The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 12









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By Paul Bentley

December 2000

1999: the year of uncertainty

2000: poking sticks in the sand

2001: taking stock and taking action?

The main theme to emerge from the Information Online and On Disc Conference held in Sydney in January 1999 was sustaining information services in an age of uncertainty, according to leading trend spotter, Neil McLean, University Librarian, Macquarie University.  What were some of the perceptions and predictions then, has the sand shifted over the last two years, and will the picture be any clearer at the Information Online Conference in January 2001?


According to McLean, the main issues driving the information industry were: 

  • the Internet, the greatest cottage industry in the word (Web metrics are important; more discussion is needed on how to make the most of it)

  • knowledge management (is it a legitimate concept or – using a phrase from one of the presenters - information slime?).

  • business models (intellectual capital and pricing models are too fuzzy)

  • e-commerce (is there anything of value in the call centre approach?)

  • digital libraries (a promising area, but what are they anyway? Clunky infrastructure problems need to be overcome.)

  • metadata (the jury is still out; will it only work when it is automated?)

  • resource discovery (the provision of integrated services is still a fuzzy area; relevance is a challenge; there will be a return to subject approaches).

In an extended off-the-cuff summary at the conclusion of the conference, McLean urged participants to: take comfort in the uncertainty, find a new centre of gravity, think long term, re-think paradigms, form new alliances, rethink architectures, examine intermediary roles, and match people with new opportunities and resources.

Reinforcing McLean’s thoughts on intermediaries, Tony Barry, of Ningaui, the library, electronic publishing and internet consulting company, predicted that libraries will be by-passed or take on a more advisory role, major search engines will go down the gurgler, there will be a rise in specialised indexes and some things won’t go electronic.

Peter Lyman, Professor of the School of Information Management and Systems, University of California, Berkeley, focussed on the virtual organisation, around the clock services and  intellectual property.  Technology, he said, does not produce productivity gains, but does drive changes in the way work is organised.  The trick will be to create a sense of community in people with shared interests and values, who are likely to be greater risk-takers and more honest, and who see each other only from time to time.  The twenty four hour day will become a reality through increased follow-the-sun work transfer.  Intellectual property is the critical issue, the three existing models (rented, gift, copyright) will be replaced by a new model.  


In the two years since the last conference, we sense the paradox of further convergence and ever fragmenting approaches, roles and tools.

International information services research

Peter Brophy in his Digital Library Research Review, published by the British Library Research and Innovation Centre in 1999, pointed to new information service models, projects and large R&D investments, mainly in Europe and the USA.  Issues covered included content, retrieval, authentication and authorisation, delivery, interoperability, customers, accessibility, integration, economics and skill development.

Brophy underscored the importance of context and relationships in describing the parallel activities of commercial players, governments, legacy systems and cultures in areas such as broad spectrum, standards, digital TV, push services, publisher-led electronic publications, electronic commerce, IT infrastructure, the information society, lifelong learning, globalisation and the transition from a traditional library model (acquire-catalogue-hold-lend-withdraw) to a digital library paradigm (discover-locate-request-deliver).

Issues identified as worthy of further study included user and non-user needs, the role of the digital library in teaching and learning, information overload, and interoperability standards between services offered by memory institutions such as libraries, archives and museums.

More recently in Australia, there have been discussions on a national framework for the development of subject gateways.  Issues identified as requiring macro solutions include the quality of research content, duplicated effort in managing online information and funding for sustainability.

The Australian information economy

The direction of the information industry in Australia is shaped by the work of the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, the Cultural Ministers Council, the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE) and state-based equivalents of the NSW Department of Information Technology & Management.

In the same month as the 1999 Information Online Conference, the Australian Government released A Strategic Framework for the Information Economy, articulating its vision for an innovative Australia as:

1.   maximising opportunities for all Australians to benefit from the information economy

2.   delivering the education and skills Australians need to participate in the information economy

3.   advancing the growth of a world class infrastructure for the information economy

4.   increasing significantly the use of electronic commerce by Australian business

5.   developing a legal and regulatory framework to facilitate electronic commerce

6.   promoting the integrity and growth of Australian content and culture in the information economy

7.   developing Australian information industries

8.   unlocking the potential of the health sector

9.   influencing the emerging international rules and conventions for electronic commerce

10.  implementing a world class model for delivery of all appropriate government services online

11.  developing a regional information economy

The role of librarians and their associations

One thing that is apparent from a quick glance at the NOIE management and advisory structure and planning reports is the absence of libraries, librarians and their associations.  The information industry means hardware and software.  Libraries are tucked away in the cultural sector. 

Library associations and special interest groups, to some extent because of their largely voluntary nature, have interesting social dynamics but weak business processes.  They tend to lack rigor and are hampered by cumbersome planning and decision-making modus operandi.  They need better inventories of their assets and liabilities.  In challenging creaky old ways, intense sideway glances at environmental contexts and other associations may pay dividends.

The Australian Library & Information Association (ALIA) is in the middle of a restructure that aims to facilitate a more integrated approach to the dual interests of institutions and individuals.

The recent merger of the ALIA Information Science Section and the NSW Special Libraries Section to form the Information Specialists Division (ISD) is a manifestation of natural forces at work in a changing, loosely structured organisation.  The ISD, in addition to offering the Information Online Conference, is about to embark on a business planning process, taking into account findings in recent member surveys.

To establish a new direction, it will seek to clarify its role and relationships, differentiate and balance a range of industry and member dynamics and interests (institutions, individuals, locations, subjects, functions, competencies and experiences) and create approaches to facilitate service, opportunity, visibility and influence.


The Information Online Conference and Exhibition in January 2001 will help us take stock once again.

Picking up the threads of 1999 under the theme Digital Dancing: New Partners, New Steps, the conference will bring to Australia eminent international colleagues like Mary Ellen Bates of Bates Information Services in the USA; Clare Hart from Factiva; Stevan Harnard, Professor of Cognitive Science at Southhampton University and Greg Notess, associate professor and reference librarian at Montana State University-Bozeman.  Local speakers will deliver presentations on e-commerce, electronic publishing, copyright, Dublin Core, CORC, XML, knowledge management, partnerships, IT competencies, digital libraries, information literacy, search engines, portals, vortals, subject gateways and information clumps, internet filtering and other topics.  The Tips and Tricks sessions will offer practical advice on subjects such as cascading style sheets and metadata.  Neil McLean will chair a panel which will wrap up the conference by exploring partnerships for sustainable online services.

The large trade exhibition and product review sessions will provide a convenient forum to sample the wares of leading publishers, vendors and services such as Factiva, 3M, Apple, Infosentials, National Library of Australia, Standards Australia; State Library of NSW, Thomson Financial, Enterprise Information Management Pty Ltd, Zenith Management Services and other important players in the industry.

In 1999, Peter Lyman reminded us that, so far, technology has not produced productivity gains.  Senator Richard Alston, when reporting on progress in relation to the Australian information economy strategy, emphasised that the Government’s vision for the information economy is actually predicated on anticipated productivity gains to boost national income and living standards.

To realise this vision and avoid the risk articulated by Lyman, could it be that governments will need to go deeper into underlying information management problems before articulating technological and e-commerce solutions?

To gain a more prominent position on the information industry map, could it be that libraries, a means rather than an end, will need to seek identification with the information industry rather than the cultural industry?

Could it be that library associations and their members will need to reinvent themselves with greater speed and use their conferences to greater effect?

How will the sand shift in January 2001?

Article published on the Wolanski Foundation website with kind permission of Online Currents, covering the Australian and international online and optical information industry.  



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