10.1996 FYI France Essay: "An Essay, About Online Digital Publishing and Online Reference Service"

by Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us


Image courtesy of Emory University .

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Versions of the following have appeared online regularly, since 1992, as a feature of the FYI France enewsletter, ISSN 1071-5916, which is distributed for free via email every month except August. Enewsletter subscriptions may be obtained via email request to: kessler@well.sf.ca.us.

Here this file is one of a number made available -- hopefully attractively, all in one place, and relevant to libraries and online digital information work in France and Europe -- as part of FYI France (sm)(tm), an online service to which anyone can subscribe by postal mailing a check for US $45, payable to Jack Kessler, to PO Box 460668, San Francisco, California, USA 94146 (site licenses also are available): please write your email address on the front of your check. Please email suggestions for improvements to me at kessler@well.sf.ca.us

An Essay, About Online Digital Publishing and Online Reference Service

(No links: meant to be read lin-e-ar-ly...)


"Do you have any books about horses?"
-- apocryphal
-- one of the cornerstones of librarianship

For nearly seven years now I have thought about and written about and talked about and taught about Digital Libraries and online digital information service. A little monthly newsletter which I have been publishing all this time via the Internet has been well - received. A lot of midnight and 4am postings to a number of econferences at least have generated interest and occasional controversy, and mountains of email.

I have been waiting, though, for the day when all of this would crystallize into something more; for the arrival of a set of circumstances which would enable me to do more than just chat online and hypothesize offline.

The occasion has arrived now, I think and hope, late in 1996. It is an opportunity arising out of several circumstances: some personal, some not. Among the personal are the immense contributions of a long string of situations and friends, which and who have educated me gradually about libraries, information, information technology, and the tendency of different people always to approach even very simple problems from their own, particular, local points of view.

The resolution of a number of questions in my own mind has been of great help as well. I now know what I myself think, at least provisionally, about a number of different controversies, the very existence of which I was ignorant only a few years back. These include issues such as information preservation, information access, and the roles of print libraries and digital libraries in both. These issues seem vitally important to me now, although I took them for granted or ignored them until only a short time ago.

Some external considerations are helping, as well. Only a few years ago what I am attempting to do here not only was considered unethical, and to some immoral, but it actually was illegal. The offering of any commercial service over the Internet, much less an online and commercial library and information service, not only was unthinkable in many quarters but still was legally prohibited, by the "acceptable use" policies to which one had to subscribe in order to use the technology.

But times change. The Internet now has "gone commercial", in a marketing explosion which appears to be evolving into one of the more significant developments in commercial marketing history. At the same time, libraries and higher education institutions, at least on both sides of the Atlantic, have suffered a "paradigm shift" in the way people view state aid and the economic viability of "non - profit" and "cultural" institutions generally.

On both sides of the Atlantic, libraries, and units within libraries, and units within institutions of higher education and even great universities, all are discovering the cruel pressures and realities of becoming a "cost center". This creates an opportunity for someone like myself: someone who does not loathe or fear commercial activity per se, whatever misgivings I might have about its intrusion into the information and particularly the educational processes, and who is in a position to be able to experiment with some new forms of cost - recovery if not downright profit, in the new processes of providing information.

Finally, there is the revolution - within - the - revolution, the latest wrinkle in the paradigm shift from print to digital which has been taking place in our "information society" since the 1960's. Had I tried to do what I am doing here a year or so ago, there would have been no audience. When the Internet still was an "academic testbed" -- when online digital information techniques and interoperability still were alien concepts to normal human beings, and only engineers knew about and discussed them, and then only with other engineers -- online library service would have fallen upon at best deaf ears. Technicians rarely need or accept help with their techniques from any but other technicians.

A number of professions have tried for a long time to cut in on online digital information -- lawyers, doctors, librarians, documentalists, psychologists, politicians and business people of various stripe, even non - computer engineers -- but they all largely have been ignored by the Internet's developers, who until recently almost exclusively have been computer engineers.

