FYI France

File 10.1993a FYI France Essay :


July, 1993

Europe -- at least -- Discovers the Users

by Jack Kessler,

For Connexions: the Interoperability Report,
v. 7 n. 7, July, 1993, p. 16, available from the Connexions Archive in elegant .pdf at,
-- this article also appeared in the EARN / European Academic & Research Networks Newsletter,
Number 4, December 1992.





The idea of a "Network 'Services' Conference" came to Europe at the beginning of last November. It hasn't arrived in the US or elsewhere, yet, and in all cases is a bit overdue. There was much of interest for anyone who loves libraries, books, networked information, or European ways of looking at things, and for anyone blessed or cursed with the need for working on a computer.

The Pisa conference brought some leading lights from North American information networking -- Peter Deutsch, creator of Archie (not the comic book, although he carries that with him), and John "Matrix" Quarterman -- together with network leaders from all over Europe, to discuss what to do about a new topic: the users. There were many librarians there: most of us were left fascinated, but also shaking our heads and groaning. It seems that the great amount of work so far done to help users on the networks leaves much still to be done, in both Europe and elsewhere.



The conference, sponsored by European Academic and Research Network / EARN and a group of several other organizations, attracted 360 participants, from 46 countries, and by all accounts was highly provocative and successful.

Sessions covered "New Global Information Tools" -- World-Wide Web, WAIS, Gopher, Hyper-G, Archie and the Soft Pages Project, "Beyond ASCII" (imaging, and ISO standards), "The Electronic Library" (projects in Israel and France, "The Virtual Library", Project PegUn/Janus at Columbia University), "Delivering Messages to the Desktop", "Central and Eastern Europe", "User Support", "Special Interest Communities" (Electronic Pierce, biology, chemistry, Human Genome), "Managing Network Information Services", and "Information Overload". It was for me a very different European version of the birthpangs of this technology's application.


Opening Keynote

The first keynote speaker, Peter Deutsch, delivered a fascinating and funny talk -- speaking at his accustomed rate, described as "56k with no flow-control" -- about the necessity now for "building networks, not just network links", for "real services, not just projects", and for "not explaining, but hiding" FTP and the various other user's tools so far developed. "Nobody ever wanted a V4 inch drill bit", he asserted, "they wanted a V4 inch hole". The time has come, he said, to provide real information on the networks, and not just tools for getting there.



Deutsch distinguished four purposes for existing network tools:

The tools and projects which exist, he said fall into four groups:

But the networks will be "useful only if populated with useful information", Deutsch said. "Librarians", moreover, "should be running the networks, not the UNIX weenies". He is concerned about the latter's penchant for reinventing the wheel first developed by the former. "It's going to be services", he concluded, "if someone around you starts talking technology, watch out".


Imaging projects

Anne Mumford, in "Beyond ASCII," pointed out that the problem with images arriving now is their use, rather than the more technical problems of their storage: image users will want to cut and paste, insert, catalog, index, and change formats, just as they now do with ASCII, she said.

She mentioned CARL's Group 3 fax format journal project, "Chemistry On-line Retrieval Experiment / CORE" which stores the page and ASCII and a picture caption index, Northern Telecom's "Computer Graphics Metafile / COM" format, and Elsevier's project for issuing 35 imaged journals on CD-ROM.


Standards: first round

Borka Jerman-Blazic described the Herculean/Augean effort currently going in to develop international standards for software. The world has over 3000 spoken languages, she pointed out, over 100 of these written: 50% use the Latin alphabet, but the other 50% use over 23 different alphabets, counting only those which have over 1 million users. So users come to the networks familiar with Latin diacritic and non-diacritic alphabets, non-Latin alphabets (Cyrillic, Greek), diacritical scripts (Arabic, Hebrew), and syllabic (Kanna Japanese) and ideographic (Chinese) written modes of expression.

One might just make them all learn American English, but then again they might not want to, and they simply might not. ISO 10646, a standard on which she is working, specifies over 65,000 characters in world languages: she bravely asserted both that it will accommodate UNICODE, and that conforming commercial products will begin to appear next year.


The French libraries and ILL

Christine Deschamps delivered an elegant overview, of the vast array of current events in France. She described their work on a national ILL "union catalog": SQL request handling, an X.25 ILL system which batches requests, and a project to develop an "OSI/Interlending OSI Network" (ISO 10161 and 10162) to connect their effort to similar projects in The Netherlands and the UK.

In document delivery, she mentioned the now-ended "FOUDRE" project, which used digital scanning and attempted to capture and store text, as it was scanned, for future digital use: this ran into both money and copyright problems. A newer "Electronic Document Interchange for Libraries / EDIL" project, with the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Portugal is proceeding, although there still are copyright problems, she said.



Jill Foster, one of the Program Committee members, emphasized the PC background of users, in her presentations on "User Support." She mentioned the large and expanding work group on User Support, "RARE ISUS WG," which now draws from many different international groups, and itself supports user-support work groups in fields as diverse as cetacean studies, developmental psychiatry, diaČbetes studies, and marine technology.

An excellent report edited by Foster, which arrived belatedly after wrestling its way through Italian customs, summarizes European efforts in the user support area: "User Support and Information Services in the RARE Community -- A Status Report," RARE Technical Report 1, RARE Working Group 3, Subgroup USIS, 1st edition, March, 1992. Taking a phrase from her countryman Lorcan Dempsey, Jill reminded the conference that the networks now, "present users with a flea market, when what is needed is a department store": user support badly needs such network organizing, she said.


