Louis Schmier wrote a piece for Ariadne entitled No Miracles. Well, I have been around in academe for a bit longer even than Louis. I cut my teeth on computers working with a Univac at Toronto while starting on my PhD in 1954 - with Jess Bessinger trying to compile a computer concordance to Beowulf! I started teaching the Internet in 1990 when I became Director of the Library School at University College. In those days very few librarians had heard of it, and even fewer academics. What we had in 1990 was a modest collection of library catalogues, and a very brief guide written by Ed Krol, which later became The Whole Internet. Then came WWW, and the pace has accelerated to the point where it is frankly impossible to keep up with what I call added-value sites - i.e. sites which are devoted to research and not promotional. OCLC estimates that promotional sites account for about 60% of the Web, with a further 5% being abandoned or incomplete sites with nothing to offer, and a considerable number of sites offering varying degrees of pornography.
Our masters (that is to say, our governments and our vice chancellors, spurred on by Bill Gates) would have us believe in the indispensability of the Net: but, while I admit that there are some sites I find really useful, the burden of my research still depends exclusively on the books to be found in research libraries. That, say the visionaries, is all about to change as we enter the new millennium and publishers, acting in consortia with the support of research libraries, embark on spectacular enterprises to convert print to digital form and create digital libraries. This would, indeed, be a blessing for all who find it necessary to drag themselves to the great research libraries in order to get any serious research accomplished. But who is going to pay for me to stay in my barn in mid-Suffolk and avoid the perils of Anglia Rail and the commotion of London and yet have all the research tools I need delivered to my PC on demand?
Teaching materials for secondary schools and undergraduates will, I have no doubt, soon be readily available electronically. Such schemes enjoy governmental support because it is the first step in reducing the spiralling cost of education: schools, colleges and universities will be able to cut drastically the expense of acquiring teaching materials - i.e. books. The second stage will likely concern serials, a crippling burden on every librarian’s budget. But the third stage may well be the most interesting for it is likely that governments will realise that the existence of digital libraries of accepted texts could prepare the way for a radical re-think of education. Why, for example, should departments of English be in competition for students? Why not subscribe to the notion of distance learning? Not as an Open University option, but as a real alternative to the expensive business of maintaining expensive specialists at localised education sites. The opportunities for downsizing the education system provided by digital libraries are, I believe, too obvious to be ignored.
Some forms of book production will be unaffected by the electronic revolution: there will always be a place for pulp fiction, and the sort of books one finds remaindered at Dillons or Waterstones. Magazines will, I assume, continue to flourish as will newspapers. But what is going to replace the vast array of printed and manuscript sources currently available to the researcher? There are more books and archive files in the repositories of the civilised world than there have been souls on this planet since the age of Pericles. What will become of them?
The visionaries are, I suspect, not interested in such questions, believing that for every problem a culture encounters there will be an IT solution. That, I suggest, may be a very dangerous gamble.
While automation has certainly brought us many benefits, there is always a down side to every innovation. I think that a generation which is forced to depend on the computer screen for its information, its education, its entertainment will be a rather lonely one with correspondingly reduced interpersonal skills. But I can see no way of arresting the drift. Our love-affair with the machine is beyond reason: not because most of us wish it to be so, but because it has been made to be so.
Robin Alston is Professor of Librarianship and Information Studies at UCL.