Arizona: Whatís the Point?

Walt Crawford, July 18, 1999

Why did I upload my handout and speech from the 1992 Arizona State Library Association annual conference? Because those represent the oldest extant writing Iíve done on the future of libraries and print, and I thought it would be interesting to offer them up seven years later, unchanged, to see how things had gone. (I say "oldest extant writing" because I did a talk at California Library Association in 1989, on similar topics, but have long since lost any record of what I said there.)

So how did I do?

Background and Environment

Itís worth noting the situation in 1992. The World Wide Web? What was that? For Internet-savvy librarians, WAIS was the newest thing and Gopherspace was the universal organizing principle. I use "Bitnet/Internet" or "Internet/Bitnet" in the textsóbecause Bitnet was still a vital operation in 1992.

Does the World Wide Web really change everything? Yes and no. Look at some of my hits and misses. (Incidentally, if you find places where I messed up and didnít note it here, please send me e-mail: Iíll modify this page and give you credit.)

Most of the talk and the handout canít be judged as either hits or misses (good guesses or bad projections, if you prefer). I waxed philosophical then and still do. You may also note that quite a bit of this material wound up in Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality, albeit rewritten.

Oops: Misses in the Talk

I questioned the viability of CD-ROM encyclopedias, at a time when they cost $900 (for Comptonís). I was right at $900, but I was wrong on the general concept: CD-ROM encyclopedias at $0.33 (for the stamp for a rebate) to $50 or so have pushed print encyclopedias nearly out of the market. However, as noted below, I was right about CD-ROM not making it as a true mass market phenomenon, unfortunately.

Project Gutenberg: Hard to judge this one. I was making fun of Michael Hartís absurd claim that heíd already "given away" 2.6 billion e-texts, because there would be 100 million Internet users by 2001 and 26 e-texts had been posted by the summer of 1992. On one hand, it now appears that at least 100 million people will have Internet/Web access by 2001 (Hart now claims that more than a billion computers are already connected, showing that his mathematics havenít improved); on the other, my pointóthat there were fewer than 10 million in 1992, and that offering something up on the Internet is not the same as claiming that every single person wants it or will take itócontinues to be valid. I still regard Project Gutenberg as general nonsense, and Michael Hart as a tribute to continuing egomania.

"The most successful e-journals are those that have no subscription price and are produced entirely through volunteer labor." Unfortunately, most such grass-roots e-journals seem to have withered over the years.

"Telling the average public library patron that they can check various Internet nodes to find a good WAIS server to locate the information they really need is basically telling them to go to hell." True enoughóbut the Web and the many locator portals have made it a whole lot more realistic for patrons to find some of their own information. The problem now may be helping them to understand whatís information, whatís lies, and when theyíre better off with offline sources.

"Right now, thereís nothing in NREN development that makes me believe that elitism will cease to be a factor in online electronic access." True as it stands, but irrelevant: commercial development of the Web pretty much swept aside NRENís elitism.

***BIG OOPS*** I said that access to the Internet was non-trivial for most people, demanding a level of computer literacy and interest far beyond what the average person has or needs, and that I didnít see that changing at any great rate. For the U.S., at least, I was just plain wrong: the Web, inexpensive computers, and (sigh) AOL changed this situation entirely.

Oops Again: Misses in the Handout

In discussing readability problems with computer-based reading: "The point isnít that we should just wait a few years and all these problems will be solved. Some of them will be; others wonít." If seven years counts as "a few," then the last sentence is wrong: none of the problems have been solved or even significantly ameliorated.

In discussing print magazines (as opposed to journals), I mentioned Ziffnet on CompuServe as a way of getting portions of PC Magazine, but noted that "you will, of course, pay CompuServeís rates. After all, information isnít free." In fact, Ziffnet (now ZDNet) on the Web is "free" as in "advertiser-supported in an incredibly obtrusive manner." But it still doesnít make sense to convert PC Magazine to electronic formÖand Ziff-Davis doesnít plan to do so.

Similarly, for the "Daily Me" (personalized newspapers), I missed the possibility of "newspapers" so heavily laden with ads that they could be free to the end-user, with flat-rate Internet accounts covering download costs. The "Daily Me" is still an atrocious idea except as a supplement to real newspapers, but for the other reasons mentioned in the handout.

Close Enough: Good Guesses in the Talk

Printed books, magazines and physical libraries arenít likely to go away any time soon. Still true, and Iím ready to remove the qualifying "any time soon."

Dissing the Apple Newton as a Yuppie Scum Toy: right on the money. Newton, RIP: too big, too expensive, and too much of a compromise between real computer and specialized device.