User support at Cornell

Carole Lambert, from Cornell University, described the hard-nosed managerial analysis to which they subjected their local version of the "computer-center-versus-library" competition in information provision which plagues every campus. "We hit the wall," she said, "with a service that wouldn't scale":

Their new model, she said, presents a "scalable method of delivery": they decided to,

Most of all though, at Cornell, they are trying to change the attitudes and expectations of the users: "we want to make independence easier than dependence," said Lambert, "we teach the users problem diagnosis and resolution along with traditional user skills... we will be there, but we want them to rely on themselves more than they rely on us".


Cost -- an idea whose time is about to arrive

Thomas Johannsen, originally of Dresden and now of just-north-of-Tokyo, made a fascinating presentation of SoftPages, his "distributed database for fileserver contents" (e.g., Archie, WAIS), which has a built-in module for computing usage "cost," in terms of "economic distance" -- using speed, tariff, traffic and priority parameters.

Johannsen's presentation struck a chord in the conference: everyone is getting a new awareness of usage costs, as the "academic test-bed" history of the networks recedes and the "commercial" age dawns, and you could see many minds in the audience quickly considering the logistics of building in similar "costing" modules to other tools, following Johannsen's suggestion. (The NREN legislation in the US calls for precisely this sort of new approach: "The Network shall...have accounting mechanisms which allow users or groups of users to be charged for their usage of copyrighted materials..." High Performance Computing Act of 1991. t.l,s.l02,c,6.)


Comprehensive approach

Willem Scholten presented Project Janus, Columbia University Law Library's effort to:

The project involves participation by Thinking Machines Corporation, the university's main and health sciences libraries, the law library, and the United Nations Library Human Rights Collection.

One critical goal was preservation of the law library's unique and rapidly-deteriorating collections of Nuremberg (375,000 double-sided pages) and Rosenberg (250,000 double-sided pages) trial documents. Their solution uses a special XWAIS, a highly-customized version of the publicly-available WAIS tool, digitization with OCR, optical and magnetic tape, and Z39.50 and ISO's SR/1, two "Sun Sparc workstation networks," a "Xerox Docutech 7000 scanner and OCR system," and a "CM2-32K Thinking Machines parallel processing super-computer": all the latest stuff.

Many hands have been in on the project: the law school publishes 13 legal periodicals, for example, and the goal of getting such publishing costs back in-house is being approached through SGML and electronic publishing on the system. The reference desk is interested in information which has time value and takes too long to get into print: the system loaded the North American Free Trade Agreement recently and at last count was getting 200-250 "hits" per day on that resource, and similar figures have been achieved for on-line versions of the Maastricht Treaty and the papers of the Rio Conference on the Environment. One other library dream, of loading fulltext direct from commercial publishers, also at least is under discussion with Simon & Schuster: user licenses for the library, based on a flat fee with royalties for downloading.


Closing Keynote

John Quarterman began his conference-closing keynote address with the warning that he would not make predictions -- "my crystal ball's kinda cloudy", he said -- and then he proceeded to make them. He has put together a wonderfully-interesting series of maps, all using data taken from various domain-name registries and servers, showing where all the network use is taking place in the world -- surprising activity patterns in Iceland, Australia, Moscow, Hong Kong -- and suggesting a continuing rate of usage growth so phenomenal as to be catastrophic for both the networks and librarians. It seems still that only Quarterman, despite his good influence exerted since the 1988 publication of his book, The Matrix, has the breadth of vision, and the patience, to look at all the world's information networks -- Internet, EARN, BITNET, etc. -- as a whole.



Program Committee chairman Dennis Jennings mused about this, pointedly, to the several US attendees and speakers: "You must remember that you are one, gigantic, country, while we are by comparison a very large, but still very disunited, collection of very small countries". It is interesting to consider whether the US or the European "consensus-model" will more readily "scale up" to the rapidly-evolving world information Matrix.


Information overload

Network Services '92, then, came to the conclusion that it may well become impossible to service the networks during the next few years: too many, too much, understood and aided by too few... The glass which appears half empty, however, also is half full. There will be many more users and many more things to do. Dennis Jennings also pointed out, however, that the evolution of the telephone was aided by a paradigm shift: fears early in this century that there never would be enough telephone operators were answered by the users becoming the operators themselves. Just so, Jennings insists, a paradigm shift will occur in networked information. The bottlenecks which exist today -- of costs and hardware capacities and user training and clumsy interfaces -- may be resolved ultimately by similar shifts: "transparent" interfaces, "invisible" technologies, "paperless" libraries, "hypertext" organization and access -- it's hard to tell what from here, but something.


A role for librarians

One final optimistic note sounded by the conference left the librarians in the audience feeling smug. Already, no one can find anything on the "nets," and it seems that this problem is not going away: it seems, in fact, that the entry of the commercial market is about to make the "navigating" problem much, much, worse. Navigating through information resources is what librarians do: it is what we have done for centuries. It is nice to feel needed: reassuring to discover how badly we are going to be needed, by the information network users in Europe and elsewhere, during the next few years.





JACK KESSLER has academic degrees in philosophy, law, and library and informČation studies, and has pursued these and other subjects at Yale, Oxford, and the University of California. He spent fifteen years in the handicraft importing business, until he found the glamor of international travel to be at odds with the joys of married life and the raising of two small boys. His love affair with books and love/hate relationship with the computer are long-standing. He fought the automation battles of the 70s and 80s, most often siding with the Luddites against the machines but then reluctantly giving in. He's still suspicious. He has been a networked information consultant, a lecturer, an indexer, and a researcher in the law school library at UC Berkeley, and recently he was enrolled at Berkeley, studying the US Internet and the French Minitel. During 1992-3 he has lived in Lyon, France, writing articles and a book. He'll return to his San Francisco home in the summer of 1993. He is a member of the American Society for Information Science, the American Library Association, and the California Library Association, and he spends too much time online on the PACS-L and EXLIBRIS e-conferences and on the WELL. His ambition in life is never to take another airplane trip. E-mail:






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