When the "acceptable use" gloves came off, however, two things happened: the Internet quickly went a) public, and b) international -- if information didn't necessarily "want to be free", in the democratic and philosophical sense, it definitely wanted to be let out of its "acceptable use policies" cage.

So the Internet now includes over 12 million hosts, up from 9 million only six months ago and after enormous annual increases over the last very few years.

International access is adding immeasurable complexity to this already uncontrollable growth wave, with all the multilingual access and multicultural differences questions which it already is bringing in.

But it is general public access -- both international and at home -- which really is making the greatest difference. At last the "academic testbed" is facing its true final exam. The dropping of "acceptable use" policies and the opening of the Internet to the general public means the arrival of the un - interested user: the user who want only to use the technology and does not have time to learn, or does not even care, how it works.

It is with this "un - interested" user in mind, or with the professionals who must filter and navigate through information if online digital information really is to scale up to reach such "un - interested" users, that the online library and information service which is presented here is designed.

2.00 What is being done here.

"Ceci tuera cela; le livre tuera l'édifice."
-- Victor Hugo

There is a large variety available now of products and services which may be offered online. Internet and Minitel users already -- now, still early in development -- may consume vast quantities of online digital fulltext, stores of images, archives and advertising offerings of sound, and interactive services, plus great arrays of different indexing approaches to all of this. The problem becomes how to delimit, how to decide what chunk of this enormous and expanding online digital universe to bite off and chew, in any particular effort.

Any choice always is personal. In this case the personal component is a long - standing preference which I have had for service industries over inventory - heavy ones.

Information -- the business, the profession, and its history -- does involve both. Traditional libraries have done book - warehousing, and they have provided access to information. Both functions are being transferred now to the Digital Libraries activities developing online. There are Digital Libraries concerned primarily with collection development. Vast storehouses of digital information -- megabytes and gigabytes and terabytes and whatever comes next and more -- are being assembled, and the principles and design elements of their assembly are being developed and endlessly debated online.

I know of one recently - launched project, for example, which intends to collect all of the information generated by the 1996 US Presidential election campaign, assemble and store it in digital formats -- "terabytes", its designers proclaim -- and make it available online. And there are "American Memory" and "Studies in Scarlet" and "Trésor de la Langue Française" and "ARTFL" and "The Oxford Text Archive" and "Project Gutenberg" and "Editions Littéraires et Linguistiques de l'Université de Grenoble" and "WebMusée", and many, many, others.

But none of these represent the effort being undertaken here. They all are collection development: the organizing and designing and building of massive storehouses of structured digital information, very much the parallel of similar storehouses assembled for printed information in the past, by institutions such as the British Library, Harvard Library, and the Bibliothèque Nationale -- book warehouses, now become bit warehouses.

The British Library, Harvard Library, and the BN have done more over the years, however, than merely house and organize and preserve and render accessible the books and information in their own collections.

There have been days when the personnel at each of these institutions have lapsed into assuming their own collections to be exhaustive: a grievous professional error, always quickly corrected by the impatient researcher who finds a reference to something which even collections such as these do not contain.

So the BL and Widener, and even the august temple of cultural patrimony on the rue Richelieu, all developed reference services and various forms of reader assistance which reached out beyond whatever restrictions the size and parameters of the local collection imposed. The enormous size and high quality of the collections of these three can indicate how much more important reference services have been at smaller institutions with more restricted collections.

Reference, then, rather than collection development and maintenance, is the service being offered here.

Both activities certainly are badly needed now in the sphere of online digital information. Collection work is needed for the development of standards, principles of organization, and techniques of storage, search, and retrieval which will make it possible to use digital archives of "megabytes and gigabytes and terabytes" of information productively.

But the other, reference, problem is more immediate. People need help, now, finding things online. This is true already of existing digital information resources, as it will be true of whatever better - organized and more elaborate, and larger, digital archives and libraries eventually develop.

So the library service being offered here is online reference: not the building of a collection of online digital materials so much as a pilot project in the design of a useful, resilient, and flexible online reference tool.

