First off, I’ve had yet another library school connection. I’m not sure which class I read this article in, but somewhere along the line in one of my classes we were assigned this article. At the time I remember being impressed that someone would have such a good sense of the future of information, though a lot of the mechanics ended up being more sophisticated than he thought they’d be what with the Internet and the advances in computing. I’m a science-fiction reader, and I’m often similarly impressed with what older science fiction authors get right about the future. Of course, they often also get it wrong. I don’t know whether to be amused or upset that male science fiction authors of the 50s and 60s could not imagine a future in which women were not housewives (see Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).
I named this post “Are We There Yet?” because it seems to be that the seamless access of information and ease of annotation is lagging. As Bush notes, we have gotten very good at storing information and taking less and less space to store it cheaply. However, access and annotation are still regular snags. Search algorithms have a long way to go for research purposes. When I teach students how to use the library, knowing that they will be frustrated by the ever-present clunkiness of databases, I try to get them to see that the purpose of their searching is different. In a Google search, often the first web page or two will do the trick. Who ever scrolls to the bottom of a Google search results page? Who goes on to the next page? More likely you’d rerun the search with different words. The idea is that a web page or two will meet the need for information. Research for scholarly purposes ideally involves a more exhaustive search, and Google doesn’t handle that well. They prioritize precision over recall. A library database prioritizes recall over precision. As of yet having both done well isn’t possible. So, while the information is out there, still in traditional article form for the most part, it’s not simple to retrieve effectively.
Besides access is annotation. The research indicates that students still prefer print books, and the ease of annotating is often cited as a reason for that preference. Digital versions of annotation tools exist, but they are still awkward and limited. They also vary based on which e-reader software/hardware is being used. I feel there is a long way to go toward making annotations and links between data easy to achieve in the digital realm. Ultimately, while students prefer print, libraries generally see students use e-books more than print books. I don’t think this means the students were misleading us when they said they prefer print. I think convenience wins over preference and the student at home that wants to use information from a book for an assignment is going to use the book they can access immediately.
My musings are mainly concrete and concerning the technology we deal with right now. I’m aware that all of this assumes a scholarly communication environment that has perhaps stagnated, and some of the “but this is the way it’s always been done” needs to be challenged. My impression is that the challenges are happening – the movement behind this course is one example – but they haven’t hit a critical mass yet or gained full support from academia. When I reach the end of my career, 40 years from now perhaps, it will be interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same.