The Information Society, John Feather

hal. 132-138

problem, and can usually only be achieved on a very local level, or through the use of mailing lists which are costly to assemble, main-tain and service. Public access television, based in local communities, is not unknown where cable networks exist, and will perhaps become more common, but cannot hope to countervail the influence of the network broadcast services and the transnational satellite channels.

It is probably in the field of computer networks that new tech­nology offers the greatest potential for bypassing existing commer­cial and governmental information and communications systems. As we saw in Chapter 4, the academic networks which have been devel­oped throughout the industrialized world are now linked through the INTERNET to permit virtually uncontrolled, and normally uncharged, access to vast stores of information. The present anarchy of the INTERNET, which reflects its unplanned origin and growth, allows anyone with network access to search for information of inter­est, and to contribute to thousands of ongoing debates, use public access databases, and the like. The networks allow individual infor­mation-seekers to search directly and personally for their informa­tion, and for individual providers to make such information available with virtually no editorial, commercial or political control.

It is doubtful whether this freedom will continue to prevail. Abuse of the system and perhaps fear of its potential will inevitably lead to regulation. The development of the information superhighways will necessarily bring in its wake a regulatory regime comparable to that for telecommunications networks. It may be stringent or light, but it will, however mildly, impose a degree of control. The complex rela­tionship between information, the state and citizen will thus con­tinue to evolve. As it does so, the role of the intermediary will also change, for die ever-growing size and complexity of information sources and systems inevitably means that information-seekers will need help. Some of this1 comes from within the systems themselves, but there is still a need for gatekeepers and guides who can assist indi­viduals to exploit to die full the vast stores of information which are available to them. It is the role of these functionaries - the informa­tion professionals - that we shall consider in Chapter 7.

The information profession

The information needs of governments, institutions, businesses and individuals can only be satisfied if they can be matched to the avail­able resources, and those resources dien made accessible to the poten­tial users. The quantity and complexity of information, and of the systems and services through which it can be provided, have grown in tandem widi die growth of our information needs and pur depen­dence upon efFective provision. The information professionals are the intermediaries between information sources, information sys­tems and information users. They might be - perhaps should be -key ptiyen in the information society. In this chapter, we shall explore their role.

The information profession: a domain delineated

If we consider die various issues which have been discussed in the previous chapters of this book, we can identify thre? strands of infor­mation which interlock but which arc essentially different. These might be defined as:

public information;

personal information;

private information.

We shall also need to consider three similarly interwoven aspects of information storage and provision. These are:

information sources;

information networks and systems;

information agencies.

The distinction between diem is critical to understanding the proper role of die information professional.

For our purposes, public information is information which is
intended to be in the public domain. This statement, however, needs
some further refinement The phrase 'public domain' is not used
here as it is used by an intellectual property lawyer, in that context,
it means information, texts, designs, and so on which are no longer
protected by the relevant laws, and can be freely used, copied and
reproduced, like a book whose copyright has expired. In the present
context, however, the phrase is used less precisely, to mean informa­
tion which is intended to be publicly available within the normal
constraints of law and commerce. The information in any book is in
the public domain in this sense, even though the copyright is not.
The book has been written to be circulated (by purchase and perhaps
by subsequent loan) and then read in whole or in part There are
indeed some factors which might inhibit its unlimited circulation. It
has to be bought either by the reader or by someone (such as a librar­
ian) on the reader's behalf. A non-purchaser who seeks to read a book
must have access to a library which stocks it, and then find it in stock
when it is sought, and so on. These, however, arc minor obstacles,
which are of some practical importance but which do not affect the
basic principle that the clear intention of the author and publisher
of this or any other book is that it should be available to the public
at large.

Public domain information - collected, analysed and prepared for use - takes many forms. A conventionally published printed book is perhaps a paradigm of the phenomenon, but by no means the only example. Statistical information assembled by government, for exam­ple, is available through various publications, printed, photographic and electronic, and, in some cases, also through online systems or perhaps videotext. Some of it is free of charge; some (such as online access or some government publications) is very expensive to obtain. The principle, however, is unaffected: the' information is intended for public use, and the monetary cost of obtaining it is no more than a financial transaction designed to offset the costs of providing it and to generate a profit which will sustain the business of the providers.

If this concept of public domain information is accepted, the dis­tinction between it and private information is comparatively easy to establish and define. It is simply information which is not intended for public circulation, having been assembled and stored to satisfy some private purpose. Uncontentious examples include marketing information assembled by a company which would be valuable to its competitors (and probably acquired more cheaply by copying) and whose general availability would therefore be disadvantageous to those who had incurred the expense of collecting it There is proba­bly no serious disagreement about the legitimacy of the general con­cept of commercial confidentiality of this kind, and hence of the basic principle of the legitimate existence of information which is not publicly available. Other issues arc less straightforward. Governments and their agencies are also involved in this sphere of information, and, as has been suggested in Chapter 6, there are dif ferent views of the proper boundaries between the private and pur> lie domains, symbolized in the different attitudes embodied in the Official Secrets Act in the United Kingdom and the Freedom of Information Act in the United States.

The distinction which is being suggested between private and per-sonal information is essentially that between information relating to institutions, organizations, companies and groups, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, information relating to identifiable individuals. Again, however, there are few absolutes. While it would be generally agreed that information relating to a person's health, for example, is indeed private and should be confidential, there are circumstances in which it inevitably and properly becomes known to others. In the case of health information, the 'others' include doc­tors and paramedics who treat the data subject, and, with the data subject's consent, might also include insurance companies or employers. Professional ethical codes are sometimes as important as the law in regulating the use and dissemination of private informa­tion. To develop this example further, there may be ethical consid­erations about informing a 'patient's family, or even patients themselves, about the diagnosis or prognosis of a particular medical condition.

