Frank Webster: Ideology of Electronic Sources and the Future of Libraries

by Moya K. Mason


Modern society is preeminently governed by technology, information technology that emphasizes automation and computerized information services. The early uses of computers were quite limited, employed for such specialized activities as census taking and specific scientific applications. They have come a long way. Currently, some see computers and information technology as the panacea for all of society's problems, believing that everyone must be ready to roll down the highway, even if no one seems to know where it will lead. But it will be a great and exciting joy ride, if you read between the lines. They call this explosion of bits and bytes in cyberspace progress, which has an underlying more is better philosophy.

There are others, such as Frank Webster, who wonder what kinds of messages are being promoted in this perpetual blitz of information. Is it knowledge that will help to slow the destruction of the Brazilian Rainforest, wipe out hunger and disease, or is it more along the lines of how to link your children with others to play Quake online, or a way to find out what the most popular soap opera stars eat for dinner? Has the explosion in information and computer technology actually made those who are wired-in an exceptionally thoughtful or intellectually-advanced group in society today?

In his book Theories of the Information Society, Frank Webster presents the reasons for his skeptical attitude towards the notion of an information society; he has many convincing arguments. For the purposes of this essay, only the most crucial for libraries will be examined and that is his belief that the quantitative measure of information should not be equated with qualitative worth (Webster 1995,13). A great deal of information is flowing and floating around in society today, both 1.) important and relevant, and, 2.) the inconsequential. Webster believes it is important to not equate them, because by doing so, "these qualitative issues are laid aside as information is homogenized and made amenable to numbering" (Webster 1995,26).

Frank Webster is not standing alone. There are others who worry that technology is blurring the distinctions between reality and escapism, and knowledge and ignorance. They worry that society is selling a prepackaged vision of what information technology can do for quality of life, pointing out the stark consequences of leaving your family unwired. How can children learn without computers at home and school, bombarding them with huge amounts of information? How can they learn to read without the latest Baby Einstein software? The answer would be from books, of course, which have always been the catalyst for change, education, imagination, and wonderment. In the War of the Worlds, Mark Slouka warns us not to forget that reading, writing, and imagination existed long before the arrival of the microchip and the fiber-optic cable (Slouka 1995,144). This paper will look briefly at how the ideology of electronic sources and the Internet will affect the future of libraries and how librarians do their jobs.

An Overview

Throughout the history of the world, libraries have been important institutions for the cultivation and preservation of humanity. Libraries are the repositories for humanity's knowledge; they are our past, our present, and our future. As futurist Paul Saffo points out, librarians originally were responsible for collecting information that was scarce in order to make it available to a greater number of people (Saffo 1995,294). He goes on to say that "librarians were sort of mad information hoarders, who were hoarding in the public interest" (Saffo 1995,295) But that is no longer a realistic goal with the explosion in information and the shrinking budgets of libraries.

Libraries have arrived at a critical point in their history. They must consider the quality of information bombarding society, instead of trying to provide everything that is available. Information is not being distinguished from knowledge. Theodore Rozak points out that simply because it was decided that digitized bits of data would be called information, doesn't mean it is relaying anything important (Rozak 1986,14). Should libraries have to close reading rooms and reduce their book budgets to buy more computers (Stoll 1995,177) when resources are so limited? Historically, the word information has been used to denote knowledge, now it shuns semantics and represents anything that can be coded into a series of zeros and ones (Rozak 1986,13). The differences in meaning have become blurred - "the word comes to have a vast generality, but at a price; the meaning of things communicated comes to be leveled, and so too the value" (Rozak 1986,14).

A fine example of this phenomenon was written about by Mark Slouka when he describes Ellie Frame, a young child appearing in an IBM print ad. The message is that if she had the right computer, with television capabilities, she could look at some of the greatest art pieces the world has ever known, surf for historically-significant landmarks like the Great Wall of China, and be back in time to watch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Slouka 1995,146). Slouka's point is a powerful one because it shows how easy it is to equate education with entertainment, and how confusing it is for children to know the difference. He is not saying that the sitcom shouldn't be on television, but that there is no longer qualitative emphasis put on the 'wonders of the world.' All technology comes with a price tag attached, and information technology's can be quite high when young children are not taught the differences between information/entertainment, and knowledge. Slouka believes that the price is too high, and that we are transforming children into zombies by placing them in a virtual type of reality when they are connected (Slouka 1995,147). As librarians, it is possible that the distinctions will also blur for us. A time could come when we lose sight of what really constitutes knowledge and how it can change the world.

