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Australia’s premier information industry event again gets high marks
Posted On March 1, 1999
The Information Online & On Disc '99 conference was held January 19-21 in the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre at Darling Harbor, Sydney, Australia. As it has for many years, the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) sponsored the conference. Held in odd-numbered years, the Online & On Disc conferences have become recognized as Australia's premier online information industry event, and the 1999 conference was no exception.

Total attendance was about 2,000, with 1,200 of those registered as delegates. The conference featured a full program of speakers during the 3 days, an exhibition featuring products from about 70 companies, an "Internet Lounge" where attendees could surf the Internet or check their e-mail on a multicolored array of iMac computers, pre- and post-conference satellite seminars, and associated social events. Of particular note in the exhibit hall was a "Web showcase" at which projects from university departments and small entrepreneurial companies were featured. Information Today, Inc., publisher of Information Today, made its first foray into the Australasian marketplace with a stand in the exhibit hall.

The 1999 conference was my second visit to an Australian conference. I attended the 1993 conference, and it was interesting to compare some of the trends I noted at that time with those of significance today. (See my report on the 1993 conference on page 10 of the April 1993 issue of Information Today.) It was also interesting to observe how the conference has grown. The 1993 conference was held in a hotel; it now requires a significant portion of the facilities of Sydney's Convention Center.

In 1993, I noted that an outreach to the local community, proceedings published on CD-ROM, and public Internet workstations (only two!) were interesting departures from normal conference organization. In 6 short years, awareness of electronic information has become widespread so that outreach programs are no longer necessary, proceedings are routinely published on the Web, and Internet workstations (a plethora of them) are taken for granted. Times certainly have changed! One thing that has remained unchanged since 1993 is a keen interest in the role of the information professional; constant change in technology and the information marketplace continues to profoundly impact information professionals. Several of the major presentations are summarized below; the complete proceedings can be read on the conference Web site at

The Hon. Kim Yeadon, New South Wales Minister for Information Technology, officially opened the conference. He characterized 1999 as a hectic and challenging year and identified the Y2K problem, privacy and authentication, and equity of access to the Internet for everyone as significant challenges. The NSW government has developed a single-window interface to over 200 of its Web sites. It has also sponsored initiatives for public access to the Internet during nonbusiness hours using the equipment and telephone links in public schools—a novel idea.

Opening Day Keynote
The opening day of Online & On Disc '99 was keynoted by Marydee Ojala, editor of Database magazine. She titled her presentation "The End of Online as We Know It" and noted that the apocalyptic theme is currently fashionable. We are seeing the end of a period of history and the death of distance. Our online industry has died, she said, then has been revitalized, popularized, and transformed. There is a new "online" coming. With e-mail, listservs, and discussion groups, the Internet has removed the distance between information and its users. Even the Internet itself may be dying, to be replaced by a telephony network. Technologies are converging, and the traditional online companies are struggling to survive in the new era. And today's users have changed, she noted. They are often ignorant about information science research and have little inclination to conduct new research. Their attitude seems to be, "I tried that, it didn't work, so it's no good."

According to Ojala, we are now in the fourth generation of online information. The initial Batch era, with time delays and no control by users, was followed by the Interactive era, which saw the emergence of online systems such as DIALOG. In the Interactive era, users gained significant control over searches and were able to find answers to questions by iteration. (Most information professionals still view information retrieval in terms of the this era.) The third generation was the Dynamic era, featuring multiple searches, many channels, and constant changes in the definitions of fundamental concepts. Information visualization is a product of the Dynamic era. We are now entering the fourth generation: the Intuitive era, which is characterized by distance learning, blending of technologies, collaboration, and creation of knowledge. Answers to many queries now involve data analysis, fuzzy logic, and "close-to" concepts.

Online information has now entered the mainstream and is valuable, Ojala asserted. Agent software is beginning to figure out how people think. We will ultimately see search engines that will understand why questions are asked as well as what and how they are asked.

