Celebrating a significant birthday, this conference featured retrospection as well as prediction and picked up on some of the repeating patterns inherent in electronic information and retrieval systems.
Charles Oppenheim began with a retrospective on the birth and development of UKOLUG (Birth of a Generation), commenting on the importance of archives despite having been there himself - his memory and the official record differing somewhat alarmingly. He conveyed the sense of frantic activity during the early years of online and the ability that UKOLUG had to shape the emergent industry - a theme picked up the next day by John December who was to challenge librarians to shape the web. Oppenheim finished with two tantalising suggestions: to reassess the status of UKOLUG as a special interest group affiliated to the IIS, especially in the context of the possible IIS and LA merger; to review the activities of the group over the coming decade.
Karen Blakeman continued the historical theme by drawing attention to the way that, even in IT, history has a tendency to repeat itself (Advances in IT: History Repeats Itself). Users are still grappling with computers that might have little processing power, PCs with insufficient RAM and disc space to carry out required tasks, examples of incomprehensible software, unreliable telecommunications and erratic transfer rates.
In a humorous swipe, Blakeman questioned how user friendly a GUI interface is to someone who has never used a mouse before. Why should a GUI interface make complicated communications software easier to understand? Even the Internet resembles the old days in terms of unreliable access, lack of robustness, dearth of security and poor error messages, to mention only a few issues. Indeed, wherever hardware and processing speeds have improved, software has bloated to fill the space and can therefore slow down the system.
However, not all is doom and gloom. Another thing that has not changed is the librarian's ability to adapt to the situation and to exploit information as enthusiastically as ever. Indeed, it can now be done from home.
Phil Holmes, as a publisher, posed the question: Is the information industry growing in the right way? (Growth of the information Industry - Growing in the Right Way?) His answer was an admittedly personal perception. Like information professionals he is concerned with quality and the fact that the huge quantity of material on the Internet can obscure the high quality material. He is dismayed that search engines have been developed by IT professionals, with resultant poor performance.
On the subject of publishing on the Internet he maintained that the amount of free material of questionable quality has created a climate of expectation, so that any publisher wishing to put up material has to think carefully about how to add value to that material in order to justify charging for it. This has resulted in a dearth of high quality published information. He suggested a range of ways to exploit new media and to add value to information on the web.
As the delegates contemplated the task of reviewing the activities of UKOLUG, the repeating pattern of technological frustration and the importance of adding value in order to be valued and to survive in our profession, Richard Eskins smoothed furrowed brows by providing a Web cruise of Manchester. He presented web sites that relate to or describe Manchester and its people, places and organisations, whilst commenting on their design and usefulness. This conveyed the vibrancy of Manchester and created a desire to get out into the city to experience it. Manchester's priorities lie: in the support of learning provision for local services; economic development and inward investment; improving quality of life and becoming an internationally important city of the future. This summer sees it taking on the role of Digital City and plans include the Manchester Telecommunications Network Partnership, development of the Electronic Village Halls, a multimedia centre at MMU to support SMEs, Manchester Community Information, and much more.
The morning of the second day saw the programme splitting into two strands. There was an interesting double act from Amanda Wait and Cath Dyson on using the Electronic Village Hall schemes, already mentioned, to provide access to the information society for disadvantaged groups. Wait and Dyson drew attention to the differences in how Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) are conceptualised by groups like women, older people, black people and young male whites. They highlighted the fact that availability of equipment is not always sufficient to entice women, the older generation or people with learning difficulties, for example, into using ICT. Their motivation and confidence need to be addressed, and this can be done by putting computers into places, like libraries, Citizens Advice Bureaux or Asda, that form a familiar context for such people. In order to develop their motivation, ICT must be made relevant to their needs. Issues of language and literacy also need to be addressed.
The two speakers provided details of the Women's EVH and the Chorlton EVH, the latter catering for disadvantaged groups including unwaged adults, people who speak English as a foreign language and the disabled. The Electronic Village Halls provide child care, travel expenses and free admission. Participants are introduced to computers, and the inculcation of a sense of ownership of the technology is crucial to success. This was a particularly thought-provoking presentation to an audience for whom ICT is already well established in working and home environments.