Langdon Winner calls it the absent mind, which is willing to believe pretty well anything, including the hype advertised by companies that say they really care about providing inspiring educational tools, and how the Internet will empower us and put democratic decision-making back where it belongs, into the hands of the people (Winner 1986,115-117). All by means of information technology. Implicit in Webster's argument and stated in Winner's is the message that equates "sheer supply of information with an educated ability to gain knowledge and act effectively on it" (Winner 1986,108). Coupled with this is the incorrect assumption that anyone can access quality information when they are connected to electronic resources. Webster points out that we should look at the meaning behind the messages to decide if they have sustenance, to see if they can fundamentally transform society (Webster 1995,27). One of Webster's greatest concerns is that society will settle for the quantitative.

As libraries continue to automate systems such as cataloguing, and find money for the newest databases as they lay-off staff, the problems will only intensify. Librarians have been trained to search out the best information available on any given subject area, and know when they should use print sources. Even if there was an Internet-connected computer for every patron entering a library, very few could properly search the databases for the information they need. They will require a specially-trained human intermediary to sift through and filter out the noise; they will need a librarian. People need assistance to retrieve quality information, so libraries need to be careful that the day won't come when a few lone librarians are surrounded by hardware and software linked to trillions of bits and bytes of every kind. As Clifford Stoll has so eloquently put it:

I suspect computers will deviously chew away at libraries from the inside. They'll eat up book budgets and require librarians that are more comfortable with computers than with children and scholars. Libraries will become adept at supplying the public with fast, low-quality information. The result won't be a library without books - it'll be a library without value (Stoll 1995,214).

For librarians and their administrators, the concerns are obvious. They cannot continue to pay exorbitant prices for computerized technology; budget for very expensive upgrading and maintenance costs; maintain very expensive serial collections; as well as keep the latest books on the shelves, and have competent staff to answer questions and build great collections. Once a library gets heavily involved with information technology, one of the biggest problems is that there is never an end to the buying cycle. Even library schools currently recommend as many technology-oriented courses as possible for their students so they will be prepared to handle the machines and cope with the databases. Libraries have to realize they can't be all things to all people. Walt Crawford has some words of wisdom on the introduction of digital information:

Libraries have never been the sole, or even the primary source of information for people. Good libraries serve many niches, but they never served as universal sources, and they never will ... by and large, the new compliments the old. Print did not destroy the oral tradition, radio did not destroy newspapers. Television changed radio, newspapers, and movies, but didn't destroy any of them (Crawford 1993,11).

Concluding Remarks: What are We Progressing Towards?

Librarians need to take Crawford's advice, and try to do the best job they can within the framework with which they began. Specialize in reference information services and teach us how to look for quality information ourselves. Librarians, by and large, were delighted to rid themselves of the card catalogue, but then most professional librarian cataloguers disappeared, only to be replaced by computers and paraprofessionals. Now there are virtual reference librarians on the Net to answer all your questions. What is the next step? Do the information technologists envision virtual libraries without walls, staffed with expert systems? Do librarians? As Blake Harris points out, "our view of the future affects the present as surely as do our impressions of the past or the more tangible residues of past actions" (Harris 1996). People have never before looked at information the way they do now, as a priority, with "a cult-like following" (Rozak 1986,30). Theodore Rozak says that as long as society is willing to buy into the sensationalism, this quasi-information technology will continue to be one more thing to have to keep up with the Jones (Rozak 1986,30). Since much of this new information has not been substantiated as anything but bits and bytes, librarians should concentrate their time and resources on old-fashioned librarianship, with some digitization thrown in. They need to pick one. Will it be quality or quantity?

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Crawford, Walt. 1993. Dreams, Devices, Niches, and Edges: Coping with the Changing Landscape of Information Technology. The Public Access Computer Review, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 5-21.

Harris, Blake. 1996. Technology and the Future of the Government. Government Technology.

Rennie, Don. 1995. Recipe for Communication on the Information Highway. Government Information, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Fall 1995).

Rozak, Theodore. The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. Cambridge: Lutterworth, 1986.

Saffo, Paul. 1995. The Information Superhighway is a Quivering Oxymoron and Other Musings on Government Information Policy in an Era of Rapidly Evolving Information Technologies. Journal of Government Information, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 289-296.

Slouka, Mark. War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. New York: Basic, 1995.

Stoll, Clifford. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

Webster, Frank. Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge, 1995.

Winner, Langdon. 1986. Mythinformation, in The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. 98-121.

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