Wagner on the Future
Dan Wagner, CEO of The Dialog Corporation, closed the first day with a keynote address on the future of the information industry. The industry is becoming increasingly competitive as more players enter it and existing players consolidate, he said. Large corporations are attempting to put a value on the "knowledge capital" in the heads of their employees. Knowledge management—determining exactly what information is relevant to the company and then making sure that information gets to the right people—is becoming significant. Data retrieval tools, tracking systems, and interpretation systems will ensure that knowledge is managed properly and that information overload will be prevented.

Intranets and extranets, said Wagner, are the future of online information. They facilitate the knowledge management  process by indexing internal information to the same standards as external information. Users will then become empowered by being able to search several types of information simultaneously. But user empowerment and the information professional's role are not mutually exclusive, according to Wagner. In this new environment, professionals are needed to find sources and manage systems and solutions.

Reference Services in Danger
Anne Lipow, director, Library Solutions Institute and Press, keynoted the second day with a highly stimulating and thought-provoking look at reference service in the electronic environment. Sounding an alarm that reference librarians may be endangered, she emphasized that the most important way to ensure survival is to make 7-day, 24-hour reference service a reality. More is at stake than simply reference service; the whole profession of librarianship could disappear. Point-of-need reference service distinguishes the library field; we must serve remote users at the place where they are when they ask questions.

Reference desk usage statistics are declining, noted Lipow, and current beliefs are that many Internet users are answering questions on their own and that search engines will replace reference librarians. Such beliefs may have arisen because much of reference professionals' work is invisible to their clientele and because librarians often give poor arguments to administrators wanting to cut desk service.

It is important to understand the motives of information seekers and why they ask questions, said Lipow. Frequently, they don't want answers but "information therapy," which cannot be done by a computer. Every information seeker has, by definition, become blocked in the midst of a situation and wants to become liberated. The function of reference professionals is to eliminate those blockages. We are all information seekers at some point; whether we use a person to help us depends on the resources available, our knowledge of them, and the query itself. Convenience is paramount over quality. People will use services that are convenient. So where do remote users go? If the reference desk is not convenient, they will not go there! We must reverse the downward trend in usage by becoming more convenient and visible. One way to do this is to think of ourselves as remote, not the users.

Lipow envisions an "In Your Face" reference service that will work where the clientele works. It would gather informal information about the users, supply them with what they need, and thus become viewed as a partner in their work. She noted two steps toward creation of an "In Your Face" reference service:

  • Become more visible. We need to understand our own work as information therapists who have expertise and value to users. We are not simply question answerers.
  • Think and act collaboratively. We cannot do everything alone and must take our cue from technical services. Start small with pilot programs and grow.
The rewards of successful creation of such a service are great to our clients, our profession, and society.

In the closing keynote of the second day, Tony Barry, director of Ningaui Pty., Ltd. (a consulting venture) and a former government science and technology adviser, reviewed the effect of technological changes on electronic information. According to Barry, the term "digital library" is useless. In the electronic era, he asked, just what is a library? What is a publication? Publishers have been thrust into the role of librarians; as they build their services, they are really putting "books" on "shelves," and their servers become "libraries." The role of the librarian becomes that of an intermediary, helping users find the information they need. The cataloging skills of information professionals are important to publishers because they are a way to promote publishers' products. However, the distinction between indexes, bibliographies, and catalogs is blurring, and indexing is becoming amorphous. In many cases, the quality of an index is determined by what it does not index. Barry predicts that a "hybrid library," providing access to a large range of digital and print information, will dominate the future—if the problems of desktop delivery can be solved. We cannot simply assume that libraries will run information services in the future; it is up to information professionals to manage the access and advise on their use if they are to be successful.

Digital Libraries Plenary
The final day of the conference opened with a plenary panel discussion on digital libraries. Peter Lyman, university librarian at the University of California-Berkeley discussed the social functions of digital libraries. In a digital environment, he said, the user can be anonymous, so frank responses and risk-taking are encouraged, and distinctions between users disappear. Intellectual property becomes the basic structure of power. We are currently in an experimental time, but the law will eventually define how we access and use information. Giving information away is not sustainable. Neither is the contract model because no business hostile to its users can survive.

