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IN the beginning was the word, and the good news for wordsmiths is that words will continue to be culture's basic building blocks, whether they are there to see and touch on the printed page, or flying off in virtual forms into cyberspace."Words are the only things that last forever," said William Hazlitt, the 19th century English essayist. However, the fact that words now exist in such dramatically different digitized forms affects most professions, but particularly writers, academics, scientific researchers, managers, and librarians. All of these professionals are wordsmiths with varying levels of skills and degrees of involvement in authoring and publishing. For some, the advent of the e-book and e-journal offers great opportunities, for others very serious challenges to career prospects.
Information is power in almost every occupation. The changes in the on-line creation and dissemination of information pose major social and economic issues for the community at large, and lots of personal considerations at individual career levels. By looking at some of the occupations most directly affected, you can see how these changes might affect your own situation, and how best to accommodate them.
Of particular interest are the new freelance opportunities being created, particularly with the growth of footloose information industries that do not need to be located in traditional business centers, nor be concerned about where their staff or the freelance specialists they use choose to live. For example, authors and publishers located in North Carolina have the potential to compete in e-books on a level playing field with those living and working in New York.
North Carolina's information highway is regarded by its governor as giving the state "a dramatic new chance to educate our children, provide medical services, create jobs, streamline our criminal justice system, and increase the efficiency of our government." This state highway for data is claimed to be the fastest wide-area multimedia communications network of its kind in the world. Building it enables
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North Carolina to become a major international center for many activities that depend only on access to the information superhighway network, just as the smokestack industries of the past located close to strategically important waterways and rail systems.
While many librarians see themselves as being attacked by the new media, others are embracing the technology that makes e-books possible. Some identify career opportunities where others see a bleak future. The pioneers of the Information Age and those being dragged into it are often working alongside each other.
A good librarian's mind is too precious an asset to waste on such mundane tasks as humping books around, stamping dates on little bits of cardboard, or any of the many other comparatively menial tasks that over 100,000 of these professionals in the U.S. alone perform every day. Fortunately, electronic paperless publishing offers librarians exciting opportunities to cut back on the physical drudgery and to increase the intellectual creativity of their jobs. It is sad that so many view the changes as threats rather than opportunities.
In paying tribute in this book to Lisa, Michael, and Virginia at the Copper Queen library in Bisbee, Arizona, as well as to the many other librarians around the world who have been of such help to me in a long writing career, I have been very conscious that theirs is the profession that potentially has both the most to lose and to gain from the new ways of disseminating reading materials.
The way that different libraries are coping with the new technologies is rife with contrasts. The ultra-traditional British Library, with holdings going back over 500 years to before Shakespeare, has created an electronic bibliographic database of over four million
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records. Charles Harmon, Headquarters Librarian at the American Library Association, draws attention to the thousands of instances of librarians offering their communities a wealth of electronic information, leading their patrons into the Information Age.
"We were using vast national networks when other professions in the education realm were mostly unaware of the role telecommunications could play in transferring information," he says.
We must blame politicians, not librarians, for the fact that hundreds of libraries in and near California's Silicon Valley, where the cutting edge of information-processing technology is slicing forward, are battling with inadequate technical facilities and budgets. It has reached the point where the services they provide to the law-abiding adults and children in their local communities are significantly inferior to those available to prisoners in nearby jails. Massive funds are being allocated to the most ambitious prison-building program the world has ever seen, but the nation that already finds it necessary to confine a higher proportion of its citizens in jail than any other is slashing the library services so essential to the functioning of successful societies'including the library schools and colleges that are necessary if this important profession is to survive.
The Clinton administration has made much of the key role that librarians will play in creating the new National Information Infrastructure in general, and the National Research and Education Network in particular. Yet bureaucrats and politicians at federal and local level hold back the funds essential for libraries to travel along the information highways. Consequently, while some libraries have superb facilities that place them in the forefront of new ways of information processing, others lack even the equipment that would enable them to offer such basic functions as access to a national set of telephone directories on CD-ROM.
University libraries seem to fare better than those serving impoverished inner-city and small rural communities in this respect. Consequently, there is the very real threat of exacerbating the gap between the information haves and have-nots, and causing a "brain
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drain" of librarians who seek better opportunities in the new directions that their profession is going by moving to where the facilities are best.
An estimated 20,000 librarians are going on-line regularly through Internet to help identify worthwhile acquisitions and engage in research projects. At least an equal number, however, seems locked into the mindset that their prime role is as the custodians of books, rather than as the disseminators of information. There is remarkable lack of awareness among many librarians about such crucial issues as the changing role of the Library of Congress and whether it needs to be augmented by a virtual "People's Library" on the Internet as a national archive and depository for the tidal wave of electronic publications being created.