Jerry Pournelleís claim that it takes two years from the time something is too powerful or arcane to the point that "you wonít know how youíve lived without it." I gave as examples full-color page scanners ($2,000 at the time), high-resolution 19" displays ($2,000-$3,000), and $3,000-$5,000 write-once optical discs, with Pournelleís assurance that every serious writer has one as a matter of course. Fact is, seven years later, most people still see no need for page scanners, even at $100 or less; although I wouldnít do without my 18"-viewable (19") display (now around $650), such large screens still make up less than 10% of the display marketóand as for write-once optical discs (not CD-R, but WORM), those are just barely still in production. Pournelleís grand platform, Byte, has gone away.

The "Library-of-the-Month Club" (another Pournelle brainstorm): didnít happen, probably never will, whether on CD-ROM or through subscription e-book services.

Sets of magazines on CD-ROM, running on a Sony Data DiscMan and wiping out print magazines: didnít happen, and the DiscMan is off the market. There are a few Web-based magazines, but print magazine publishing still dominates.

Mass-market CD-ROM: I didnít see a true mass market emerging, particularly not with multi-hundred-dollar CD-ROM prices. (I thought $80 for a Beethoven symphony with multimedia features was silly. Unfortunately for CD-ROM publishers, I was more right here than I wanted to be. CD-ROM never did become a true mass market, even with reasonably-priced CD-ROMs; the sole exception may be encyclopedias. Call this part hit, part miss.

"Electronic broadsides" as a significant new form of communication. Here, the Web has made as big a difference as listservs, or maybe bigger. Now, you can not only send a broadside to thousands of list members, you can post it on a Web site for the world to see.

I questioned hypertext as a universal solution to anything, noting that it actually requires either new writing skills or editorial interference. This is becoming clearer: hypertext narrative is a very tricky thing to pull off.

"Some observers say that libraries must abandon the printed word because todayís generationÖhas itself abandoned the printed word." Some observers are still saying that, although thereís substantial evidence to the contrary. Juvenile and YA publishing, and magazine publishing for teens and young adults, are as healthy as ever (or more so).

Printed books, magazines, and newspapers will be vitally important for a very long time to come: Yep.

Still Close Enough:
Good Guesses in the Handout

In discussing the predominance of failed innovations, I mentioned several that were still on the market: DataROM, Compact Disc Interactive, CD-Video, Digital Video Interactive, and Drexelís LaserCard, with the latter in niche applications. Oh yes, and "digital paper." The LaserCard continues in niche applications; the others have pretty much disappeared; and now we get different kinds of "digital paper," with the original high-density storage medium having never made it out of the labs. (My prediction for the new MIT and Xerox "digital paper" initiatives? Likely to be very difficult to scale up to mass manufacture; certainly wonít displace most traditional books, magazines, and newspapers within the next decade, and probably not in my lifetime if ever. One or both could simply fade away except for very specialized uses.)

I warned of the difficulty of dealing with failed digital media. Bingo: digital archiving is one of the biggest issues libraries face now and for the future. RLGís working on it. Wish us luck.

New media typically complement older media: still trueóand vinyl LPs have actually staged a small comeback since 1992!

Readability problems with electronic publications: this is truly startling. Seven years later, the only changes Iíd need to make in the section are (a) that most high-quality CRTs actually have about 100 pixels per inch in each direction, but theyíre typically used to display at 72-75 dpi, and (b) that even most cheap printed output is now 600dpi or better. There has been essentially no improvement in computer-based readability in seven years, except for the ubiquity of proportional text.

Unfortunately, my thoughts on STM journals were also on the money. "Will such displacement [of commercial journals by low-cost electronic equivalents] really happen? I hope so, but Iím not terribly sanguine." The proposed massive consortial nonprofit publishing operation was hopeless and didnít happen; SPARC and other smaller initiatives do represent worthwhile "partial solutions," but "partial" is the key word here.

"For libraries to realize savings, the journals need to be in nonprofit hands, in institutions where the small level of demand doesnít pose a problem [for print-on-demand models]." Still true; the big STM publishers have made it very clear that they wonít support anything that could potentially reduce income.

I didnít believe that WAIS would scale to large heterogeneous databases. It didnít and doesnít. And I still "donít believe there is a universal solution for truly massive full-text bases, one that allows you to treat the entire collection of material as a single searchable entity and hope to make effective use of the results."

Summing Up

A few big misses, a few significant "good guesses," and loads of argumentation and philosophy. Not too bad, given that I claim to be an observer, not a "true futurist" or prophet.


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Written and posted July 18, 1999