3.00 Why what is being done here is being done.

When people as me why we have five children,
I say, 'because we didn't want six'..."
-- Bill Cosby

The motivations for undertaking this project, like those for making any choices, are several, and several of these are personal. The World Wide Web fascinates me more than the other technical / "computer" aspects of online digital information's development ever have.

I myself do not think in the random, hypertextual, "left - brain" manner of mind assumed to be the norm by Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbardt and the other originators of hypertext and modern GUI design. My interest in W3 is contrarian: I argue with it -- it stretches my mind I think further than it does those of its advocates and fellow - travelers.

I am willing to admit, though, that GUIs and W3 have done more than any other technique of which I am aware to bring online digital information to the general public and the international users. I cherish both groups for various political and philosophical reasons having little to do with technology or even information, and anything which can bring a phenomenon such as online digital information closer to them I value for this attribute alone.

More than either of these personal factors, though, is the satisfaction which a project like this brings to my interests in, and both personal and dispassionate frustrations with, information overload.

I am convinced that information overload is a problem of perception rather than reality. The first cave man who emerged from his lair to confront a saber - toothed tiger experienced as much information overload as that found on the Nets by the most wired Internaut or Cyberspace cowboy, I myself think. There is not more information now, and we ourselves are not in fact more overloaded. But we do think that there is, and that we are. I believe that this is thanks largely to boredom -- there has been no "time of troubles", recently -- but also to our unfamiliarity with the new media tools. That cave man probably felt more familiar with whatever spear he was carrying than most of us feel with whatever computer mouse we have in hand.

The great opportunity provided by information overload, then -- even by the mere perception of same -- is the product of its current association with online digital information and the Internet, with the current "hot topics" socially, politically, technologically, and economically.

There is leverage to be had here.

Other spheres of human activity can be overloaded with information. Any given Bosnian or Serb or Kurd or Clinton campaign worker may be overloaded with information, if not mere data, at the moment, and now know her or his way out, and the perplexity may not be due to anything involving digital techniques and the Internet.

But the Internet and online digital information do have their own distinctive brand of information overload at the moment: anyone retrieving 300,000+ documents on a normal AltaVista search engine run can testify to this -- and it is a problem which is capturing increasing attention now in general social and political and technological and above all economic spheres.

The question is, though, who is going to do it?

There are plenty of computer engineers who still believe that machines and systems will be able to satisfy human information needs on their own some day. But this is just like the belief of the biochemist that her techniques one day will solve all human health problems. OK, I say -- I am in fact on the sides of both in their theoretical debates with their skeptics -- but by then we'll all be dead: in the interim, while awaiting the arrival of pure solutions in either biochemistry or Artificial Intelligence, human health needs medicine and doctors, and information overload needs libraries and librarians.

The convenient thing about this conviction is that libraries and librarians appear to need an increased and better - defined role in online digital information themselves.

These purveyors of traditional information techniques find themselves no less perplexed and under siege by the new digital media than are other institutions and professionals. Attorneys wrestle with copyright and the admissibility of digital evidence. Accountants groan as spreadsheet versions "upgrade" and vary and floating - point - decimal calculations invent extra pennies where they shouldn't be. Even politicians wonder whether the email avalanches of a cyber - democracy will be awarding them their next meal tickets in place of the unwieldy but by now at least familiar statistical polling techniques which replaced the political "two - party system" sometime 'way back in the 1960s.

But no one is up against it like the librarians. Not only do they profess to be the purveyors of, indeed the gatekeepers and guardians of, all information -- a grandiose claim, in an "information society" which seems to be growing rapidly beyond their own as well as anyone else's single grasp -- but there even are dire predictions occasionally of the complete demise of their traditional foundation, printed media information. Nay - sayers to the doom - sayers are not helped by the recent closings of major library schools in the US, and the universal cutbacks in library professional staffs, operating budgets, general sphere of operations, and even real estate, which have taken place at least on the two sides of the Atlantic.