Already the Library of Congress typically has, at any one time, a backlog of over 20 million items waiting to be cataloged, a task that could be handled largely by machine if they were in electronic formats. However, most of the e-books, journals, and other documents that are author-published are not going through conventional publishing channels, so they are not archived in the public interest by the Library of Congress. The Library is the extreme example of an organization that desperately needs society to make a major shift away from paper. It also illustrates that libraries that might be good at storing knowledge are often lamentably bad at making it accessible, a task that the new machines perform admirably.
There are probably more answers to more questions available in the Library of Congress than anywhere else in the world, but finding those answers can be very difficult and demands a sophisticated electronic indexing system. Many of the networks and individual databases on the Internet already have those indexing systems, which is why millions increasingly go to these on-line resources rather than to their librarians for answers.
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"If we don't enter the realm of data, we are going to be relegated to low-paying custodial jobs in giant buildings full of unused paper'and we will richly deserve our fates," warns Professor Charles A. Seavey of the University of Arizona Graduate Library School in an article in American Libraries headed "Although we saw it coming, librarians have failed to meet the challenge of the electronic age." Professor Seavey emphasizes that librarians' impressive skills in achieving bibliographic control of textual material risk becoming irrelevant in the new information environment of raw data accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem.
Duke University library's Johannah Shirer challenged delegates to the American Library Association's convention to ponder why so many people are now turning away from libraries to alternative sources of information. Other speakers urged the librarians to prepare to reinvent themselves, to enhance their consultancy skills, to help bring information, not just reading, literacy to their societies, and thereby make their profession more interesting and rewarding.
Librarians' organizations that seem to be slow in adopting the new technologies, and consequently not clearly leading their members forward into this new era, are being hampered by academic traditions. The Association of Research Libraries holds symposia on scholarly publishing on electronic networks'then publishes the papers after a long delay in paperback books costing $20 for a mere 175 pages. These hardcopies cost another $4 to ship in the U.S., or $12 to many of the overseas readers who really need this information to plan for the futures of their libraries and their own careers. Such proceedings could have been published faster, at far less cost, and disseminated internationally much more cost-efficiently in the very electronic formats being discussed.
"I believe such practices are a symptom more of the slow evolution of academe and the need for academics to publish in paper for tenure, rather than our profession being slow to reform," points out the American Library Association's Charles Harmon. Nevertheless, the
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American Council of Learned Societies and The Getty Art History Information Program have published on Internet the proceedings at their conference "Technology, Scholarship, and the Humanities: The Implications of Electronic Information." (Internet access is available through Ftp to ftp.cni.org, or by gopher through gopher.cni.org 70.)
A former librarian, Brown University President Vartan Gregorian, drew particular attention in his keynote address to the challenges the profession faces. He emphasized the fact that there is not just an explosion of information, but a fragmentation of it also, with so much specialization that it can be difficult to see the larger picture.
The American Library Association (ALA) got one false start with the opening and then closing of its electronic publishing and mail service. Now, thanks to some far-seeing staff in several divisions, it produces a number of electronic publications and is active on the Internet. However, only a minute proportion of its 56,000 members asked, in the six months after it was published, for a free copy of the essential librarians' guide to the Internet produced by the ALA's Library and Information Technology Association.
Of course, using the Internet is only a small part of the information that librarians need, because so many of them do not have the modems or the funds to go on-line. Organizations serving librarians have been slow to exploit the cost-efficiency of publishing on floppy disks to the majority of librarians who have access to computers capable of reading floppies. Even the important information coming out of the ALA's Project Century 21 program to help librarians meet future information needs has not been available on floppies, where it could circulate most economically.
This illustrates that librarians get little help from anywhere in being told how to put to really good use the older computing systems that they are saddled with, or which could be theirs for the asking from local companies upgrading their hardware. Such companies can exploit the tax breaks for donations of systems that might be obsolete for many business applications, but have years of useful library life left in them.
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The new technology makes librarians not just book custodians and information retrievers, but electronic publishers and e-book distributors. Not having the funding to buy the latest hardware is no excuse for shunning these roles. There is ample evidence just from the examples in this book that publishing and distributing library materials can be done to great effect on even "primitive" computers that librarians can obtain for themselves and their patrons at remarkably low cost. A CD-ROM drive at under $200 added to an old desktop computer can pay for itself in months as an alternative to buying a new set of encyclopedia or allocating shelf space to telephone books.