Moreover, some personal information might, with the data sub­ject's passive consent, be made available to others, perhaps in a non-attributable form. Information collected for census purposes, for example, or by market research companies, is not published in a form which allows individuals to be identified, e/en though this identification may be known to the data collector and be stored in the data files. In some circumstances, data subjects may even allow attributable data to be made available; for example, in giving consent for one's name and address to be on a particular mailing list, one

may give or refuse consent for that mailing list to be sold to odier organizations.

The role of the information professional

We turn now to our second set of factors which underpin our under­standing of the functions and responsibilities of the information professional.

Information sources are the essential basis upon which all infor­mation provision rests. For much of the last 500 years, this has pri­marily meant printed sources, although orality was never, as we saw in Chapters 1 and 2, entirely lost or forgotten. In the last hundred years, the development of new media for the storage and dissemina­tion of information products has multiplied the variety of sources, and has been a factor in greatly increasing their number. If such sources of information are to be made fully accessible, they tend to be deliberate creations rather dian accidental accumulations. Even if the accretion of information (or information media) is partly ran­dom, its effective use requires systematic organization. A library is a useful paradigm here. Even the most systematically assembled library can only be used if its contents are recorded in an equally systematic way, and tJiose records provide access to the books in the library. The catalogue, and perhaps the classification of the books by subject (which may be reflected in their order on the shelves), thus becomes a key tool in the effective exploitation of the library as an informa­tion resource.

All information sources, to be effective, need to be similarly sys­tematic in their organization. In books, for example, the table of con­tents, the index, and even such mundane matters as the page numbers, are all part of a design which allows the book to be used. The arrangement of the data is even more important. Even books which consist principally of continuous prose are easier to use if there is an alphabetic index to their subject matter. Some books are actually built around such an index; a dictionary is perhaps die most perfect example, but there are, of course, many other reference books which work on the same principle. In considering the sources of information, therefore, we are looking at their format and their arrangement, as well as at their contents.

It is, however, the content which is the raison d'etre of the book or other information source. If the source is to be used effectively and confidently, there have to be some standards for making a qualita-

tive assessment of it For all factual information, the minimal requirement is accuracy, so far as that can be attained; to validate that, it is common practice to give a source for the information, or at least some account of other sources from which it can be verified.

Information networks and systems are the means by which infor­mation is stored and disseminated. Both terms are now usually asso­ciated with the use of computers, but their applications can usefully be extended to other mediods of storage and dissemination. In the library world, for example, die word 'network* has long been used to describe a group of libraries which collaborate or interact with each pther for some purpose such as interlending or other cooperative activities intended to benefit their clients. The basic concept of the network is diat of providing a communications link, regardless of the form which that link might take. We can properly refer to a road network, or a telephone network, as well as an information network or a computer network.

Such networks are essential in the provision of information, since no individual provider can be in possession of all the information which might be required by clients. It is only tJirough networks which link the individual provider with odier providers, and the sources to which they have access, that clients can be fully and effec­tively served. The mechanism which facilitates this is most easily described as an information system. This might indeed be a complex computer-based system, it might be very simple local agreements about library cooperation or it might be informal personal contacts. In essence, however, they are the same; all exist to anticipate specific demand in the hope diat such a demand can, through their opera­tion, be more effectively met

There is no absolute reason why information provision should be institutionalized, but, in practice, it is normally delivered through an agency. Again, the word is used with a very wide and general applica­tion. The agency may be an individual (more properly called an agent), or it may be an organization or institution. It may be part of a larger body, like die information section in a business, or it may be a distinctive body in its own right like a national library. Perhaps most agencies, like the libraries of universities, fall somewhere in between. The precise distinction need not concern us. The important point is that an information agency (or agent) provides a point of contact between the information-seeker and die information which is contained in and derived from various sources and then delivered

through networks and systems to the end-user.

In bringing togeuhenthe concepts of public, private and personal information on the one hand, and information sources, information networks and systems, and information agencies, on the other, we can begin to define the concept of the information professional. At each stage in the various processes which have been described both in the first few pages of this chapter and in the earlier chapters of this book, we can identify some familiar occupational groups who are involved in them. These most obviously include publishers, librarians and archivists, but there arc many others. The authors and compilers of information sources clearly play a critical role, and they must be added to our list. The managers of information networks and systems pro­vide the essential infrastructure for information delivery to end-users; some such managers call themselves librarians' but many others do not The title may be as vague as 'information officer' or as apparently precise as 'system manager'. Do all of these groups constitute a single profession? If they do, what are its characteristics, and what is its role in an increasingly information-dependent society?

The work of the information professional

Some of these questions can more easily be answered if we consider a few exemplary cases of those who work with information. In Chapter 3, we looked at aspects of the work of the audiors and pub­lishers of books, and at the means of book production, distribution and sale. In the simplest case of a book written by one person, diat person - the audior - is die originator, analyst and guarantor of the information which the book contains. Authors may seek to bolster their own audiority by citing that of others; this is the purpose of references to sources and similar devices. The substantive intellectual input of die author is in the interpretation, selection and presenta­tion of the material, much of which may already, as a collection of related but separate facts, be familiar to many of the book's readers. The publisher's role is quite different. The publishing function is essentially that of facilitation, making possible the production and distribution of the author's work by providing bom the capital investment and technical skills which are needed to enable it to reach its intended market and audience. Where are die information skills in this process?

If we see the writing, publishing and sale of books as part of a con­tinuous chain of the communication of information from author to