So there seems to be a perfect fit. The Internet, on the one hand, needs librarians -- for coping with its information overload problem. Librarians, on the other hand, need a role, and could benefit greatly from a role in an area currently as topical and as visible -- socially, politically, and economically -- as online digital information.

The idea here, in FYI France -- the basic professional motivation -- is to create a model library service tool, through which the Internet can benefit from the information and navigating skills of librarianship, and librarians can benefit from increased contact with a specific sphere of the new digital information media in which they in fact are very badly needed.

Two motivational questions which remain, then, are first, "why international?", and second, "why specifically the French?".

The internationalism is easy. I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, a town which, like intellectual capitals anywhere, always has considered itself to be the navel of the world. During my childhood 1950s and 1960s, and especially my formative 1970s, folks in Berkeley spent an awful lot of time contemplating that particular navel, to the exclusion, it seemed to me then, of developing interests in anything else.

So I, like any "hometown boy", was dying to get away: as the poet said, "We are itching to get away from Portland, Oregon... ", only in my case it was 1970s Berzerkeley. I did, and found the "comparative" experience to be very enlightening and satisfying: so much so that, ultimately, it confirmed my forebears' wisdom in having settled in Berkeley, California. International comparison is an exercise which I would recommend to anyone, in any context. You can't appreciate how green or how yellow grass is until you have seen it in other varieties.

Among international comparative studies which might be made of online digital information, then, the French example affords two unique advantages.

It is, first of all, linguistically French or, rather, non - English. In an information medium in which spoken and written human language is essential to the exercise, it is an important part of any comparison that at least one of the parties not use the common argot.

I don't know how many times -- many -- I have received the bland reassurance from US computer engineers that "surely most potential overseas users of online digital information technologies already will speak English". To them I just observe that the international "lingua franca" used to be French -- and I suggest for the future, following Tom Lehrer's lampoon of Wernher Von Braun, that they take up Chinese.

A second particular advantage of a focus on online digital information in France is that things digital are very developed there. Among non - English - speaking nations, France -- with its national fiber - optics and ISDN systems, its RENATER project to bring all of its schools online, and above all its Minitel -- is far and away the current online digital information leader.

Certain aspects of the technique's development in France, such as the long - standing "commercial" and "general public" orientations of its Minitel, even put the French in direct competition with the US leader, who is ahead in technique but behind in applications such as those now needed for general public access and the commercial market.

So the interest here is in helping to broker a marriage, between two mutually - reinforcing sets of need: the need of the Internet for information filtering and navigation services, and the need of the library community for a professional role in online digital information's development. The approach is comparative and international, and the primary comparative focus is upon the French. All of this is being attempted for the congeries of personal and professional reasons suggested here.

This is no "academic testbed", however.

I lived with one of those for several years, under the "acceptable use" incarnation of the Internet, and can attest personally to several costly and unproductive infinite loops in which it spun itself, in the final months before its commercial applications burst forth upon the online digital information scene. I still can hear the French Minitel sitting there, laughing, as the Internet agonized through its initial throes of dealing with online advertising, chain letters, billing overhead, commercial price gouging and price fixing and antitrust and plagiarism, and pornography and censorship.

The innocent days are over, though, and commercial uses of the Internet, if not yet fully acceptable, at least are accepted. One no longer has to lose money in online digital information to become a member of the club.

This is fortunate for me, for libraries, and schools and universities and museums and other such institutions, on both sides of the Atlantic, suddenly are finding themselves in the same cost - recovery - conscious boat, paddling frantically, just as the new commercial online digital information developers are.

From Whittle's commercial television experiments in US schools, to the distance - learning and digital panaceas being embraced by budget - impacted universities in the US and in Europe, to Europe's recent Bangemann Report, the impending privatization of France Télécom, and the very cost - recovery and even profit - minded operations of the British Library's BLAISE service, many formerly - public - sector educational and cultural institutions are being forced to reassess their economic roles, vis à vis state subsidies and support which have withered considerably during the last fifty years.

