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TinotopiaLog → Information Technology (14 Nov 2000)
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Tuesday 14 November 2000

Information Technology

(in progress)

Not a complaint, exactly, but more of a reflection on how information technology has changed our lives. Or my life. I don’t presume to be an expert on your life.

I used to go to the library, a lot. The public library as well as the university library, because there are different kinds of information in each one.

The public library’s main asset was the collection of fairly expensive or esoteric (or both) information on offer. The Criss-Cross guide, the out-of-town phone books, the Federal Register, etc.

I hardly ever go to the library any more; there’s a lot more information available to me now sitting at my desk at home.

If you look at my complaints on the U.S. sugar support program, or the rate of representation of the U.S. Congress, or gun control, you’ll note that there are a lot of authoritative-looking figures in there.

I got these figure off of web sites, of course. The spreadsheets and various calculations that I used to twist them around to my way of thinking took quite a bit of time to cook up (I manage to prove that Canada is more violent than the United States, for instance), but the figures themselves I was able to get in less time than it would take me to find my keys preparatory to driving to the library.

But there’s some information that used to be easy to find at the library that’s now difficult or impossible to find online (or at all).

The problem is that the library used to buy what were effectively databases, in the form of huge books or sets of books, for thousands of dollars a year. Those resources were then available for free to anyone who could put themselves physically inside the library.

Now, though, those huge databases are published online or on CD-ROM, and the publishers have decided to wring as much money as possible out of their information. In most cases, it’s not available at all any more unless you’re personally willing to shell out a large amount of money. Some of them are available in their electronic form in libraries, but they’re always meant to be run on PCs, which never work right in a library environment — especially after they’re loaded down with all the censorware that libraries use now.

And that means that certain troves of information are effectively off-limits to the public now; without spending large amounts of money or making a special trip to the library (a special trip because 99% of your research can be done more effectively from your desk at home), you can’t get a short, well-written précis of the history of some obscure practice from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, or look up a word’s etymology in the Oxford English Dictionary.

(The particular problem of the OED doesn’t apply to me, since I got fed up and bought one. The EB you can’t buy any more; it’s only available on CD-ROM, DVD, and online. The content is all the same, but the system for searching and navigating the content is absolutely appalling and close to useless.)

A lot of these resources are priced the way they are because they’re not meant to be owned by individuals. You don’t want to use the OED as your primary dictionary; it’s too cumbersome. This is why the good people at Oxford University Press produce their $40 Oxford Concise dictionary as well as the $1000 OED. You use the $40 most of the time, and only resort to the OED for really obscure and specialized information. You and a few thousand other people pay taxes in part to support a library that makes the OED available for your use when you need it.

The Oxford University Press produce an on-line version of the dictionary. It costs $550 per year for a single license. What amounts to their site-license pricing starts at $795 (I assume also per year).

Ideally, library cards should become smartcards. You’d be able to stick your card into your computer, and gain access to all the resources that your library has subscribed to. Your library could pay their $1000 (the price of a printed version of the dictionary, which you get to keep forever and give to your heirs), and everyone who could prove that they were legitimate members of that library could access the OED (and everything else the library subscribed to) online, from home. The library could move into a smaller building, and use the savings to subscribe to yet more on-line resources.

I don’t see that happening any time soon, though.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that the information revolution has resulted in less information actually being available in some cases, and that we should watch out for new technology that’s actually a step backward.

Posted by tino at 22:05 14.11.00
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