Information Landscapes for a Learning Society: Networking and the Future of Libraries 3. An International Conference held at the University of Bath, 29 June‐ 1 July 1998

Ian Lovecy (Senior Strategy Adviser, University of Wales, Bangor)

Library Management

ISSN: 0143-5124

Article publication date: 1 February 2000




Lovecy, I. (2000), "Information Landscapes for a Learning Society: Networking and the Future of Libraries 3. An International Conference held at the University of Bath, 29 June‐ 1 July 1998", Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 1, pp. 49-55.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Reading the proceedings of a conference one has not attended is inevitably, to a degree, a frustrating experience. The conference format means that papers reporting factual information are less full than one would like; at best one is left following up several references for more detail. More general papers are often highly provocative (sometimes deliberately so!) and there is no way of capturing the discussion which ensued, whether in the auditorium or the bar, or the possible changes and compromises which may have been accepted.

This volume does at least read as if there has been some editorial input and direction: there are references forward to later papers which are too detailed to have been likely in the original presentations, and most of the papers have lists of references which are unlikely to have been given on the day although many are to basic documents such as the Dearing or Kennedy reports to which most readers would need no direction. There is also an index which, although not finely detailed, identifies references to named projects, places and individuals, and also to broad topics. Finally there is a very helpful select list of acronyms – 112 of them – which serves not only to aid understanding of the papers but also to remind us as a profession how jargon‐ridden we can be, and how narrow sometimes are the fields within which we specialise.

There is a lot of factual information, in the form generally of reports on initiatives and projects; it should be noted that in general these are UK focused, although more widely‐applicable lessons could be drawn from them. They range from ways of approaching compatible listing of objects in many different formats, through ways of searching such listings, to the training needs of those working in digital libraries and ways of delivering this vast resource to the public. Descriptions of resources which are available, such as the Arts & Humanities Data Service may well be of interest as a possible resource to use, as well as for the approach to unifying the searching of very different catalogues; equally the reports of approaches to museum cataloguing, or the digitisation of archive listings, raise interesting questions of approach and compatibility, as well as giving information on the state‐of‐the‐art. Ray Lester’s fascinating discussion on the need for “control” is valuable not only because he relates it to the real‐politik of financial management as well as the needs of the user, but also for the incidental “aside” that the Natural History Museum has 68,000,000 specimens – which puts the cataloguing problems of most libraries into perspective!

Because a paper is a factual report rather than a theoretical exploration does not mean that it cannot be very stimulating. The questions posed by Lester on the structure of an information network are an example of this; Andrew McDonald’s description of the “joined‐up” approaches in Sunderland, or the paper by David Baker and Hilary Hammond on the opportunities realised after the disastrous fire at Norwich, are others which should make heads of library services stop and think whether they are actually making the most of their opportunities. Such papers do, of course, have to be seen as exemplars rather than categorical statements of what has to be done; one disadvantage of the conference report, as opposed to the monograph, is that the desire for a coherent, enthusiastic, factual exposition of one project prevents a balanced account of the many activities in the general subject area. Nevertheless, in terms of stimulating thought, these papers cannot be faulted.

Some of the issues which lie behind many of these activities are not fully drawn out; two in particular struck me. The first is that of “information overload”. This is touched on in a number of papers: Daniel Greenstein reports the finding of focus groups that:

Users do not wish to deal with all online information every time they seek to discover information via the network. Rather, they prefer to configure “portals” which present only those information sources in which they are, or are likely to be, interested (p. 28).

Andre Blau makes a similar point, quoting Herbert Simon:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it (p. 128).

This is surely a vital issue: users can be completely defeated by the overabundance, as anyone who has seen a research student faced with the results of an online search which has returned 250 books and articles relevant to his topic will know. How we, as librarians, deal with it is closely related to the other issue, that of the authority of information. Ray Lester points up the link:

[General] users do not wish to be comprehensive in the resources they use. They simply want access to the “best” resources. So someone has to value‐add between resource cornucopia and user (p. 105).

Andrew Blau cites the untested efficacy of much of the available health‐care information; and Biddy Fisher presents the worrying truth:

To be truly usable, information must have some authority: people need to have access to undeniable facts. … The Internet, or Web, is an example of how sources of information can be compared against each other for “truth” or reality, but how often do we restrict our sources to those which have been evaluated by sound methodologies? And if we are unable to do so, how much more difficult will it be for those without our professional training? (p. 187).

Yet like the other contributors, she raises the problem but offers no solutions. Perhaps in a world which prefers tabloids to broadsheet newspapers concepts such as “authority”, “truth” and “reality” are already outdated; in which case we might as well all pack up and go home.

