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Research Commentary on the Spire Project

The Third Avenue
By David Novak

As we begin to drown in the digital debris of our information powered lives, three distinct approaches have emerged to organize the Internet. The first is the commercial approach. The second is the volunteer approach. The third: the slowly emerging library-led approach.

Not much is known, much less achieved, of the library-led approach to internet organization. We have MetaData (Dublin Core), essentially a method to apply Dewey and Library of Congress subject classifications to the web. We also have the beginnings of many National Subject Gateways - essentially a method to apply topic specialization like that of specialty libraries, to the web.

Before I continue, I must express my own frame of reference. I am an avowed Information Liberator, a techy, a sociologist, a bit of a hacker-rebel, and one of the world's very best internet researchers. (Consider attending my one of my seminars one day.)

I do not work in the library establishment.

So what could I possibly say about the librarian community's emerging Internet development approach?

To start, we can gain a great deal of clarity by looking at other two approaches. Consider the commercial approach. For many companies, the Internet is a gold rush and they are the miners. From the behemoth of Yahoo, funded to the tusks by the stock market, to the market wanna-be's with little more than dreams of a future commercial payoff, everything is greased by the attention of potential consumers, or the interests of potential advertisers. Value is defined by the likelihood a visitor can be persuaded to purchase something, anything. This may appear brutal and heartless but a commercial effort must justify its involvement

Consider also, the Volunteer approach. The legions of volunteers with surplus time and expertise offered by internet aficionados the world over. These are the people who type in the thousands of classics into the book archives like Gutenberg Project or the Online Book Initiative so you can read the classics for free. These are the programmers who spawn cool programs to distribute songs of uncertain copyright. These same people work hard to link, organize and create roadmaps to the many resources online. Collectively, it represents an approach built, it must be said, as much on a love of chaos as a need to find something online.

The volunteer model... well, is rather chaotic. If you can prepare any kind of model which does not take money, can grow with little more than grass-roots enthusiasm and free promotion, then we are in. For the most part, it has to be small enough to be a personal effort and small enough to be done before I get bored and want to do something else. Still got something, and if it is just a little bit 'cool', then we will sign up in droves.

Back to the library approach. Yes, this bastion of publicly funded information workers are finally having an impact on the way we find information. State library book catalogues include links to Internet resources. The library makes incomplete efforts to organize some of the information guides - and better success chaperoning speciality libraries into becoming National Subject Gateways.

If eventually a clear development approach is to emerge, we can say a great many things that it is not going to be. It is not going to be another Yahoo or W3Virtual Library. These are essentially lists of resources. Volunteers are very good at creating lists. People who seek information often create lists as a by-product. Librarians certainly could too - but then it most certainly is not a new approach, nor particularly an effective approach. We can expect something better from the pool of the best information workers the world has available.

Looking at all three approaches, we have some stark differences. Commercial interests are in there for the money, something the volunteers and libraries generally overlook. Volunteers build websites without sophisticated planning, resources or goals, something the libraries and commercial interests clearly avoid. Libraries approach this with collusion in mind, gathering buy-in and assistance into each project, something commercial and volunteer efforts have generally little time for.

Each approach also has a different vision of its end result. Libraries, with projects like Dublin Core and National Information Gateways, focus firmly on persistent resources in specific topics. Think either a giant Library of Congress (complete with Library of Congress classification scheme) or think a giant distributed network of libraries, each with selective specialization and collective responsibility.

I tend to view this as the bureaucratic model. I also feel the library approach has fundamental difficulties incorporating more and more resources. In internet parlance, this approach does not scale well.

When asked about the future of the Internet, I frequently come back to the dilemma of having billions of websites on every topic imaginable. Make no mistake; we will be inundated with information online. There is too much information in the world to start with, and we are digitizing our lives too fast for anything less than complete information overload. (See an earlier article on this topic.)

And yet, efforts originating from these approaches will still dramatically rewrite the landscape. Commercial organizations continue to push hard at facilitating consumerism. Libraries will slowly gain speed on building the structural supports that will link together a collection of persistent and fundamental resources.

Commercial projects scale better but run into difficulties at higher levels. Directories like Yahoo do not keep pace with the growth of important resources. There is no way they will keep up with the less-important resources. Even the 1.6billion webpages indexed by Google is a small fraction of available resources. And worse, the more rapidly changing addresses suffer link-rot.

The volunteer efforts, let it be said, may be just chaotic enough to bring a rough chaos to the Internet. Individuals creating link pages that bring together resources they know in a small enough field to generate good coverage. That these projects are inherently unstable (having grave difficulties justifying the efforts involved over time) and rapidly mutating make them hard to pin down. Such projects, and the resources involved, also suffer from sufficient instability to make the commercial and library efforts sufficiently difficult.

In fact I would predict the volunteer efforts at organizing specific resources would die out completely for lack of traffic were traffic so unimportant to the volunteers.

The Internet is a fascinating resource. It grows, it eats, it breathes a particularly sweet breath of anticipation. I eagerly await the next chapter in its development, the next declaration of the latest 'great leap forward' knowing full well the information we are surrounded by will grow and challenge and likely humble each of our grand plans in turn.

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David Novak, founder of the Spire Project, delivers seminars on Exceptional Internet Research around the world. I hope to see you one day. for details.

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