The Web has revolutionized the concept of authorship and has fostered the formation of teams based on expertise, according to Lyman. No longer do people have to work at the same institution or be at the same geographic location to collaborate or exchange information. Publishers and libraries are no longer in control of information dissemination. The current digital library projects seem to be little more than digitized versions of card catalogs and do not promote a sense of community among users. A true virtual community will enable users around the world to work together on a project of common interest.

A presentation by Jon Casimir, Internet columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and developer of its Web site, provided a publisher's viewpoint on publishing on the Web. The Web is not a broadcast medium like television, where most people behave in a similar way. Television has a relatively small number of channels, but the Web has millions, and everyone is moving at once. All television viewers look the same to program producers, but the Web allows each user to be an individual. The Web represents an entirely new relationship between the media and its users, and it has broken all the familiar rules of media development. Publishers cannot simply follow the rules of the old media and expect Web ventures to succeed. Services such as Yahoo! have become useful and popular because they are run by humans.

Drawing on his extensive experience in developing and managing the Herald's Web site, Casimir presented the following rules for developing a successful Web site:

  • Know and use the Net. Spend time online.
  • The Web is not a promotional medium. Use it as an information medium.
  • Think again to see if your product or service is suitable for the Web. Don't insult the intelligence of your users by charging them more to use your Web service.
  • If Web publishing makes sense, commit to it fully.
  • If you use a Web development company, ask who is making money on the Net. Is the development company making money at your expense?
  • Many ways of using the Web to improve our lives have not happened yet, so look for them.
  • Embrace the chaos and you will benefit. Relax the rules (for example, copyright).
  • Understand that sites have personalities.
  • Keep your site up to date.
  • Reward the efforts of your Web visitors. They probably did not get there by accident, so offer discounts and extra services to them.
  • Deliver what you promised.
  • Rethink your competition.
  • Sources of material and information flows are changing. Middlemen are being phased out.
  • Listen to your users. Think of them as good and useful people. Answer all your e-mail messages—you might find some valuable help!

Wrap-Up Session
The closing plenary presentation by Neil McLean, university librarian at Macquarie University in Sydney, was a most impressive and amazing performance. Speaking totally extemporaneously, without any visual aids, McLean not only summarized the conference, recalling speakers' names and details of their presentations, but he presented an overview of today's information industry and the trends affecting it.

McLean discussed uncertainty and sustainability in the current information climate. He feels that we are in a pause, trying to come to grips with several complex issues and then figure out where to go next. Three things are affecting our electronic world: bibliographic and library automation, the Internet, and methods of harnessing resources. We are not fully in control yet; the major challenge of the next 5 years will be to find a new center of gravity and determine what will sustain our customers and us. Library communities have remained parochial; it is important to broaden our communication links and learn from other sectors and industries.

The Internet has been a roller coaster ride, McLean said. It has liberated librarians and customers, but we are still unsure of our roles. Questions have been raised about sustainability; the Web has become a graveyard of dead sites. Publishers have the same problems that users have—pricing models and access. Librarians need to become adept at dealing with business models such as cost-benefit issues, pricing, and knowledge of the cost and value of intellectual capital.

Technology has become very complex. Authentication and authorization are the most difficult problems, and these problems are not limited to the information industry. We are moving into areas not traditionally ours, which may be an uncomfortable situation. The biggest challenges are relevance of search engine retrievals and the automation of metadata. Sustainability is still a challenge; we are still in a rudimentary phase and have a long way to go. Strategic issues for today include the following:

  • How can libraries become indispensable so that users will view them as the first place to go for information?
  • What is our role as intermediaries? We are wedded to quality, but how do we make online information convenient?
  • What is our view of aggregation? We need to rethink information architectures.
  • Consortia and alliances will continue to be important. We can learn from other service industries and look for alliances in new directions.
  • We should not apologize about living with uncertainty but become comfortable with it and strike a balance between short- and long-term goals.
My opinion of this conference has not changed since my 1993 visit. It remains a major event and one well worth attending, in spite of the distance between Australia and North America. And it is held in the Australian summer, which makes it even more attractive to visitors from the Northern Hemisphere. The next Information Online & On Disc conference will be held in Sydney on January 16-18, 2001. Will I see you there?

Donald T. Hawkins is is an information technology and database consultant at Information Today, Inc.

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