Maintaining the caring theme, Kathy Bruckner presented the human issues for information managers in her paper Well -Being at Work. She stressed the importance of people as a valuable resource in all organisations and the fact that working with technology necessitates flexibility and adaptability.
Bruckner drew attention to the psychological aspects of the design of IT based working environments, and the information overload which increased ICT within the workplace generates, as well as looking into the legislation (both UK and EC) concerned with the physical aspects of ICT at work. She discussed the role of training in relation to IT and the value of a human factors strategy to an organisation.
One of the most visionary papers of the conference was given by Martin White on information industry trends. Like all good forecasters, White first stepped back, to 1978 and 1988. He described the current situation where the Web is dominant and is creating a radical shift in the fortunes of companies within the information industry. Information cultures have created the situation where users' perceptions are being shaped by the Web and where integration of external information into organisational information processes is particularly important for effective decision-making. Intranets are having an even greater impact on the information industry than the Web. Pricing models that work online do not necessarily work on the Web. He mentioned the role of push and pull technologies suggesting that changes to these will take place in months rather than years.
However, White believes that the most substantial increase in the next decade will be in the home market. He bravely listed his predictions for 2008, his conclusions being that the market for legacy systems is stagnant, that the office location is under threat, that branding of information products will be paramount, networks and channel management will increase in importance over and above content, but that technology must be used with discretion.
Sticking with the future theme, Adrienne Muir of BLRIC gave an overview of the future directions of library and information research in the UK. The budget of £1.47M for 1998/99 represents a 10% cut on last year and drew misgivings from the audience about the government's commitment to BLRIC and its aims.
Muir outlined the eight research programmes set up by BLRIC. She then went on to indicate some of the possible future calls for research: preservation, including digital preservation and archiving; information retrieval via Internet searching, multimedia and image retrieval; providers and users, emphasising access for the disadvantaged; coping with information overload.
John Davies of BT Laboratories spoke about software agents for information management. He touched on the benefits of Intranets, then the problems of information overload and, finally, the solution offered by information agents.
Jasper is an agent that holds an evolving personal profile of each user. Its strength lies in working with a community of users, encouraging the sharing of information. Jasper checks profiles and emails back any relevant information that matches the profiles.
Pro-Search, on the other hand, finds pages from the Web, Intranet, online news and usenet groups and clusters them into topic areas of interest to the user, eliminates duplicate results, sends out searches periodically and searches off-line, judges quality of documents against certain criteria, scores and sorts results and summarises each document/site.
Pro-Sum is a text summariser that picks out key sentences from documents, taking into account users' personal interests, and gives a summary varying in length according to the specifications set.
The benefits of agent technology are: managing information overload; personalising information retrieval; sharing information to the benefit of the whole organisation. This all adds up to better knowledge management.
Whilst information agents are fairly familiar to librarians, Davies then gave us a glimpse of some longer term research being carried out at BT on the use of visualisation, by means of colour and motion, to help people to organise and prioritise their information.
John December immediately assaulted audience sensibilities in his paper on Balancing Technology and Competence. He advocated a proactive approach to the Web, expanding on the two main opportunities: to shape the information available on the web; to take leadership in setting standards.
In his discussion of technological determinism, December developed the theme of understanding the Web as a medium for human communication, and echoed Martin White's plea to use technology appropriately. He propounded the use of Java for interactivity and XML for meaning-making activities. He suggested that professional library associations should lobby for document type definitions for XML since W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) is not likely to address this. In throwing down the challenge to librarians to shape the information environment in which they work, he elicited several responses which were rather dubious about the power of librarians to do this.
The conference moved on to something clearer and more straight forward in Legal Issues of the Internet: Recent Developments from Andrew Charlesworth. This was basically an update on the issues he had raised in a similar paper at the conference two years ago. As Web technology is now more mature the Internet is more commercial. Although there is more awareness of the rules, they are still broken. The new kinds of legal disputes are about determining the future of the Web.
In terms of cases relating to copyright, like linking to other people's images, linking to the information content on a web site and avoiding the advertising that sponsors it, the issues are more to do with how the Web is used, rather than actual content protection.
A subject which did not form a large part of his paper, two years ago, was that of spamming - hijacking email servers to send out junk mail, for example. This is an increasing area for concern.
From reminiscences to challenges and rallying cries, the 20 year birthday conference was a milestone on a long and inspiring route for the information professional.