I was greatly impressed by the pragmatic example of Don Bosseau at the Reserve Book Room of San Diego State University's library in California, who built in a billing component to a digital fulltext system: a commercial component, which he purposefully left empty. Let the commercial sector -- the publishers, the authors -- come to see me if they object, he reasoned: I can show them how we can bill for the service if they really wish to do so -- if they really feel that free advertising courtesy of the library is not enough -- and then we can sit down to negotiate what their charges will be compared to those of their competitors.

In the same spirit, the service offered here in FYI France will experiment with a variety of commercial mechanisms, designed to recover costs, create incentives and measurable statistics, and perhaps even provide outreach, advertising, and other marketing opportunities. More perfect worlds might provide perfect market competition among small producers, or complete state subsidy and support disdaining the messy processes of capitalism, but then perfect worlds always have had other problems, too.

Universities and libraries in the US and Europe in the 1990s, anyway, inhabit a more realistic world, in which compromises are necessary, and in which the development of acceptable commercial tools for activities previously due entirely to State largesse has become an important exercise.

4.00 How what is being done here is being done.

The most important words in science are not,
'Eureka, I have found it!'
'Gee, that's funny...'"
-- Isaac Asimov

The twelve cross - referenced / inter "linked" HTML files provided here, on the World Wide Web / "W3", are designed to provide "one - stop - shopping" -- a single site and resource -- for anyone interested in the progress of online digital information in France.

The technique is guided, for now, by five basic design principles:

4.10 Choice: a balance of precision and recall.

The service will offer an array of resources which is both comprehensive and selective.

I have in mind the old information science conundrum which pits "recall" against "precision": the greater the number of items "recalled", using a given procedure, the less "precise" the result, and yet the more "precise" the procedure, too often the fewer items "recalled" and the less comprehensive the result.

One cannot achieve both, it seems, except in bibliographic heaven: pace dreams and nightmares such as Bush's MEMEX and Nelson's XANADU and Gibson's MATRIX -- and Huxley and Orwell... the list goes on. One cannot design a single system which both will contain all the world's information -- hold it available, as it were , for "recall" -- and be able to serve it up to users in ways comprehensive yet "precise" enough to be useful.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote a book about "foxes", who have "many good ideas", and "hedgehogs", who have "only one, single but great, idea": Berlin throughout his life has come down generally in favor of the foxes, and I basically agree -- both of us fearing, I think, the fanaticism of hedgehogs. (NB. A fanatic is one who "can't change his mind and won't change the subject", according to Winston Churchill.)

So I opt here for what I will call "the indexer's solution". This is a less - than - perfect but practical approach to the problem of information overload.

Indexers -- I have practiced this art myself professionally for several years now -- believe that if they only had enough key terms they could categorize the world and anything in or out of it.

Actual practitioners among the Indexing lot realize, however, that this is an unrealizable and perhaps totalitarian "hedgehog" - like fantasy. So the next - best - thing is to suggest a few workable categories and then cram as much vaguely - relevant material into them as time, space, reasonableness, and inevitable processes of intellectual elimination will permit.

There is little that is scientific about this. I once knew a man who drove his stockbroker wild because he never would invest in more companies than would fit on the handwritten list which he made on the back of a used envelope, carried around in his pocket; but the man was very rich, and his stockbroker much less so.

Indexers, then, get three, sometimes five, occasionally seven, and more often one or two chances to classify something complex into a precious few selected categories. Complex parsings of key terms and phrases, and authorial intent and context, have their part, but usually constraints of time and space and mere chance ultimately play a role.

Even various pre- and post- coordinate indexing alternatives do little to refine the mystical aspects: there is as much mystical faith in the content analysis implications of post - coordinate indexing as there is in the recall and precision abilities of pre - coordinated approaches. Indexing is sort of like the medical doctor filling in while the biochemist works out the perfect model: the biochemist will do the better job some day, but in the meantime we all gotta live -- Artificial Intelligence systems will figure out how we think, some day, but in the meantime the Indexer has to get the product out, whatever the methodological imperfections.

