Web Magazine for Information Professionals


Interview with Paul Evan Peters, director of the US Coalition for Networked Information.

Paul Evan Peters is of a philosophical turn of mind. Even at breakfast, in his hotel in Hatfield where he was based for the LibTech Conference, he drops easily into a fluent analysis of the goals of the Coalition for Networked Information, the organisation which he founded five years ago. The CNI was formed to promote the creation of networked information resources which will advance scholarship and intellectual productivity. It draws upon a task force consisting of universities, publishers, hardware and software companies and library organisations.

Peters' primary vision of the CNI is as a facilitator. Communication is the key. At present, there is still a gulf between those who use networked services and those who provide them. The organisation aims to foster an environment which eases communication betweenthe two groups. To that end, it hosts meetings and conferences, encourages projects between providers and users (the TULIP electronic journal project is the best known illustration) and produces its own stimulus to the crucial debate on the information society. This latter is achieved by commissioning issue papers whose main aim is to challenge and provoke. "Despite the word 'Coalition' in our title, we don't advocate public policy positions" he explains. "The kind of politics we are experts in are market place politics or organisational change politics."

Turning to universities as a special network services consumer group, Peters is clear Paul Evan Petersabout the advantages which the Net has brought to researchers. This is the group whose need has always been greatest. "The knowledge-producing communities had a need for generalised access to rare and expensive scientific and other resources". Their needs drove academic network policy and standards for many years. Now, however, the development of the Internet as a teaching tool is a major issue. When it comes to the support which libraries have traditionally given undergraduate students, Peters believes that the first requirement is the networked availability of heavy demand material. It won't be achieved, however, without first squaring up to the copyright problem. Typically, Peters' approach would be non-aggressive. "Publishers are the owners of these materials. We need a solution which does not violate their copyrights."

I asked Peters to nail his colours to the mast and nominate his choice of the single-most significant network innovation for the information profession. This was a difficult question, but it did not take him long to single out Gopher. "Although it looks now like an old-fashioned way of organising information, it was the thing that liberated librarians from the view of networks as merely a means of access to their online catalogues. Gopher gave us the technology to put up an information service which contained not only bibliographic information, but a variety of other types - pathfinders, maps, community information...Librarians started to think, for the first time, that the network was something which could generate new value."

But what about the Web? Hasn't it been the major breakthrough? Peters is not convinced. "I honestly don't view the World Wide Web as anything more than a much advanced presentation. Although I'm very impressed at what search agents like Yahoo and Lycos can do, I'm very unimpressed at what they find." He says he is 'stunned' by the complacency of those who believe that existing search engines have solved the information discovery problems of the Internet. "What they are really talking about is known item searching. The Web is really a publishing system. The next breakthrough technology would be some way of organising intellectually, organising content."

Nevertheless, he considers that the Web has changed forever the 'look and feel' of the Internet. It has wrested the main topic of debate away from engineering matters ("whether you need this kind of router and that kind of plug") to matters of content. But there is a long way to go. "The Web is not the end, because nothing on the Net right now is true to the dynamic, complex character of the way that people learn information, and it won't be until the basic architecture is phrased in human terms."

What does it all mean for librarians? Peters believes that librarians are purposive information organisers. Traditional collection development policies have always produced a customised view of the information universe for the library's host institution. This need will continue to exist in the environment of a networked information universe.

As for our great fear of being bypassed by our former users? Yes, it will happen, and happen increasingly. But we must be a part of the information solution. "Already, many people are happier achieving in four hours of Internet searching what they could find in one hour in the library. What we must do is help them to find the same information in one hour on the Net." The objective, he states, is to 'stay in the game'. With team captains like Peters around, we may just succeed.