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Why librarians should rule the Net
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- Subject: Why librarians should rule the Net
- From: Richard Boyden <email@example.com>
- Date: Fri, 20 Sep 1996 08:37:19 -0400
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- Sender: owner-bap@lists.Stanford.EDU
FYI, here is an interesting article forwarded from the LIBRARY listserv:
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Vol 1, No. 4
SEPTEMBER 5, 1996
WHY LIBRARIANS SHOULD RULE THE NET
-- by R. Anders Schneiderman, PhD., email@example.com
A recent article in Business Week, "Has The Net Hit The Wall, "
complained that it is harder and harder to find anything on the Net.
One solution that holds great promise, they said, is using artificial
intelligence to catalog the web.
Meanwhile, back at the lab, scientists were finding it was easier
said than done. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications
(NCSA), the people who brought us the first popular software for
creating and browsing the World Wide Web, tackled a relatively small
collection of documents (ten million abstracts from an engineering
library). But even this small set overwhelmed their powerful workstation
computers; eventually, they had to run their programs on a massive
supercomputer for four days.
NCSA's experience is a good reminder of one of the central
problems with the Internet. Most of us think of libraries as quaint,
antiquated places, home of "Marian the Librarian." The reality is that
librarians have a lot to offer the Information Age. Librarians have been
managing complex information for over two hundred years. If we were
smart, we'd let librarians rule the Net.
Let's start with the issue of searching. Until recently, computer
scientists argued that the best way to search for information on the web
was by using keyword searching: you type in a word or two and the
computer searches documents for them. But keyword searching often
fails miserably. If I'm interested in poems about love, what do I search
If I simply searched for "love," I would miss many famous love poems.
I'm interested in housing policy, I have the opposite problem: there is no
easy way to distinguish between government housing policy, campus
dorm housing policy, ads for housing, and detailed housing codes.
Clearly, keyword searching isn't enough; information needs to be
As librarians know from years of experience, cataloging information
is a tricky business. If I'm interested in information about ancient
Egypt, the kind of information I'd want to search can differ greatly. A
child, an adult who wants a quick overview, an Egyptologist, and an
anthropologist have very different needs. And as NCSA learned the
hard way, computers aren't very good at cataloging information even
when the information, in the case of engineering, is already quite
If we're going to catalog the web, people will have to do the bulk of the
Given how quickly the Web grew, no system of cataloging would
have worked perfectly. But if librarians had been in charge, they would
have insisted that that every web author have access to simple
programs that helped them briefly catalog any document or collection of
documents they put up on the web. That way, every document would
have at least been identified by author, title, date, and a subject heading
according to at least one standard schema of catagorization. It wouldn't
have been as accurate as standard library card catalogs, but it would
have given us a fighting chance of finding the information we really need
no matter how vast the Web becomes.
There are a number of similar issues where librarians would have
saved us from pain and suffering. For example, one of the really
irritating aspects of the web is that if someone moves their web, there is
no easy way to find it. This is because it never occurred to the web's
creators that documents might move and so they didn't put in a way to
keep track of them. Nor did it occur to them that some system of
collaboration was needed to ensure that if the owner of a frequently
used web site could no longer provide access (e.g., because they had
left a university where they could freely house the site) another web site
would house the collection. As a result, extremely valuable information
sometimes disappears off the web without a trace. Librarians have
spent years handling these and other complex problems that arise when
managing large archives of information over time, and their experience
would have been invaluable if computer scientists had been smart
enough to use it.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of having computer scientists,
rather than librarians, rule the Net is a result of the differences between
the cultures of these two professions. Both believe in providing
information for free, but they do so using very different methods.
Computer programmers operate by what we might call the
"Treehouse" ethic of sharing. The Net contains a wealth of computer
resources--programming languages, programs, Frequently Answered
(FAQ) lists--that are free for the taking. But at the same time, there is no
sense that everyone should have the right to join the club. In fact,
programmers often have a certain amount of disdain for those who can't
play by their rules.
Computer culture is also laced with the attitude of, "I'll do what
I want and tough luck if you don't like it." The people deciding whose
needs get served by software that's given away for free are, for the
most part, programmers who are fortunate enough to have the time and
the freedom to putter around (the people, as a friend who's a secretary
pointed out, who do not have to worry about having their keystrokes
monitored at work or having to change diapers at home). As a result, the
Internet tends to be driven by their desire for the coolest toys rather than
by the needs of most people.
Libraries, in contrast, are built around the idea that they need to
serve everyone. Instead of focusing on the latest toys, they focus on
resources that everyone will be able to use, and they strongly believe in
ensuring universal access. In short, libraries are based on a culture that
says that knowledge and information must be available to everyone if our
democracy is to survive. Computer science types occasionally make
grandiose statements about helping humanity; librarians actually try to do
Unfortunately, far from being in charge of the rapidly expanding
Net, libraries and librarians are simply struggling to survive. While the
Federal government pours millions into questionable experiments with
"digital libraries," funding for libraries continues to suffer.
The Net also poses a direct threat to libraries though the battle over
"fair use." Libraries work because they are allowed to freely lend out
books and other items they have purchased. However, on the World
Wide Web, if you make one copy freely available, you've essentially
made millions of free copies. Not surprisingly, the publishing industry
wants to radically restrict "fair use," outlawing making any freely
available copies. Some of the industry's favorite proposals are probably
unworkable, as they would essentially make web surfing illegal: some
go so far as to define viewing a web page as "copying." But even some
of the more moderate proposals could devastate libraries' ability to serve
the public as more and more information moves online (an issue we'll
cover in more detail in a future E-NODE column).
In the long run, the only way the Net will rise to its true potential is if
librarians become an integral part of the discussion of the
Net's future. In the meantime, we need to fight to make sure that
libraries survive and thrive in the new Information Age, and we need to
start giving librarians the respect they are due.
Special thanks to Karen Coyle, UC Librarian and head of the Berkeley
Chapter for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR).
Karen is one of the smartest people around on issues related to libraries,
information, and the Net, and she's responsible for completely changing
my understanding of what libraries are all about. To learn more, visit her
web site at http://www.dla.ucop.edu/~kec/. You can also check her out
in the latest issue of HotWired.
ENODE: to loose, untie a knot; to solve a riddle.
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