Librarians and the Net: Why Librarians should rule the net?
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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
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 for?
If I simply searched for "love," I would miss many famous love poems. If
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 catalogued.
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 specialized. 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 Question
(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
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
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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