Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Bernard Naylor: At the Eye of the Internet Storm

Bernard Naylor, the University Librarian at the University of Southampton, describes the information hurricane that is battering the world of Libraries.

It seems such a short time ago since it was low on the horizon. It was still difficult, then, to be sure the seascape was changing. The burgeoning expansion of electronic communication had small beginnings in the late '60s and '70s with automated library in-house systems and online database searching. Even as recently as three years ago, we were still arguing about those minor tropical storms called Archie, Gopher, Veronica and WAIS. Now, World Wide Web stands massively higher than the other technologies, the defining symptom and possibly the continuing cause and focal point of an information hurricane. Will World Wide Web still dominate the librarian's vision five years from now? It would be a brave person who would confidently bet that it would not have been succeeded by some further and even more defining statement of the technology. Even if it has, by then, become just a part of the history of the technology of information communication, we can be sure that the wind of change will still be blowing strong in the librarian's world.

Out there on the ocean, when the wind blows stronger, there Stormy waters pictureare some sailing ships that head for harbour, whether from timidity or following a shrewd appraisal of their own seaworthiness. Others, however, go looking for the eye of the storm, some prompted by foolhardiness, but others knowing that where the wind blows the strongest, the fastest passages are made. There is so much apocalyptic talk among librarians about the meaning of the Internet for the future of libraries. At the same time, there are plenty of courageous spirits among us whose nostrils are flaring at the smell of opportunity. We need to take a closer and more considered look at this new primal force to see whether a better understanding will help more of us to confront the threat more wisely or even seize the opportunity more forthrightly.

Something seems to have happened in volume terms. In the late '80s, the then Bibliographic Services Division of the British Library was warning us that we could be submerged by the growing flood of published literature. The graph recording titles published annually seemed to be pushing inexorably towards the 100,000 a year mark and beyond. Maybe it still is. The potential of desktop publishing threatened to burst that barrier quicker and more decisively. Now the stories of exponential growth are all about the World Wide Web, its connected terminals numbered in increasing millions, its information resources already beyond counting. I used to be confident about the practical limits on human intellectual creativity; how could we read or write much more, since no miracle could possibly multiply the hours of our lives? I'm less confident now.

What the Web has done is to merge two territories of communication. Once, I talked with my friends in a small enclosure, but had to enter the great terrain of print on paper to communicate my thoughts more widely. Now every immediate thought can be shared with the world almost as easily as with the local barman. The fear of being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity is an atavistic one, but Malthus wasn't entirely right (nor entirely wrong for that matter).

It was said in the '60s that Chemical Abstracts was growing so fast that, in the early twenty-first century, the annual quantity of its umpteen copies would weigh more than the whole world, but over time that remarkable threat to the basic laws of physics seems to have reached a compromise with reality. So let's all breathe deeply and slowly and reassure one another that we, and this startling electronic fecundity, will probably come to terms gradually, just as happened in the centuries following the eclipse of the scriptoria by Gutenberg's generation.

But should we have to? Publishing in print on paper has spawned a complex, intricate industry, which desktop publishing has augmented, not destroyed. Some writers are lucky, or very talented or both. They can sit at their desks, confident that the next publisher will soon be knocking at their door. Others have to expend their energies in seeking out a publisher to whose star they may be able to hitch the wagon containing their creation. The whole drawn-out process of tying author to publisher acts as a filtering device. So many seeds of ideas may germinate in writers' minds. Only a fraction will see the light of day as what we call 'publications'.

In the environment of the Internet, this filtering process is much less likely to occur. The Internet is not only a theatre where new ideas strut their stuff before the world. Bernard NaylorIt is also a labour ward where new ideas are born. Plain experience tells us that the immediacy, the vigour and the breadth of the intellectual interchange facilitated by the Net can fertilise the ground and help new ideas to take root and grow more surely and quickly. But I am one of those who has deplored some aspects of the growth of traditional publishing. Pressurised by the need to pursue tenure, or by the next Research Assessment Exercise, or by some less definable push from the 'publish or perish' syndrome, scholars, I have argued, can be driven by the feeling that they have to say something, more than by the feeling that they have something to say.

