schemes for the same information, from
traditional classification, that relies on hierarchies and categories,
to faceted schemes, relevance ranking and feedback, etc.

Unfortunately, documents do not define themselves.  The idea of doing
WAIS-type keyword searching on the vast store of textual documents on
the Internet is a folly.  Years of study of term frequency, co-occurrence,
and other statistical techniques have proven that keyword searching is a
passable solution for some disciplines with highly specific vocabularies
and nearly useless in all others.  And, of course, the real trick is to
match the vocabulary of the seeker of information with that of the
information resource.  Keyword searching not only doesn't take into
account different terms for the same concepts, it doesn't take into
account materials in other languages or different user levels (i.e.,
searching for children will probably need to be different than searching
done by adults, and libraries actually use different subject access
schemes for children's materials).  And non-textual items (software,
graphics, sound) do not respond at all to keyword searching.

There is no magical, effortless way to create an organization for
information; at least today the best tools are a clearly defined
classification scheme and a human indexer.  At least a classification
scheme or 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 we can't find the information we need, it doesn't
matter if it exists or not.  If we don't find it, we don't encounter it,
then it isn't information.  There are undoubtedly millions of bytes of
files on the Net that for all practical purposes are non-existent.

My biggest fear in relation to the Information Highway is that
intellectual organization and access will be provided by the commercial
world as a value-added service.  So the materials will exist, even at an
affordable price, but it will cost real money to make use of the tools
that will make it possible for you to find the information you need.
If we don't provide these finding tools as part of the public resource,
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 electronic library, and probably much of it ends
up on paper.  Most of us agree that for anything longer than a
one-screen email message, we'd much rather read documents off a paper
page than off a screen.  While we can hope that screen technologies will
eventually produce something that truly substitutes for paper, this
isn't true today.  So what happens with all of those electronic works
that we're so eager to store and make available?  Do we reverse the
industrial revolution and return printing of documents to a cottage
industry taking place in homes, offices and libraries?

Many people talk about their concerns for the "last mile"--for the
delivery of information into every home.  I'm concerned about the last
yard.  We can easily move information from one computer to another, but
how do we get it from the computer to the human being in the proper
format?  Not all information is suited to electronic use.  Think of the
auto repair manuals that you drag under the car and drip oil on.  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 five million items from their collection.
Then what?  How do they think we are going to make use of those materials?

There are times when I can only conclude that we have been gripped by
some strange madness.  I have fantasies of kidnapping the entire
membership of the administration's IITF committees and tying them down
in front of 14" screens with really bad flicker and forcing them to read
the whole of Project Gutenberg's electronic 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 access.  And commercial information systems can be expected to be

   *  Copyright Karen Coyle, 1994                                  *
   *                                                               *
   *  This document may be circulated freely on the Net with this  *
   *  statement included.  For any commercial use, or publication  *
   *  (including electronic journals), you must obtain the         *
   *  permission of the author .              *

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Reprinted by permission. Etext ©1995 Robert Szarka
Last Update: 03 Feb 1995