The heroes of the information age

We are told that in the first couple of centuries AD, manuscripts were converted from papyri to vellum. (Properly speaking, parchment comes from the hides of sheep, while vellum comes from the hides of calves.) This process involved librarians deciding which text should be converted. And though I have no sources as a basis, I am sure the conversion process was controversial. Some librarians would argue that vellum smelt of animal grease and was inferior to the elegance of the papyri scrolls, which were stored on shelves with their silk ribbons hanging out on which identification of the scrolls could be read. But the superior properties of vellum were easily identified. Firstly, it was much more easily available than papyrus, which only grows in the south east of the Mediterranean, where Egypt attempted to enforce a monopoly. The story goes that the prohibition on exporting papyrus to the town of Pergamum (from which parchment is named), which was ambitious to establish a library to rival Alexandria, was the reason for their librarians to look for other solutions, discovering them in the sheep and calves which grazed in the nearby fields. Secondly, vellum supported a more compact representation, as it was possible to write on both sides of a page. Thirdly, it offered a more attractive layout, which we still admire in illuminated manuscripts. And the pages could be bound into a book – a great invention – the silk ribbon of the scrolls being replaced by a text on the back of the book.

This is only one of several major revolutions in the commu-nication of information. Librarians have been in the forefront several times through this history. One of my favourite periods is the last part of the 19th century. At this time information technology leaped forwards due to the invention of pulp paper in 1844, the rotary press in the 1860s and the steam-driven trains and ships which widened the markets for printed matter, a very heavy cargo. This was the time of Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and many others. The popular daily news-papers thrived on the competition between Hearst and Pulitzer in New York and pulp magazines were born, named after the new and inexpensive paper on which they were printed.

The technological change stimulated a production of books which exceeded the capabilities of libraries to make them accessible to the public in an appropriate way. Therefore librarians found solutions, the most famous librarian probably being Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey (1851-1931) and his work entitled Classification and Subject Index for Cataloguing and Arranging the Books and Pamphlets of a Library from 1876. This decimal classification scheme is still in use by a majority of libraries. He was followed by others; one exceptional person was the Belgian Paul Otlet (1868–1944), who developed the Universal Decimal Classification, recognised as one of the few implemen-tations of a faceted classification system. Today the system comprises more than 62,000 individual classifications, is translated into 30 languages and has considerable current use.

But more important is Otlet’s vision of the ‘Universal Book’, which he elaborated in Traité de Documentation. Le Livre sur le Livre : Théorie et pratique (1934). He saw each document in a universal database of document extracts, each ‘nugget of information’, related to all other documents using his classification scheme. He suggested that the database might be consulted at a distance; the end-user equipment was characterised as an ‘electric telescope’ (‘microphotothèque’, inspired by the emergent technology of television), linked to the database by telephone cables. The user would have an image of the original document projected onto a flat screen at his or her desk. ‘Thus, in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation or particular parts of it’. If you wished to describe the current World- Wide Web without using the current vocabulary, how much better could it be done?

These anecdotal flutters through the history of libraries and librarians are obviously not sufficient as a basis to argue that the library is an appropriate arena for enhancing the use of information technology for accessing information.

But the examples illustrate that libraries and librarians are not fused to one technology, the technology of paper. Their main brief is to make information – represented in a written form – available to the public. Computer technology removed the link between an object, like a book or a paper manuscript, and the data – typically a text. It is somewhat similar to the invention of the books of parch-ment replacing the papyri scrolls.

If I may be excused for becoming personal, I could mention a quartet of juvenile novels I published from 1975-1982 concerning the adventures of the star ship Alexandria. The name of the star ship was chosen because the crew were librarians. The star ship cruised among inhabited worlds. The only asset of sufficient value to demand the resources necessary for such voyages is knowledge. And the librarians used this knowledge to resolve conflicts at the alien planets they visited (and these conflicts are the plots of the novels).

I mention this only to emphasise that in my view librarians are the heroes of the information age. And one of the major points is that the information age did not start with computers. The computers and the development of information technology is part of a continuum starting with the cuneiform tablets of Sumer and the hieroglyphs of Egypt. There have been hiccups in the development, as in any major historical trend, but it has been continuous. Therefore it would be an obvious continuation of the mission of librarians to mediate the new possibilities of information technology to access and retrieve information in the form of data which are not carried by any physical object. A straight arrow flies from the librarians of Pergamum to the star ship Alexandria.

Of course the development of information technology has not reached a level where we may base policy conside-rations on the belief that in ten years the situation will be somewhat similar. Ten years ago Google was a project – literally – in a California garage. Facebook had not shown its visage, Twitter had not made its first birp. In ten years time the ‘Internet of things’ will probably be realised, if the investment going into it is any measure of probability. This implies that anything today having a bar code will by then have an accessible Internet address, similar to your own email address.

I hardly have the basis to explore the possibilities or problems of such a development. But it would be as though an envelope of virtual reality is wrapped around our real reality, that we may access anything – a book, a shirt, a fridge, the bottle of milk within the fridge … and that the objects can communicate among themselves.

Though a probable development cannot be prophesied, it may be sufficient to reflect on the obvious fact that the future will be different, and the difference is related to the use and processing of information. In such a situation, I expect my heroes to rise to the occasion and offer the public possibilities to enhance their knowledge and compe-tence in handling digital information. It is not a question of email. It is a question of your opportunities as a citizen in the digital future.

Jon Bing
Professor dr juris
The Norwegian Research Center for
Computers and Law (NRCCL)
The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo

jon.bing AT bingco.no

Professor dr juris The Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law (NRCCL) The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo