ACCESS: Not Just Wires

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Date: Fri, 4 Nov 94 16:10:46 PST
From: Karen Coyle <[email protected]>

*   Copyright Karen Coyle, 1994      *
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* with this statement included.      *
* For any commercial use, or         *
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* journals), you must obtain the     *
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*   [email protected]              *

ACCESS: Not Just Wires
By 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 I 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 of 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

>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 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

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:

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 collocate 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" its user.

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 inforamtion world. So in the
whole elaborate scheme, no one is responsbile for the collection of

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
Darwinianism? 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

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 vocaubulary 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
childrens' 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-existant .

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. Dissemination: 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 5 million items from their collection.
Then what ? How do they think we are going to make use of those

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.

In conclusion:

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....

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