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Magazines > Information Today > April 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 4 — April 2003
CONFERENCE CIRCUIT
Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture
By Donald T. Hawkins

The Miles Conrad Memorial Lecture is a highlight of the NFAIS Annual Conference. It honors the memory of G. Miles Conrad, a former BIOSIS president whose efforts led to NFAIS's founding in 1958. An invitation to deliver the lecture is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on an NFAIS member.

The 2003 lecture was presented by Kurt Molholm, administrator of the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) and former NFAIS president. He's had a long and distinguished career in government information agencies and has been with DTIC since 1985.

Molholm gave his lecture a Shakespearean flavor by entitling it "Is What's Past, Prologue?" and concluding with a paraphrase from Much Ado About Nothing: "The Internet is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion." He noted that although the federal government is a major player in the information industry, he is one of only a few information professionals from the federal sector to have been honored as a Miles Conrad lecturer or to have served as NFAIS president.

The federal government funded early research on information retrieval and the Internet. Today, it provides access to a wide variety of information through its libraries and online databases, and it operates many publicly available Web sites. DTIC, part of the federal government's information infrastructure, is the Department of Defense's central repository of scientific and technical information (STI). It collects, stores, and provides access to a huge amount of information: more than 100,000 publicly available technical reports and other documents that are online in full text.

Molholm reminded the audience of the following:

• The Internet revolution is still less than 5-percent complete.

• Although there have been major changes and upheavals in recent years, many aspects of electronic
information delivery are still in
their infancy.

• Technological change is rapid, but changing how people think and
behave is a much slower process.

Five years ago, Molholm published 12 premises for developing Web strategies as they relate to STI. In his lecture, he revisited those premises and discussed them in the context of today's electronic environment. Although they may seem obvious and simplistic, Molholm feels that they remain important guiding principles.

1. The electronic environment is not a linear extension of the paper environment. Quoting a recent article in The Washington Post, the Librarian of Congress, and recent columns in Information Today,Molholm stressed the importance of improving current digital archiving practices. A significant amount of today's information is born digital and may never be printed. Much of that information is at risk of being lost to future generations. Since digital archiving must not be dependent on the old printing processes, a new model is needed. Open access has the potential to significantly change today's information-production and -distribution models.

2. The Internet and World Wide Web permit a fundamental change in human communications. Users can now control which information to access as well as its structure and content, and theycan produce new information (for example, Web logs). People can easily communicate with those they've never met. These are major changes.

3. The content, not the storage medium, is what's of interest to a user. Unfortunately, this is not evident to a large part of the worldwide information technology sector. For example, the agenda of the World Summit on the Information Society concentrates almost entirely on technology while ignoring content.

4. The transfer of information is an inseparable part of the business process. Nearly every knowledge worker has a networked PC. Executives realize that an increasing amount of an organization's value is intellectual, hence the recent emphasis on knowledge management. Electronic collaboration is growing rapidly, and the information content industry must find new ways to enhance its effectiveness.

5. The user, not the provider, determines the value of information. We in the information-provision chain must realize that users have their own purposes and schedules for accessing information. Therefore, they now control the process. Although review, analysis, evaluation, and editing of information still have great value, today's challenge is to determine the intangible benefits of these activities andmeasure their success.

6. Quantity is not quality, "stuff" is not information, and information is not power—it is only potential power.The power of information is only realized when it's put into a person's mind and used to create knowledge. Merely delivering a "container" of information has little value.It must be put into a context that the user can absorb.

7. The Internet is mission-critical. This premise is hardly needed anymore because the Internet has become a standard, ubiquitous business tool. (Molholm noted that the Web was originally includedin this premise. However, he has removedit since it's only a software application that can be easily replaced if a better one becomes available.)

8. Use of the Web is not an information technology issue; it's an information management issue. Although the Web allows users to access information for their needs, it originated in the technology arena. Evaluating, organizing, announcing, and disseminating information are basic information science functions. Copyright, access control, and privacy are policy concerns and management issues.

9. A robust electronic information infrastructure supporting one community can be exploited by other communities with only a marginal increase in cost. Humans bring order to electronic chaos. It's easy to expand services to others outside of our own information community by using Internet technologies.

10. Although the Internet is a public utility, all information is not public information. Business data, records, intellectual property, etc., are not public. This premise is not so clear-cut with government data because nations create and use information in order to serve their citizens. There must be a balance betweenthe public's right to access information and protecting national security, and individual privacy. Recent events only underscore this premise.

11. Our vision must extend beyond our rearview mirror. The Web is still very young. We must not forget the lessons of the past, but we must also recognize that one can't steer a boat by watching its wake. We should continue to be innovative and challenge the status quo. Those who ignore this are not assured of business survival.

12. Whatever we do will be wrong, so let's do something anyway (as long as it's in the right general direction). Because the pace of change continues to increase, there's little time for analysis in decision making. Mistakes are inevitable. The need for direction and oversight is critical.

The information environment is more complex than ever before. Five thousand years ago, humans invented writing; 500 years ago, the printing press arrived; 50 years ago, the computer was invented; and 10 years ago, the Web came on the scene. Each advance in technology caused significant change, so yes, the past was prologue. But Shakespeare also said, "Have patience and endure."

The complete text of Molholm's lecture is available at http://www.nfais.org/MilesConrad.asp?WhichYear=2003.

 


Donald T. Hawkins is director of intranet development for Information Today, Inc. and editor in chief ofInformation Science & Technology Abstracts. His e-mail address is dthawkins@infotoday.com.
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