Imagine, if only we had...

     Recently, during one of those national conferences, I got together with a number of my old library friends over dinner. I admit it. We talked shop. Conversation turned to speculation on what we could do if only we had this, that, or the other thing.

Cast of characters:

  1. Mr. Serials - the name for a systematic process I created for collecting, archiving, storing, and indexing electronic serials early in my career
  2. Larry - a pseudonym for St. Lawrence (Laurence), the patron saint of librarians who, as legend has it, told his executioners to turn him over while being burned on a gridiron since he had been cooked one side
  3. Mr D. - Melvil Dewey
  4. Mr. R. - S.R. Ranganathan
  5. Alcuin - a librarian and advisor to Charlemagne

     Mr. Serials, who was still stuck on the issues of access versus ownership, copyright, and scholarly communication, wanted a better Network spider for collecting electronic journals. "I need a better tool for collecting Network-based data. It has to be able to penetrate basic authentication. It has to be able to mirror remote sites locally. It has to be able to extract identifying pieces of information about the remote documents like author, title, subjects, and dates effectively. I want to be able to create meta-data describing these sites in any format I desire. If we don't use tools like this to collect and archive electronic serials, then scholarly information will only be available to the people who have the money."

     Larry piped up and said, "We've all heard this before, Serials. You're like a broken record or a single song musician. Sing a different tune and get used to the fact that information costs money, especially in an information economy."

     Mr. D. thought a massive, portable, storage medium would be a good thing for every librarian's desktop. "The Network is nice but I don't trust it", he explained. "We need to archive much of this stuff. It comes and it goes, never to be seen again. True, not all of it is worth saving, but who am I to say what is good and what is not? If I only had something that could store massive amounts of information and then be given away. I would create archives of literature. American and English literature as well as Western philosophy texts. I would then put some sort of search engine on the medium to make it more accessible."

     "What's so special about that?", I asked.

     "For one thing," he continued, "I, in consultation with individual faculty, would be able to create customized collections of these texts and consequently save loads of time for the reader who wouldn't have to find the texts for themselves. Isn't that right Mr. R?"

     Mr. R., who was perpetually off in his own world, perked up. "Oh yes. Most certainly." Wagging his finger, "After all, that's what I always say. 'Save the time of the reader.'"

     Larry, who was recooperating from severe burns, then interjected, "These things sound like textbooks or anthologies, only made for individuals and not necessarily mass markets."

     "Yes, that's right," said Mr. D. "By the way Larry," Mr. D. said sarcastically, "your roast beef looks very well done on one side but not the other. Don't you think you should turn it over and start eating?"

     We all laughed knowingly but Larry just gave Mr. D. the evil eye and continued. "That search engine of yours would probably need to be improved. I myself desire a better indexer/search engine combination. First of all, the indexer would need to be completely incorporated with a thesaurus. This thesaurus would include known controlled vocabulary terms as well as the vocabulary of the user for whom the index was created. Furthermore, the indexer would be able to analyse things other than text. Yea, we can index graphic images now but only their file names. After all, in my day, illuminated texts were the big thing and I think in pictures, not words. More importantly, I want to index the relationships between the shapes in pictures. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but I can't spend the time assigning those thousand words to each image."

     Nods of agreement went around the table.

     "The search engine could stand some improvement as well," he said. "It's got to have all the usual features like Boolean logic, phrase searching, set searching, relevance ranking, right- and left-hand truncation, and customized sorting. Additionally, I have to be able to browse the index as well as the thesaurus. It needs to be graphical. I want displayed for me spacial representations of my data and search results. I want to be able to draw simple figures on the tablet and have those figures become queries against the index. Finally, I want to save these queries to a file and apply them to other indexes or give the queries to friends so they can use them for their own purposes." He paused. "Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers."

     "All of this is very well and good," remarked Alcuin. "But you all know as well as I do that no matter how good your indexes are, how good your search engines are, or how intuitive the interfaces, you will still have plenty of people who won't find what they are looking for, even when the thing they are seeking exists in the database or index. Its not that they're stupid. No, its just that one size does not fit all; everybody is different. Everybody's 'information cosmology' is unique. Consequently, what we need are personal librarians. Everybody should have their own information/knowledge expert who understands the particular needs of its patron. I'm a perfect example. Do you think Charlemange would have been able to accomplish as much he did without having me around?"

     "Alcuin, your head is the fattest one around this table," interjected Mr. D., "but tell us more anyway. We're listening."

     Taking another hefty draught of mead, Alcuin continued. "Mind you, I do not believe we will ever be able to create something that learns, but I do believe we can analyze our own thought processes and mimic many of them in computer programs. If we could capture the question and answer process, the process of conversation, and combine it with the vast amounts of data and additive powers available to computers, then we might be able to create a computer program what will assist our learning capabilities. Over time such a computer program would come to 'know' its user and be able to 'remember' things that may not be immediately apparent. The program would then be able to assist its user when making queries against Larry's index or Mr. D.'s collection by making suggestions and comparing the results to older queries. The program would be an advisor."

     Mr. R. then said, "Your solutions are all based on technology. Technology changes. It changes so fast that no one can keep up. Instead, what we need is a more structured framework for understanding. In other words, we need to shore up the foundations supporting our assumptions about information, knowledge, and wisdom. Exactly what are information, knowledge, and wisdom? How are they related to the process of understanding? If librarianship is about data, information, and knowledge, then shouldn't we have more definitive explanations describing them? If this is the 'Information Age' then should we know what that means? Personally, I believe we should be spending a bit more time debating these sorts of issues. Through these debates we will become more aware of different points of view. Then, and only then, will we be able to use technology effectively. Otherwise we will only be building our house on sand."

     We all looked at Mr. R. as if he were a bit off his rocker. He often tries to philosophize will little apparent success.

     Then Larry asked, "Eric, what do you want?"

     "Me? I only want a good book and permission to write in its margins with my pencil or pen."

     They all thought I was silly. Librarians shouldn't write in books.

Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <>
Source: This is a pre-edited version of Eric Lease Morgan "Dreaming about what we wish we could have" Computers in Libraries 18(10):40-41 November/December 1998.
Date created: 1998-11-27
Date updated: 2004-11-07
Subject(s): fiction; emerging technologies;