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Published in: Online & CDROM Review 20 (3) S.125-132 (1996)

Voigt, K.; Gasteiger, J.; Ihlenfeldt, W.-D.; Page; B. Specht, K. and Umstätter, W.:

German experts' views and ideas about information on the internet

Part 5:

The commercialisation of the Internet

Prof. Dr, Walther Umstätter

Institute for Library Science, Humboldt University - Berlin

1995 was the trigger year for the commercialisation of the Internet. Bill Gates went online with MSN, and there is a rumour that some weeks before he had bought most of the copyrights for pictures which Time Warner, Walt Disney, and Westinghouse had not reserved for some billion dollars. Internet idealists are very disappointed about these developments, while financial oriented brokers repeatedly bring to mind the mood of the gold-rush.

Today everybody can observe this fantastic technological revolution. But old onliners at the International Information Online Meeting in London, like me, are aware that it was in reality a hard and slow evolution. We had to fight for the acceptance of online for two decades. In Germany we started the DIMDI user group, with our first German Online Meeting in Cologne in 1979.

Year by year it was the same revolutionary feeling for us to have offers of new databases, royalties, consumer prices, search and download capabilities, intelligent terminals, networks, software packages, in-house systems, hypertext, CDROM and multimedia. Step by step, online documentation changed from the transfer of simple ASCII-text to the availability of small virtual libraries.

From 1976 to 1982 I have done roughly a thousand searches per year for free, and respectively also for fee. In this period, like some other colleagues in the online world, we studied the changes in the behaviour of end-users, triggered by commercialisation of the online use of databases. The retardation of growth, and the change to in-house systems, and to CDROM technology consequently occurred. We have a lot of experiences of commercialisation in the online market, but now we observe the exploding consumer market of multimedia products.

For a long time I have read that Dialog had some 50,000 users world-wide. In 1995 CompuServe is serving more than 3 million users and America Online is drawing ahead in the charts (with the BOS (Bertelsmann Online Service) in Germany, and Prodigy, Europe Online, Italy Online, T-Online, UK Online, eWorld and many others following the hot trend).

In parallel to our classical online landscape, the physicists at CERN in Geneva developed a new tool: the dynamic online World Wide Web of Internet.

What we can observe at the moment is the political and economic realisation of the time schedule, initiated by Al Gore and Bill Clinton on the basis of the Internet and EDUCOM, in which some hundred colleges and universities with the Library of Congress Network Advisory Committee make their databases, their software, and their OPACs available. This was a good starting point for the attractiveness of the Internet, and it associated the idea of the digital library. It was clear that publishers claimed to fulfil the copyrights, and the "royalty distribution" in the planned NREN (National Research and Education Network - legislation S. 1067 and HR 3131), which will be the basis of the US "National Knowledge Bank".

In Germany politicians like to propagate the information superhighway, but the importance of the construction of a national knowledge bank for science, education, and also for industry seems to be nearly unknown.

Theodore Holm Nelson, who coined the idea of hypertext in 1964, is working on his new idea PAX (Public Access Xanadu), tested in 1993. The hypermedia servers should be available this year with some normal information offers, but also with the so called "walk-in stands" which have more than 9 billion access possibilities. Also in 1996, NSFNET will be ready with its "data superhighway" with 3 Gigabit per second transfer rate. That is the right track to commercialise the education and entertainment market.

In my function as the head of the Institute for Library Science in Berlin, I’m highly interested in the metamorphosis of the classical library to the digital library. So, I have to ask: is Internet really the digital library of tomorrow?

The Internet has many facets. It is a place for:

and most of all, it is the place to accustom millions of users to the information market of tomorrow. The Internet is by no means a digital library.

The commercialisation of the Internet turns this instrument into the greatest publishing machine and the greatest bookstore in the world. Libraries must use this unlimited source of publishing-on-demand, but it is wrong and misleading to believe that publishers or bookstores will be identical with libraries in the future. The UK study „Library 2000" identified a trend in this direction. But that means that we also have to show the fundamental differences.

It is a question of definition: libraries are institutions which try to collect and to archive published information for their clients, under economic and synoptic aspects.

The economic aspect includes the interests of the clients, and shouldn’t be confused with the aim of a bookstore - to make profit. In the digital library we do the same on the basis of digitised information. Notwithstanding, it is necessary to have a synoptic view, including available information printed and published online. We like to read printed books much more than reading from the screen, but the storage (for example on CDROM) and the transfer (for example with FTP or via satellite) of digitised information is much cheaper than with printed information. It is important to see that books as a form of printed output are separated from books as a form storage media. This point is an eminent question. We have to recognise the role of the digital library for copyright and the economic effect of the digital archive.

On the subject of economy it must be emphasised that the main point of the library is not to read books or journals; it is to find out what we do not have to read.

On average, scientists browses 10 000 titles per year before they study 100 in depth. For the first step we often need libraries. The second step will in most cases be done in the office or at home. By screening published materials, we find out interesting ideas, we observe trends, we get some new impressions, and so forth. Today it is far too expensive to order, say 10 000 papers online to locate the hundred which we have to read. Online retrieval didn’t reduce browsing time; it has only brought us the possibility to find answers for special questions we have. This is very helpful. In my experience, normally we get only two or three highly interesting papers by information retrieval, from five which we have proved in detail, and from ten we have retrieved online. In these five cases it is necessary to look at the papers to make clear whether the articles are relevant or not.

In this sense the estimation of the value of published papers is often wrong. Only very few papers are relevant for the reader. Libraries have a linear growing attractiveness with each new publication. Readers can see thousands of pages with noise, with nonsense, with ambiguities, and with highly redundant statements. On the other hand, the chance is growing to find a hint that is highly relevant for solving the problems we have. As we know, the production of scientists is constant, and the growth of literature with a doubling time of 15 years is similar to the growing number of scientists.

The commercialisation of the Internet is also a sign for the commercialisation of science and education.


Last update: 1. March 1997 © by Walther Umstaetter