So there are twelve categories of information here, hopefully covering most of what anyone who would use the service would wish to see, and as much as possible of utility and relevance to such users is crammed into each of the respective twelve W3 pages of the service, as much as time and space and reasonableness and estimated downloading speeds will permit. Suggestions regarding corrections and deletions and above all omissions / possible additions, all gratefully will be accepted via email to kessler@well.sf.ca.us .

Twelve categories is a nice, round, number, and 50k seems a good maximum for a single W3 page, with 3k thumbnails and a few maximum 50k inline images for ease of loading by 28.8kbps modems. (I may stretch things on this last, a bit: I really like Cezanne, for example, and find it hard to abbreviate his colors.) But for the true rationale for the choices: as Bill Cosby says, "we had five because we didn't want six...".

4.20 Adhering to Standards.

One of the ironies of the standards process -- so badly needed now in online digital information, and which I am sworn as an information professional to support and uphold -- is that it can lead to monopoly control.

Particularly in the US, where the government has relatively so much less power than it does in other politico - economic systems, the standards process always is in danger of becoming the de jure rubber stamp of some commercial monopolist who exercises de facto market control. This very nearly has become the case at several points in the still - short history of online digital information's development, and the risk of domination by single monopolists in this now wide - open and brawling field shows no sign of abating.

So what to do?: support a standard, but keep it out of the grip of the guy with the biggest slice of the market, to avoid his exploiting it to increase his control, and ensure that the standard itself always is more than simply a government or industry rubber stamp giving a currently - dominant, or clever, market actor carte blanche to expand.

So it seems that, for present purposes, HTML markup of extended ASCII / ISO Latin - 1 / ISO 8859 - 1 text, with JPEG and GIF images, all follows standards which are relatively independent of any single market - maker, or any singularly - manipulative group of market - makers.

There is at least one problem, though, with HTML itself. The various "browsers" which are being manufactured and promoted as the "user's Internet GUI" are doing their utmost to play with the fringes of the standard, in the interests of "product differentiation". If Microsoft's browser is the same as Netscape's, why will a consumer -- or, more importantly, and advertiser -- have any reason to prefer the former over the latter, and vice versa?

Thus, already, when I put certain tags into my HTML markup, they are not recognized -- or are recognized very differently -- by different browsers. Fonts are different, and various defaults. The installation of everyone's browser -- not just Microsoft's, Mr. Reback et al. -- seems to override elements of , and cause general problems for the operation of, other browsers. Much of this is defended as the inevitable result of product development, but I have lived too long to believe that this is all it is: some of it, at least, is the result of deliberate, shall we say, "product differentiation".

So the effort will be made here to keep the information format as generic as possible: to test it with several different browsers prior to publication, and keep formal elements appearing as similar as possible across different platforms and browsers. Suggestions from anyone as to how to improve this somewhat technical aspect of the effort will be received very gratefully -- I am emphatically "non - tech" -- via email to kessler@well.sf.ca.us .You can see my HTML source code from your browser: please look, and tell me how to improve things.

4.30 Maximum Links

A third basic design principle employed here concerns the maximization of the number of hypertext links. This is done partly because it's fun and jazzy, but also for a more serious purpose.

In five years of working with online fulltext I have seen precious little which takes proper advantage of the new medium., particularly in the online efforts of my own "library" community. Printed text simply is converted to digital format, sometimes using the simplest "OCR" methods, given minimal markup, and then nearly literally thrown up online.

It is as though a conscious effort is being made to give the "old wine / new bottle" metaphor meaning. I rarely have seen anything less satisfying online than a digital archive of plain - ASCII unscaled - font text: boring -- as it scrolls by endlessly, filling the line and page, fueling the fires of those who contend that this media revolution has "added" nothing.

