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A Library-Oriented Review Article of SILICON SNAKE OIL

Reposted and revised 2/1/98
By Adam Corson-Finnerty
Director of Library Development
University of Pennsylvania

 The January 30, 1995 issue of Newsweek carried a rather astonishing story in an article called "Wiring the Ivory Tower."

 It told of a decision by the California State University Chancellor to build a new campus in Monterey Bay without a library. Said the article: "why bother wasting all that money on bricks and mortar when it could be better spent on technology for getting information via computer? 'You simply don't have to build a traditional library these days,' [Chancellor Barry] Munitz says."

 What? Colleges nowadays don't need libraries with books? They don't need reading reserves, newspapers, journals? Students can do serious research in a multiplicity of subject areas solely by going on-line? Balderdash!

 Either the CSU Chancellor planned to bus his students to a nearby library, or he planned to have a lot of ignorant students.

 A little research needed here. July 15, 1993 San Francisco Chronicle: "Chancellor Barry Munitz wants [Monterey's] students to gain access to information electronically instead of in a traditional library." Armed with cooperation agreements from IBM, Apple, and Pactel, the Chancellor light-heartedly comments: "We might provide maps to a farmhouse 65 miles away where most of the books would be stored, at one-tenth the cost."

 Flash forward to Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1994: "Officials say they want to create an innovative campus with an emphasis on new technology, including a library system linked by computer to other universities." But the article goes on to say that three or four smaller buildings will serve as libraries "with electronic links to other universities."

 Starting to question media accounts. Call Chancellor's office. Call Monterey campus. Receive enlightenment from official spokespersons.

 Turns out: (a) Chancellor has remarkable sense of humor; (b) Monterey campus will have a building termed a "Learning Resource Center," with journals, newspapers, lookup stations, and budgeted for an initial supply of 50,000 books; (c) Monterey has negotiated borrowing relationships with the local public library and the local community college library; (d) Monterey expects to have in place a firm and final deal with UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz for 24-hour inter-library loan privileges; (e) Monterey is currently searching for a Library Director; said same director will report to the "Dean for Informatics."

 Whew! Personal Conclusion: Monterey, dubbed by one enthusiast as "Silicon Valley [by] the sea," doesn't need a traditional library--it needs a bunch of them!

 I relate this tale because shortly after the Newsweek article appeared a potential donor visited the Penn Library and asked me what I thought about the fact that "several colleges in California" had decided they didn't need libraries. I suspect he doesn't know about the Chancellor's new clothes, and I wonder if the whole of California will have eliminated libraries by time this story finishes its rounds.

 (And a rubber chicken to Newsweek which in the interest of a better lead-in, ignored the "three or four smaller buildings" part of the original plans--thus helping contribute to the very "technomania" it derided several issues later.)

 While those of us on the deliverable end of the information revolution are only too aware of the limitations, pitfalls, and snares of the chimerical "virtual library," some important people are beginning to believe that the super-cyber-library is just a few thousand scans away from realization. "Books are obsolete," I was assured by a print media businessperson recently. "In 20 years nobody will read a book. Everything will be on-line."

 And the aforementioned California Chancellor is not the only college administrator to contemplate making policy and budgetary decisions based upon an overly, and dare one say, naive, notion of what digital databases will do for higher education. Some of my colleagues on "Libdev," a new listserv for Library Development Officers, have already posted anecdotes about budgets being cut, buildings questioned, and resources diverted--all in the name of the "virtual library."

 Thank heaven, then, for Clifford Stoll's new book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. (Doubleday, New York, 1995. $22.00) Popularly written, and aptly timed, this book will prove a useful antidote for those who have been smitten by the cyberfairy.

 Who is Clifford Stoll? Well, Clifford Stoll says: "Cliff Stoll backs up his data every week, pays all his shareware fees, flosses nightly, and lives in Oakland, California, with three cats that he pretends to dislike."

 He is also an astronomer, an expert in computer security, and has been with the internet since its early days as the arpanet. He is the author of The Cuckoo's Egg, a book that describes how he tracked down German spies prowling through computers. And he is a member of the WELL, so how cool do you want?