These same concepts are even more relevant internationally than they are to the libraries of North America. Book publishing and distribution in the former Soviet territories is in chaos, and the libraries are in crisis, unable to cope with the essential role they must play in nurturing democracy and providing the data necessary to feed economical and social development. The shortage of books is so acute that groups gather in Russian libraries to take turns reading aloud from the only single copies available of important works.
Many developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America are similarly unable to fulfill their social missions simply because of a lack of books and magazines. The demand for publications from the U.S. and Europe is enormous, but our ability to communicate to and influence these developing societies through their libraries is being seriously inhibited by excessive prices and the ineffective distribution of so much printed material. Electronic publishing on floppies and even by radio (examined in a previous chapter) open up exciting opportunities for librarians around the world once they learn that expensive hardware or significant computing know-how are not required.
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Librarians who read this book will, I hope, feel stimulated rather than threatened by the personal opportunities that electronic publishing offers them to enhance the quality of their work as well as to increase their efficiency. In a previous book about computing-related health problems, I encountered considerable concern among library personnel that they would become victims of repetitive stress injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other physical health hazards arising from interfacing with a computer. These health concerns often reflect a deeper apprehension about computing technology generally.
In fact, there is increasing evidence that repetitive stress is just as likely to result from the physical handling of books and paper records as it is from the typical library keyboarding tasks. Nor do floppy disks appear to cause the breathing problems, skin disorders, or eye irritation associated with mold and fungal spores found on books! Librarians are far more at risk of becoming victims of their too-often self-imposed isolation from the important cultural developments associated with electronic publishing.
The career risks are particularly acute for those librarians preoccupied with their roles as the physical custodians of printed books. Information and communication, not books or periodicals, are the true raw materials of librarianship. Printed books are not sacrosanct icons of culture, but just one of the media players in our cultural development. We have aural and visual traditions for communicating and learning that are just as significant, and now they can blend more readily with the written word into a variety of rich multimedia formats.
"It is in the library, and in the library alone, that one can learn to the limits of his abilities and to the limits of what is known," proclaimed
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the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association back in the 1970s. That remains true only in the sense that libraries can no longer be defined in physical terms as buildings housing books and other reference materials. The virtual libraries that exist on-line and on floppies and CDs are now just as much a reality, offering far easier access for millions who are learning to use them without assistance from library professionals.
Electronic publishing empowers writers and independent publishers in ways never possible before. Just as important, these new media also empower librarians to realize their full potential, to spend less of their time stacking books, and more of their minds to ensure that libraries will continue to change lives.
Content is all-important in electronic publishing, just as it is with the printed word. Consequently, writers, the prime originators of published words, can flourish in this new environment if they seize the creative initiative. Particularly in demand are writers able to conceive and develop products with multimedia potential.
It is now almost a prerequisite when pitching a book proposal to dangle spin-off opportunities in other media before an agent or prospective publisher. It might not even be necessary to make your book the core product. You might have a great concept that should go first as a game, educational program, or in some other electronic format, with print following later if your concept proves viable.
You might need to demonstrate that, if your work doesn't fly in one medium, the development and other costs can be amortized over alternative formats with specific marketing opportunities that help to spread the publisher's risk. I have been helping a colleague recently with a great idea that was originally developed in a totally inappropriate medium'a tape-slide presentation'but which now has potential in its entirety on video, and then can be split up to sell off its photographic elements for multimedia collections.
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"Many writers can use word processing software, but will find that they need more types of computing skills once they begin electronic authoring," says author and shareware publisher Jim Hood. "Writers need to know about such things as screen designs and DOS commands before they make the jump to electronic publishing."
There are many ways of acquiring these computer skills, including books, video programs, interactive multimedia tutorials, and Jim's own excellent PC-Learn software, which is widely available on bulletin boards and through shareware libraries. Software is becoming so much easier to use in the new graphical interfaces that only a basic technical knowledge of the processes involved is required. However, in their own interests, writers should try to learn as much as they can about how texts are turned into electronic publications'and then how they are used by readers.
As with writing in any other media, the best learning is by reading and viewing other electronically published materials in your field. Sit down and interact with some of the electronic publications mentioned in this book, and your understanding of what is required of writers, and what you will be able to contribute, should increase immensely.
It is vital for writers to know how to exploit the new research sources available to them. The major benefit of electronic publishing to writers and other researchers is that so much material is becoming so much more readily available in ways that can benefit our careers. The new media, particularly CD-ROM, are bringing precious archives out of the vaults and literally onto our desks. Fortunately, desks are moving into cyberspace also and becoming virtual environments for work in progress, providing the space that physical desks cannot.
For example, I now have on my already cluttered desk ready access to 60 million feet of archived newsreel footage for a future book
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