I have been a recreational Internet user for the last five years and when the Web first came along I was extremely impressed. No more cryptic codes to remember! Pictures! The possibilities were endless. Like many others I extrapolated on the basis of what I had seen and imagined great things.
Some wonderful things have appeared on the Web (the LANL Preprint database and WebElements to name but two), but I now feel rather let down. Several weaknesses have come to light both through my own use of the Web and some of the comments I have heard from academics.
There are gaps in subject coverage: the Web is great for subjects that have always been very computer oriented or for fields of research which involve transglobal collaboration. Other subjects are very underrepresented, especially if they involve research of commercial value. Most articles about how wonderful the Internet is highlight the examples of fields (e.g. High Energy Physics, Computational Fluid Dynamics) that are actively using the Internet instead of more traditional forms of communication. The assumption is that academics in other fields will soon catch up but I don’t think that this is necessarily true. Academics in some fields appear to be showing a great deal of resistance to the Web. This is not just the people who say, ‘I never use computers’ when you point them in the direction of your OPAC. Many academics who happily use the Internet for interpersonal communication simply do not take the Web seriously as an information resource. A common comment seems to be, ‘I might use it at home for fun’. And while academics in some fields are not reading information on the Web it also means that they are not putting information on it either.
One academic admitted to me that he feels he already receives more information than he can handle and doesn’t want another source. I suspect that this view is actually quite common. We shouldn’t be surprised if we get this reaction when we ‘sell’ the Web to academics, because all of our training about information use warned us that most people want ‘the answer’ with a minimum of effort. Therefore, until using the Web saves people effort elsewhere many will consider it an extra burden.
Accessing material on the Web is getting slower by the week. This is the number one complaint of the academics I speak to. When I suggest to them that they try using it before 10am they often look pained. Even walking to the library seems more attractive!
This also means that my dream of using the Internet to answer reference queries is thwarted. If the enquirer is standing in front of me or waiting on the other end of the phone, the speed of using a good old fashioned book comes into its own. Part of this slowness is, of course, because the so-called ‘World-Wide’ Web is dominated by American material.
Some may argue that this problem will be solved when we all have access to SuperJANET. But I am concerned that SuperJANET, like the M25, will merely cater for the increase in demand that we already have rather than allowing for further increases in demand. Indeed it may well encourage more bandwidth-hungry projects.
Much of the material on the Web is either mere self publicity or lists-of-lists. Ideally the latter would only list the good stuff but in practice human beings are completists and most of these lists make no attempt to be selective. Also, these lists rarely contain guidance about whether it would be worth following the links. This was not a problem in the days when loading pages was faster and there were fewer links to follow. But now it is frustrating to wait ages for a page only to find that it is yet another list of links. And as a librarian, I am horrified by the number of pages that give no indication as to authorship or date of the last update. Web pages give few enough indicators or context and quality as it is even when these facts are included.
Sometimes it seems to me that the very thing that made the Web so appealing in the first place - its easy to write, easy to read format - has led to its main faults. I’m not dismissing the Internet - it still appears to have a great deal of potential. I just think that a small dose of scepticism is a very healthy thing. This is a transitional phase and the attitudes of academics, plus the other problems may change. I am hoping that my scepticism will be proved wrong but for now I will wait and see.