That, I confess, was a thought which struck me when I read the opening keynote and most of the other more general and “philosophical” papers. The exuberant enthusiasm for the learning society in the opening keynote is matched only by its unclear thinking. In contrasting children “growing up digital”, Richard Heseltine seems to note almost with approval that “the current generation can scarcely spell”; that seems to me, with my rigidly channelled vision, a poor preparation for conducting a successful computer search for information. He appears to castigate the “decontextualised” nature of information in a library with the way in which information on the Web can be viewed from a particular perspective. Yet so it can in a library (or perhaps Hull lacks keyword access or classified catalogues); and the information surely remains to an extent decontextualised, so that the same article may be relevant to the sociologist, the psychologist and the marketing manager.

Information technology makes it easier for us to create specific, highly‐relevant groupings of information; it removes some of the physical constraints of the classified catalogue. That is a major step forward, although it brings the concomitant dangers of screening out counter‐arguments; but while it may make the embedding of information in learning easier, many of those educated in pre‐CIT days have been able to acquire – and in some cases create – “useful lasting knowledge”.

Information on the Web can be very different from information in a book: it can be multi‐media in format, it can allow the user to move rapidly to references in the text (if they too are digitised); it can be interactive. This is reality, and it is a significant advance. There is surely no need to step into the realms of fantasy, as Peter Lyman does when he describes the Web as “a text written collaboratively by seven million authors”. It is not “a” text; it is most certainly not written collaboratively; and insofar as it sets different conditions and procedures for access to different items it only differs in that respect from the sum of the holdings of the libraries of the world by being – technically – accessible without requiring physical movement of more than fingers.

Cris Woolston ranges wider in his future scenario. We have often heard of the demise of the book in the electronic age; he predicates the possible demise of the physical university, by analogy with banking systems. However, not all banks have gone wholly virtual, and a casual stroll down Bangor High Street at lunchtime suggests that there are still many people – not all of them old – who prefer to avail themselves of human cashiers. Films were going to kill the live theatre; television was going to kill the cinema; you couldn’t advertise which football matches would be covered in “Match of the day” or no spectators would attend them. Millions watched the funeral of Princess Diana on television; but thousands lined the streets, where they would see – if anything beyond the backs of those in front – only a single snapshot of the whole event. Logically, everyone should by now be studying through the Open University; in 1997/98 it was teaching 7.7 per cent of the UK HE student population – and that in terms of actual numbers, not full‐time equivalents. There is something about being present, and personal contact, which many people still seem to want. My own belief is that while the use of digital teaching and digital information will grow they will never wholly supplant their analogue equivalents, which offer something different – not necessarily better – but different. Despite the strenuous efforts of the present Government, there will still be some people who see education as more than a utilitarian acquisition of a qualification in order to get a better job.

“It’s easy to get carried away with the rhetoric of learning communities”, comments Clifford Lynch in the closing keynote address, and he brings the volume to an end with some down‐to‐earth reality. He sees the difference between a learning society in which citizens have ready access to information and teaching on affordable terms, and the current directed learning aimed at improving market position. He notes that large‐scale dialogue, involving many people, works no better electronically than in the meeting room. He suggests that “ecologies” rather than “landscapes” better represent the independent life within the world of information. Two other contributors question the received wisdom that a wider spread of information creates a more democratic society: Andrew Blau points out that the ease of joining an interest community electronically is matched only by the ease of leaving it – such communities are volatile, and lack the coherence of physical societies; Frank Webster questions how far the “free” public library service provides a helpful precedent. Lynch calls into question the claims which are often made for the increased use of digital information in a phrase which should surely be pinned on the wall of all futurologists: “Checking the daily weather report to decide whether or not to carry an umbrella does not reflect a major social shift to a learning society” (p. 265).

These notes of caution fit well with the practical, user‐centred and realistic ambitions of the projects which are reported on, and less well with the hype of those who see the digital library of the future as an agent in the shaping of society. That vision transforms the library into something rather different, more of a college or, as Grace Kempster suggests, a “people’s university”. However, our present universities have libraries or information services as a vital part of their infrastructure, and whether the information is printed or digital, static or interactive, there will still be a need for it to be stored in ways in which all who need it can gain access, and assistance in assessing the quality and authority of that information. I found the book a mixture of useful and stimulating information, reassuring common sense, and overblown provocative hype; but it made me think, and as a way of focusing the reader’s mind on issues which genuinely face the profession it is well worth reading. I think, however, that the final comment is carried by the product itself: a 280‐page printed artefact, not available online even for a charge.

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