 Silicon Snake Oil is a combination meditation, rumination, diatribe, and thoughtful essay on the hype that surrounds the coming of the infobahn. It is not a scholarly book, and sometimes Stoll seems to substitute nostalgia for sound argument, but, hey, if he waited until he got all the bugs out, his thoughts would be way passe.

 The book has three strengths. First, it is already out there being talked about on the airwaves, and the name alone will help people slow down a little. Stoll was featured as the contributing curmudgeon in Newsweek's special issue on the Information Superhighway ("Technomania," Feb 27, 1995), and he is lively enough to be taken on the talk show rounds.

 Second, he is great at one- and two-liners that people should be quoting for years to come. Like: "Interactive computer entertainment gives you a choice of many different outcomes, all preprogrammed. The experience is about as interactive as a candy machine."

 Or how about: "...unlike a friendly game of chess, the computer provides no opponent across the table to award your brilliance with a wistful smile of admiration. You end up admiring yourself."

 Third, his chapters on computer-assisted education and on libraries are passionately and persuasively argued, and would be well worth sharing with others--for instance, your governor.

 Stoll is worried about libraries. As the telephone was to letter-writing, the car to urban trolley systems, as air travel has been to train travel, so--he fears--might wide area networks be to libraries. He does not think that the internet renders traditional libraries obsolete, but worries that policy-makers might think they do, and that "computers will deviously chew away at libraries from the inside. They'll eat up book budgets and require librarians that are more comfortable with computers than children and scholars. Libraries will become adept at supplying the public with fast, low-quality information."

 With this fear at heart, Stoll takes on the "virtual library" in strong and direct terms: "the bookless library is a dream, a hallucination of online addicts, network neophytes, and library- automation insiders."

 He advances four arguments against the realization of the virtual library. First up is copyright. Libraries don't own the rights to the current material in their collections, and cannot put pages online without getting sued or paying hefty fees. This is not about to change anytime soon.

 For older material, the sheer cost of digitization is staggering. He estimates $100 per book for error-corrected OCR scanning. Every 10,000 books eats up $1 million. Every million books eats up $100 million, and who has got that kind of money?

 And even if some post Newt-onian administration were willing to put up several billion to digitize, let's say, the collections of the Library of Congress, Stoll raises the truly devastating argument of technological obsolescence.

 "Electronic media aren't archival," he pronounces, and invites the reader to contemplate the many extinct formats that dot the 20th century landscape: 80-column punch cards, 8-track tapes, 78-rpm records, 5 1/2 inch floppies, and so on.

 Since this is such a crucial point, and Stoll glides over it in a mere two pages, readers may want to consider a somewhat weightier treatment in the January 1995 issue of Scientific American. Author Jeff Rothenberg indicates that the limiters are both hardware and software. The physical medium decays rapidly, and the recording/reading format becomes obsolete even sooner.

 He invites readers to consider Shakespeare's 18th sonnet, which ends:

    Nor shall death brag thou wandrest in his shade,
    When in eternal lines to time thou growest,
    So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The first printed edition, dated 1609, is still readable. Had Shakespeare put it on a magnetic disk, it would have deteriorated completely in 10 years. Had he used "Electric-Pencil," an early word processing package, well who of us can "call up" such documents today?

 As Electric-Pencil is today, so ASCII may be tomorrow. And the solution of re-archiving everything to current formats in ten or twenty year cycles is not only expensive, Rothenberg argues, there may be significant deterioration of the material itself as it is compressed, decompressed, translated, and converted. By way of analogy he asks "would a modern version of Homer's Iliad have the same literary impact if it had been translated through a series of intermediate languages rather than from the earliest surviving texts in ancient Greek?"

 And thus we come back to the book, or manuscript, as a medium for storing and retrieving information. Creators of time capsules had better think of including a letter along with their videotapes and CD/ROMs, he advises, since "the letter possesses the enviable quality of being readable with no machinery, tools, or special knowledge beyond that of [language]."

 Rothenberg raises the prospect of a kind of Electronic Dark Ages, where vast amounts of information have been prematurely entrusted to "state-of-the-art" formats, long since gone stale, and become effectively "lost" to future generations. (One cannot help spinning out this fantasy into a kind of sci-fi morality play in which small bands of unappreciated and derided souls who have hoarded records on paper and parchment become the true saviours of human knowledge. These saviours, otherwise known as Special Collections Librarians, then help to rebuild civilization from the ashes of the digital holocaust.)

