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Blupete's Weekly Commentary

December 26th, 1999.

Dewey, Babbage and
"The Information Age."

"Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below."
Dryden: "All for Love" (Prologue).

I remember a time when I got myself off to the library with some regularity. It was a place set apart from the hubbub of the world, of the universities which I had attended. It was a place that not only contained a collection of books but a place where one might sit at a table, and there, in peace and quiet, to have the opportunity to concentrate on the business at hand. My fingers in the indexing system might give me an idea; and, then, I would travel over to the appropriate section and down an aisle or two. It was then, with the rows of books from floor to ceiling, to the left and to the right of me, that a feeling of solemn and reverential wonder swept over me. A feeling of dread mingled with veneration and fear.

I usually managed to get to the right area in the library. My subject, I thought was narrow, a book or two, maybe a half a dozen. But, No! There they are: rows and rows on macro economics and over in the next aisle rows of books on micro economics; on another day at another university, rows of books on the formation of contracts and over in the next aisle rows on remedies on the breach of contracts. I haul a book or two down, maybe enlightenment will come by looking to the individual index in the back of the book, maybe it is to be found in the table at the front: -- who wrote this book, anyway? Lord, it is all beyond me. Let me go back to the main indexing system in the library.

Librarians and their assistants (I have found invariably a most congenial group of people) are charged with the care of the collection and with the duty of rendering the books accessible to those who require to use them. They index books. Traditionally they do so by the preparation of an index card for the newly arrived book and place the card so that users might consult it together with the thousands, hundreds of thousands of others. The index cards will be found, there, in a long row with a metal bar at the bottom to lock them in place, in a drawer with a small card upon its face to indicate its range. These drawers were in rows and stacked in columns to make up a case, or a bureau. There were innumerable wooden bureaus, so much furniture just for index cards, up against a wall or two, it seems, maybe back to back to form rows of wooden bureaus so common at the front of the traditional library.

The books on the shelves of a library are usually numbered and arranged according to the "Dewey system." The system takes its name from the surname of Melvil Dewey (1851-1931), an American librarian. It was a system which by 1879 was being broadly adopted. It is a decimal system1 of library classification. As an artefact the Dewey system, however, is not now needed. And, yet, one would think that a system such as the Dewey system is needed more than ever. There is, as anyone who gets on the 'net will know, a blizzard of information out there. The fact is that there is no way in which it might be categorized. Not only because information has become, or rather it is now recognized as, a great and vast sea; but because it moves quickly and in all directions.

There was a mathematics professor at Cambridge (1823-39) by the name of Charles Babbage (1791-1871). It is Babbage who receives the credit for inventing the calculating machine, indeed, the first computer, which can still be seen at the Science Museum, London. Babbage's calculating machine, once it was set up and started, by a thinking person, would perform without the exercise of any further thought or volition. The electronic digital computer of these days is basically a calculating machine, with the difference that the speed of calculation has been enormously increased. Computers are now generally in use at our libraries. Still it is necessary to fill out electronic index cards. The set up with these electronic index cards requires considerable thought, but, once done and the data put in (a labourious process); then the computer proves its immense worth to the user of the library. Instantaneously one might be brought to the author's name, his works; further instantaneous cross checks can be made to similar works by other authors or other subjects, etc. A flood of information will come to the computer operator at the library. A careful selection of the search criteria is most certainly required or the researcher will be overwhelmed.

Now, what is available at the local library has limitations as to what it has on its shelves, even assuming it has unlimited funds to buy library material. This limitation, can be a disadvantage; however, for those who are unable to limit themselves, such library horizons can be an advantage. At least, the material to be found at a typical library has been picked, hopefully by a liberal minded person with a sense of what is important and what is not. The information to be found at the library is to be compared to that which is to be found on the 'net. There is a blizzard of information on the seemingly limitless horizons of the 'net; much of it useless stuff. One is driven to think, "There's small choice in rotten apples." If one is left to ramble in an uncontrolled fashion on the 'net, he or she will be lead astray into a wilderness of perplexities and errors, a land of mists and shadows. The 'net, however, is a wondrous facility which if used in a properly controlled fashion, based on the users experience and reflection, is a very quick and effective instrument of discovery. Computers have come to the rescue of the 'net to a much greater degree than they have to assist the management of the limit material within a typical library.

Not only are computers fast but they can randomly access the data, as opposed to reading it sequentially. A computer, in no time short, can access a piece of information stored within itself or on any other computer with which is it connected. The pieces of information can be put in at random and accessed in the same manner. All that is necessary is that each piece be given a unique number and equated to a search criterion. Whenever the search criterion is typed in on the keyboard it will bring back from a maintained data base a list of the unique numbers which had been previously assigned. A "search engine" such as AltaVista or Yahoo (see a list which I maintain) is but a fast computer with a huge storage capacity. These computers store but the criteria with short descriptions and the matching addresses of the computers where the information may be accessed.

What becomes very important in the new information age is a knowledge of what one's search criteria is to be. This requires an education which may or may not (and not in the early stages of one's learning) require computeracy. A computer is wholly useless to someone who is not able to operate a computer (not terribly complicated); and, so, certainly, an educational goal is to have a computer-literate society, people who are educated or skilled in the use of computers. In all of this, there is nothing more valuable, however, to a person on the 'net than to have an appreciation of the meaning and to be able to use words and phrases. More than ever before, what is needed is a good and liberal education, one that is not narrowly restricted to the requirements of technical or professional training.



1 The decimal classification (or system), is one of classifying the material with a numerical notation subdivided as a decimal fraction allowing expansion after any figure. Specifically, the system as was first used by Dewey, is labeled, as follows: 000, Generalities; 100, Philosophy; 200, Religion; 300, Social Sciences ; 400, Language; 500, Pure Sciences; 600, Technology (Applied Sciences); 700, The Arts; 800, Literature; and 900, Geography & History.

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Peter Landry

December, 1999 (2011)