It is incumbent upon any of us who wish truly to test these new techniques to use them for what they pretend to offer, I think. Ted Nelson's original hypertext message relied greatly upon the idea of cross - referencing: the hypertext "links" upon which the World Wide Web was based, and which is one of at least two outstanding characteristics of W3 today.

Jumping back and forth using such links personally makes me nervous. As I suggested here earlier, I have what Nelson or perhaps his followers call a "linear" mind: eclectic in its own way, but still I like to follow an argument through from beginning to end, according to the intentions of its author rather than my own.

I find myself that hypertext "links" in this most often merely distract. They are the essence of W3, however, and one of the grand innovations of online digital information generally. So I will try, in what appears here in FYI France, to inject as many of them as I can, in hopes at least of approximating some form of "new wine / new bottle" ideal before I knock myself down with criticism.

4.40 Maximum Images

Online images and their integration into text are a second fundamental contribution of online digital information as currently structured, and maximizing their use is a fourth basic design principle which I will be trying to observe here.

Alice asked, "But of what use is a book without pictures?"

The answer which I myself always have given is, "very great, and very many uses". I am an admirer of written text, and of its ability evoke for me images of far greater clarity, complexity and imagination than anything which my eye itself can see. Hardy's descriptions of a "heath" always have meant more to me than any painting or drawing or certainly photo which I have seen of one, and they even have enhanced immeasurably my appreciation of the reality when I have been able to walk on one.

This, however, like my preference for linear text, is a personal eccentricity. I am aware that there are plenty of people for whom images are more evocative than text. There are situations, as well, in which visual images simply will serve well whereas written text will not. I would not want to substitute the turgid texts of most art history writing for the visual images which accompany it.

The two -- images and text -- of course may complement each other. There nevertheless is a tension between the two in my own mind: the illustrations in a book of non - fiction normally deepen my understanding, while those in a book of fiction normally distract and are unsatisfying -- in the latter case I would rather use my own imagination, or the author's, than the illustrator's.

Like hypertext links, however, images play a fundamental role now in the new contributions being made by online digital information. At the very least, a new generation is being produced which understands the details of images and imaging -- the "JPG" and "GIF" and "grayscale", "color balancing", "dithering", and "resolution", as they do the "type fonts" and "page format" and "graphic design" involved in text -- better than any since the printers of Lyon and Subiaco and Mainz.

So I will make a maximum effort to include digitized images here.

I am not trained in this. I have studied some art history and I have my own notions and, with Lyndon B. Johnson, I "know what I like", and I am beginning to learn more. At some point I will try to learn about sound, as well: friends have encouraged me to put sound into FYI France -- so you may hear Piaf here at some point, and if you do and do not like it just be happy it isn't Hallyday.

But much of what is being done online these days is in just such an "incunabula" stage. Any image work offered here is offered with a tentative, analytical, intent only. It seems to me incumbent upon those of us who want to criticize the development of this medium to learn at least a little bit about its operation, and to try it for ourselves. Besides, the images do make what appears on the screen here awfully pretty, I think.

4.50 Online Materials Only.

A final basic design principle in use here in FYI France will be a reliance on online materials.

I have tried to distinguish what I am doing here from digital library collection development. I am not building a collection of my own digital materials here, a laudable undertaking but not the one here attempted. Rather I am trying to make the case here for the need for and the possibility of online ready reference. I would like to do this using only traditional library information management principles and materials which anyone can find today on W3, for two reasons:

4.51 To demonstrate to skeptics of any stripe just how rich the current offerings in online text, images and tools already is. I have found some of the most amazing things, such as email in Tashkent, online "Cyberpublishing" experiments at a library school in Chiang Mai, truly fascinating accounts of cave painting discoveries in the Ardèche, and truly beautiful digital versions of my favorite painting by Cezanne; and also,

4.52 To illustrate for others in my profession just how easy it is for one person, armed with a modem, to use traditional library principles productively in the new online digital information world. If a few folks in libraries can take what I am offering here and improve upon it, using it to aid a few others in finding and using things online more easily, the most practical purpose aimed at here will have been achieved.

