By Koenig, Michael E. D.
American Libraries , Vol. 21, No. 9
Let patrons evaluate materials - in you automated catalogs. A daring proposal from a leading educator.
THE CONTINUING EVOlution of information technology will soon enable, and indeed require, changes both in the design of information systems and in the way librarians define their roles. Why will these change take place? The answer lies in the convergence of technological know-how and patron need. Technology has now developed to the point that we can dramatically improve our library information systems' selectivity and performance. Increasingly, patrons will expect from librarians and information systems advice about the authoritativeness, or intellectual worth, of material by making available user-supplied data (USD) - evaluative comments from other users about specific holdings.
Software capable of such feats is rapidly evolving - the buzz word is hypertext. What I propose is simply that 1) access mechanisms to bibliographic information and to full text will gain hypertext-like flexibility, and that 2) USD will dominate the data generated by libraries or publishers in those systems.
Cynics might say that we must needs develop USD-friendly systems because library users will want them whether they need them or not. In fact, our patrons need such systems desperately.
The information explosion has continued unabated, despite Derek Price's 1963 prediction (1) that the exponential growth of scientific literature would have to level off, probably in the 1970s. Not only has that never happened, but there is no indication of it leveling off soon. (2) Conversely, Brian Aveney has speculated that the growth of information technology will cause information to mushroom even more rapidly. (3) Perhaps Aveney's theory explains why Price's prediction failed. In any case, today's debate is not over whether the information explosion will continue, but merely about its growth rate.
But while the information explosion continues to grow, our ability to selectivity retrieve is not keeping pace. True, a parallel information controllability explosion has made us better able to store, transmit, and selectively retrieve appropriate material in a Boolean sense. (4) But paradoxically, we have created a new problem for ourselves by achieving some measure of control. We can retrieve more articles than ever based on a concept, a keyword, or combinations thereof. But how do we have weigh the likely utility of those articles? In the past, we have relied on library users to browse and scan the retrieved set. But our ability to amass more material during a search has also increased the bottleneck of potentially relevant documents to examine.
Librarians have spent the last third of a century attempting to devise systems that enable their patrons to more effectively judge the relevance or likely utility of materials - with embarrassingly little success, as Cyril Cleverdon's Cranfield test so painfully revealed. (5) We can certainly hope to make more progress in that direction; there is real potential for the library application of artificial intelligence techniques, but progress will not be easy and it will not be quick. (6) What we can do with relative ease and effectiveness is to satisfy our patron's need to assess the authoritativeness of documents by adding hypertext capabilities to library information systems. Then, users could input evaluative data directly.
Library patrons want authoritative information. This surely is not news to most librarians, nor to students of scholarly or other communications. A 12-year-old may want the straight skinny from Jane's All the World's Aircraft, while a high school student may seek six "good" articles on Ukrainian nationalism. A graduate student may want to know whether William Wimsatt is still considered the authority on Alexander Pope, and a researcher may need to determine the most authoritative hypotheses about the probable relationships between cytokines and thyroid epithelial cell growth. …