Fundamentally, there is no reason why a peer review system should not impose a discipline on all this, and I am sure that we shall see peer review making its presence felt more and more. In a conference hall, the voice of the chosen speaker can ultimately be distinguished from the hubbub of the audience's conversations. It has been selected for a hearing by a form of peer review, though it may not, by that token, necessarily be wiser or better informed, as an unexpected intervention from the floor may eventually show. In the electronic environment, outright control, which sounds like an intrinsically reactionary response, may prove to be unimportant. What we may need are mechanisms for singling out statements likely to prove more authoritative from statements of the other kind. At the same time, the Internet does seem to have a desirable potential for democratising and delayering scholarship, and making it easier for the new voice, especially the new critical voice, to get a hearing. We need to be careful that any efforts to save people from drowning in the ever-deepening information pool lay emphasis on helping them swim better, not on emptying the water out.

Information sources that have authority are not just welcome in themselves. They feature among the signposts and totem poles of any well-understood intellectual context. One feature of the Internet is the impression it conveys, that the new world of information is a world without signposts and totem poles, a world of chaos. To the minds of librarians,this can seem particularly offensive. As a colleague of mine vividly expressed it: "The Internet? It's like going into a large room full of books just thrown about on the floor." In a conventional library setting, there are a surprising number of conventions which are unconsciously invoked, but are crucial to library use at even the most primitive level. For example, an understanding of 'alphabetical order' is taken for granted, though there are people who are perfectly intelligent in other respects but find alphabetical order difficult. Likewise, we take it for granted that books are shelved Western-page style, from top left to bottom right. And the simple title page of a book encapsulates centuries of evolution towards structured information transfer - as would occur to anyone who looks instead at the deep-plunging and mystifying incipit of a medieval manuscript.

I have been surprised recently to find how many seasoned Netsurfers are still dependent on technologically primitive means (like pencil and paper) to record URLs at the first time of asking. And URLs themselves are inherently resistant to simple filing, with other access mechanisms also at a primitive level. Do we have to wait years for another whole structure of conventions to evolve in the electronic environment, or is there some way we can accelerate progress towards conformity, and impose structure upon chaos 'in our own lifetimes'? One step in the right direction could be the appearance of signposts and totem poles in the currently chaotic landscape. Already there are more and more examples of prestigious journals proposing to offer an electronic Web version. The Funding Councils' Pilot Site Licence Initiative will accelerate this for three important British publishers. Others exist in the US. Carrying their existing authority and status into the Web setting, these publishers may start focal centres of order and authority and spread them into the persisting chaos of their hinterland. Is this a realistic prediction or just the nostalgia of someone who thinks instinctively that the old certainties can and ought to be successfully translated to a new setting?

Maybe my depiction of chaos already looks absurdly uninformed to some ardent Internet users. In that case, I shall have to plead guilty but also plead that my ignorance has mitigating circumstances. Such a plea can only carry weight where the degree of personal culpability for the ignorance is excusable. My contention is that circumstances do justify a claim of that kind. In over thirty years in libraries, I cannot recall any other area of professional competence where there was so much arcane knowledge needed for optimal performance and where so much of the arcane knowledge was so shifting and uncertain. The bold explorers come back from cyberspace with the light of Marco Polo in their eyes (but beware - the latest view is that he never got to China anyway!) and their more stolid colleagues do not know whether to sit at their feet or shut their own ears. There appears to be no way of substantially stemming the flood of material onto the Internet. There also appears to be no way of blocking change in the supporting technologies, whether of hardware or software. However, there could at least be room for a consensus, favouring trends towards simplicity and ease of use rather than complexity. If we think of word-processing or spreadsheet use, if we think even of the trend in use of computers themselves over three decades, we would have to agree that increases in power and performance have most often been accompanied by, even devoted to, promoting greater ease of use.

Now that we are well into the '90s, it is quite clear that the seascape is changing. However, even the boldest sailors know that, when the storm is at its peak, staying afloat can be a more urgent priority than identifying a precise landfall. Nevertheless, we can breathe our 'if only's', even while we struggle at the eye of the storm. If only we can quantify and legitimise some acceptable level of growth in information quantity; if only we can assemble an acceptable framework of quality referencing which does not stifle new voices; if only we can impose some useful degree of order on the apparent chaos; if only we can achieve a measure of technological stability which will promote rather than inhibit use, without stopping innovation, we shall leave many people (the majority non-librarians) in our debt, and incidentally secure our own professional future.