So my point is that giant digitization projects, valuable as they are for online digital information and for librarianship, are not the only way to use the new medium in new and very productive ways. Online reference service -- biting off an appropriate bit of the enormous Internet, and helping others with its filtering and navigation -- is a service which any information professional can offer, using existing Internet information, and which the Internet now badly needs.

5.00 Postface

(apologies to R. Chartier, from whom I borrow the term)

"If the only tool which you have is a hammer,
everything begins to look like a nail..."
-- apocryphal
-- and one of the cornerstones of online digital information

There are no perfect vacuums in online digital information any more than there are in any other field" no perfect benchmarks, no failsafe formulae, no single solutions.

The computer industry has had to learn this truth the hard way. Those who have closed themselves off to novelty and innovation, those who have tried to safeguard and monopolize, inevitably have failed. "Open systems" has been the heart of the managerial revolution wrought recently by hi - tech. As Sun Micro's Bill Joy is supposed to have said, "Never make the mistake of assuming that all the brains are in your own shop..."

So the online digital information revolution isn't over. Just when you thought you had the whole thing figured out... yesterday's "mainframe / terminal model", which became a "'pc' revolution", which turned into "network solutions" and then transformed into "distributed processing" mutating to "parallel processing" and then "distributed parallel processing", today shows signs of becoming a "Network Computer" - driven "client / server" model which bears suspicious resemblance to the "mainframe / terminal model" which it all started out as only a few years ago... One has to be nimble.

And now an impossibly - named "WorldWideWeb" is taking the known and unknown worlds by storm with its Mosaic - based "browsers", and those "browsers" themselves may give way to something called "Java", or things resulting from this thing called "Java", very soon. One has to be quick as well as nimble... and one must be very, very, ruthless.

You reach a certain age, though, when you begin looking for things that are lasting and even permanent.

That age arrives early in less secure civilizations: "Human beings, who are born into a sea of troubles, search for security, and they find that security in certainty, or at least in the illusion of certainty", to paraphrase John Dewey -- prolongation of the intoxicating uncertainties of youth is a prerogative of only the healthy, wealthy, and well - fed. Anyone who doesn't believe this might consider the possibilities of the Internet's "scaling up" to overseas markets, where the democratic chaos of the Silicon Valley / Leesburg Pike model is not so highly prized.

In the maelstrom and ferment of online digital information, in the Internet's current "Age of Incunabula", there are -- there must be -- fundamental principles of information management and access which will last longer than the arrival of the latest turn in the information superhighway for hi - tech, a threshold which now barely exceeds six months' duration. The question which I very much would like to see answered -- sometime soon, by someone -- is just what these fundamental, lasting, principles might be: just what the essential characteristics of this new information paradigm are, what contribution will have been made to civilization once this initial burst of time, energy, enthusiasm, and enormous expense, is over.

The "lighter - than - air - ship" did not last. The era of the "iron horse" is over. No one uses "canals" for much of anything any more. But the transition in media, begun at Mainz in the mid - 15th century, did produce fundamental changes in the organization and dissemination of information -- and, some would say, in the social and political and economic use of that information -- which lasted for five hundred years.

I hope that someone -- perhaps some computer scientist, perhaps some librarian, perhaps some fortuitous combination of the talents and perspectives of both -- one day will offer the same insight into the current transition. I hope that they do so soon, for the "information overload" flood appears to be rising higher, the acid paper catastrophe eating into the old books and papers appears to be getting worse, the gulf between "information haves" and "information have - nots" appears to be getting wider. My greatest hope for the present effort is that, in the interim, while we await deeper and more permanent enlightenment and solution, the little online information service which is offered here might help.

Jack Kessler, kessler@well.sf.ca.us

September 15, 1996

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Copyright © 1992- by Jack Kessler, all rights reserved.
W3 site maintained at http://www.fyifrance.com by Jack Kessler.
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Last update: November 26, 2007