Book Review: The Information Society - A Study of Continuity and Change
The Information Society: A Study of Continuity and Change by John Feather, Facet Publishing, 2004, 220 pages, paperback ISBN 1 85604 497 1 Price £22.95
In 2000, John Feather concluded the 3rd edition certain that libraries would endure as concrete entities due to the investment of time and money they represent and as bookstores. In this latest edition he is no longer sure, describing the library as no longer a location, but a concept and asking such tough questions as what place do librarians occupy in the context of these new developments and what challenges to our fundamental attitudes and skills must we overcome as we adapt to changing times.
An alternative subtitle for this book could well be 'A brief history of everything' as within its 220 pages it covers topics as wide ranging as cave paintings, cuneiform, the invention of zero, third world economies, new information technologies, the printing press, globalisation and copyright together with a brief overview of freedom of information, data protection and the field of records management. Intended primarily for students of library and information studies, this book is also a useful overview for the established professional as it encourages us all to take a step back from our everyday concerns and take a look at the society in which we work and how traditional librarianship is evolving. The book is divided in to 4 main sections:
- The historical dimension
- The economic dimension
- The political dimension
- The information profession
The first section puts the enormous developments of the last 25 years into perspective. Though the mass media and the Internet have changed our society in permanent and profound ways, the development of the alphabet and invention of the printing press were, in their time, no less momentous. All are responses to the fundamental need of human societies to record, store and disseminate information, so any examination of the 'information society' is right to examine this need and the means we have found to express it, rather than become fixated on charting developments in computing.
The author says 'In essence, this book is to provoke thought rather than merely convey fact' and although many facts are certainly conveyed in this whistle-stop tour of civilisation, there are many interesting considerations. John Feather likens the alphabet to the computer in its flexibility and ability to transmit information across time and in different languages. This initial development then led to the printing press, which brought about the first information explosion where for the first time ideas, facts and propaganda could be transmitted relatively cheaply and to anyone with the skills of literacy. Although confined to ideas, which could be expressed in verbal form, the press was then complemented by cinema, radio and television. It's worth remembering that, amid all the concern over the quality and pervasiveness of information available over the Internet, the broadcast media still reach the most people and inform most opinion. The historical inaccuracies of films such as U-571and Braveheart arguably have greater impact through the cinematic medium than if they were found on the Internet. It is too easy to fall into the trap of becoming too focussed on the computer as transmitter of information.
In part 2 : the economic dimension, the author visits the commercial background to the publishing industry and examines information as a commodity which can be expensive to produce and supply. The different concepts of multi-user resources such as a single copy of a printed book, compared to restricted use of licensed databases, and the solidarity and endurance of print compared to the impermanence of electronic resources are discussed in turn, including how the processes involved in the traditional publishing industry have been applied and adapted in e-publishing. Feather also mentions the global conglomerates such as Reed Elsevier, Time Warner and, the biggest behemoth of all, Murdoch's News Corporation, and points out how these companies quite often contain 'a multitude of competing and complementary sectors' within themselves.
He also exposes oddities such as the long endurance of the Net Book Agreement on the grounds that diversity of opinion would be stifled by competition, while the same concern was not extended to newspaper publishing, where the he suggests the spectrum of opinion available has narrowed as titles have merged or folded. He then links the Net Book Agreement to a timely consideration of the BBC's charter during its current renewal and consultation period. Describing the public library as an 'icon of civilised society' does not prevent him from recognising them as huge customers of the commercial book trade and leads him to return to the emerging theme of this book - the way libraries are changing from providers of a service to buyers, sellers and facilitators of information.
He also points out that a workable World Wide Web was only developed in 1991. In the early days of this new technology, as before in printing and written representations of language, there is bound to be a period of anarchy and uncertainty until new patterns of production and use emerge and become established. In dealing with the new technologies, it is important to keep an eye on the longer-term historical perspective and recognise we are by no means 'there' yet - wherever 'there' may turn out to be.
The process of peer review and scholarly publishing is one area still slow to adapt to the new environment and the reasons for this are explored, as well as recognising that we are now dealing with an environment in which it is fast becoming as impossible to lack basic IT skills as it is to be illiterate in the traditional sense. The new technologies have extended the potential for access to information but are also the means of restricting access to those lacking the equipment or the skills.
These ideas lead neatly into part 3 : the political dimension in which the John Feather discusses globalisation and the many different ways in which societies can be information-poor - from the developing world handicapped by poverty and limited infrastructure, to the developed world where people actively choose to be more informed about the lives of soap stars than current affairs. The concept of information overload is also touched on, with the interesting thought that some US journalists have complained that the sheer amount of information made freely available by their government is in itself a way of obscuring awkward facts from general scrutiny. This section also deals with the wealth of detailed information the state maintains - from tax returns to health to census information - and the laws which control its use, and usefully contrasts the British approach with that of other countries and legal codes.
In part 4 : the information profession, the author moves on to what all this means for us - the professionals in the workplace. The central question here is what purpose does a librarian serve when so many of our users can now tune in or log on without our involvement. Perhaps 'librarian' is now a subset of 'information professional' rather than simply a different label. Certainly the profession has shifted to be a more service oriented activity providing information services, rather than the former 'custodian' role. Increasingly we are becoming managers, trainers and facilitators rather than providers as librarians respond to the widespread need for the information searching and management skills which used to define the profession.
Ten years ago, when I started my first post, when a colleague went online it was a nerve- rackingly tense operation due to the pressure to get relevant results as quickly and therefore as cheaply as possible. Nowadays, with easier search interfaces and bills based on information retrieved rather than time spent online, searching is increasingly coming within the grasp of everyone, with the librarian moving into the role of facilitator, trainer or advisor.
Finally, Feather discusses the roles of archivist and records manager, both of whom have been forced to confront changing technologies at an earlier stage as they deal with the need to ensure stored materials remain accessible.
This is necessarily a very general book but well written and extremely useful to any student of information, at any stage of their career. For those wanting to explore the topics covered in more depth, there is a short section of suggested further reading.