 But back to Stoll, whose final point about why virtual libraries won't replace libraries with books is that online research is so hard to do, and brings back so little of value. Besides, he says, really good databases cost the user real money. Take Lexis/Nexus, which is $200 or more per hour. Or consider paying $5 to download and print a one-page article from a Ziff-Davis database. Traditional libraries start looking pretty good in comparison--at least as the end-user will see it.

 So. Librarians 1, Philistines 0? Not really. As a guest commentator said on a recent PBS news review, we'd better "caveat" any sense of relief.

 Long before virtual became a prefix, libraries have been under assault, especially the public libraries. As Library Dean Michael Gorman of CSU Fresno puts it "the bureaucrats know little or nothing of education or libraries. They know only that they cost a lot of money; money that could be saved if libraries were to be dismantled...." [In Library Journal, Feb. 15, 1994, and you should see what he says about technocrats and technovandals!].

 The danger today is that spending-phobia may couple with techno- phoria and produce a library that can't run, can't walk, can't serve. And because of that danger, we can hope that Clifford Stoll becomes a fixture on the talk-show circuit for many months to come.


An Afterthought.

In the process of searching the literature, I was surprised to discover a trio of new traits that one can apparently associate with librarians--at least with those who voice strong reservations about boarding the virtual library lovetrain.

 Think about the term "librarian," or better, "library administrator". What descriptors do you associate with such a being? How about nostalgic, romantic, and a believer in serendipity?

 Nostalgic for a style of scholarship that seems to be rapidly dwindling. Romantic about a building that houses many loved objects, and about the social and community role that such buildings supposedly play.

 And as for serendipity, well give me a half hour of connect time for every use of the word "serendipity" to describe what happens when an honest pilgrim wanders in the stacks, or flips through a journal, or happens to glance at an open page. To whit, John Swan, Head Librarian at Bennington, whose influential article, "The Electronic Straitjacket," (Library Journal; October 15, 1993), asserts "you cannot always fit the rich, diverse, serendipitous experience of absorbing information and acquiring knowledge into [the] electronic Procrustean bed."

 My old-fashioned, rapid-access, spill-your-decaf-on-it-and-it-still-works Webster's Collegiate Dictionary tells me that "serendipity" comes from a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. {Hotlink: Take the Virtual Library Challenge. Be the first to find the full text of this fairy tale online; send me the URL, and you get a Penn Friends of the Library totebag. No fair looking in the stacks.}

 I must confess that I am not greatly moved by appeals to emotionally-laden remembrances of research methods past. Not that I don't feel them myself--I do--but rather that I doubt these arguments will have much effect on the inexorable transition that scholarship is making in the computer era.

 If you can be serendipitous in 18th century Persia, I believe you can be serendipitous in cyberspace, much like the recent software reviewer for the New York Times who launched himself on the Web with serious intent, and found himself--through a series of steps he probably couldn't retrace--reading an article about how to make grapes explode in his microwave oven.

 Serendipity: "the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for." Perhaps, in research, of finding things that make you pause, that surprise you, that cause you to re-think something you wrote or thought two minutes ago.

 Like this: Searching online for the string "csu and monterey and librar**" and stumbling upon an article on the rebuilding of the Cal State Northridge campus, following the recent earthquake. (Los Angeles Times, August 28, 1994)

 The 353-acre campus sustained almost $350 million in damage, including enough disruption to the main library to close it to student use.

 Northridge administrators decided to quickly erect a warehouse-like building which would function temporarily as the main library while the Delmar T. Oviatt Library was put back into shape. Then they decided to poll the students.

 For students, re-opening classrooms and getting back into the Oviatt Library were the top priorities. "Students and faculty actually missed the library," one administrator said. "We found out it was the center of campus life."

 Faculty President Nancy Owens also credits strenuous faculty lobbying for the decision to make Oviatt a higher priority. "We think that without a library, you are not a university. The library is the nerve center of the campus." 

This review is offered for comment and criticism. I undertook it in part because it helped me to clarify my own thinking. Comments are invited. Feel free to bounce it to anyone who might find this topic of interest.

Send comments to Adam Corson-Finnerty or Laura Blanchard