The information age is well and truly upon us. On the one hand, we seem to have an explosion of information with journals and magazines piling high in the book shelves of libraries. On the other hand, either because of limited knowledge on how to retrieve information or there is an insufficient amount of information available, the number of clients asking librarians for information is steadily increasing.
Why so much information?
Assuming there is an information explosion, why the information glut? According to authors Henry and Abraham in their article titled Database Research Faces the Information Explosion:
- "Low-cost computing and storage devices used not only in business, but increasingly in private homes;
- "Low-cost Internet access, potentially allowing all computing and storage devices to be connected (even when mobile); and
- "Availability of simple, easy-to-use interfaces (e.g., World Wide Web browsers)." (1)
How do we handle the information explosion?
There are two tools at our disposal:
- We could use biological systems (e.g. librarians); and/or
- We could use technological systems.
The most well-trained biological systems for handling the information explosion are the humble librarian and other similar information experts.
In the technological systems department, we have databases, online search engines and intelligent picture modelling and text simplifying software.
Or perhaps the ideal situation for children and students is a combination of both, but leave the adults to use the best available technology to find the information that they want.
Assuming databases are the way to go for organising and finding information in the library of the future, let us briefly mention a few advantages and disadvantages of databases and why such a tool might be helpful to librarians when managing the information explosion.
What is a databases?
A database is a place where people store and quickly retrieve information relevant to their needs in an easy-to-use, consistent and well-presented way.
The advantages of a database
The database is said to be a powerful tool for organising the information explosion. Why? Well let's look at some of the advantages:
- Databases allow rapid access to information.
- Databases are accurate in the information it retrieves using precise search criterias.
- Databases are quick at finding specific information, or uncover general patterns from a large amount of information based on time, place and other measurable factors.
- Databases can find duplicate records and so use techniques to not only show unique records, but also simplify information to the user.
- Databases often contain very carefully selected information designed to be highly relevant to the users.
- The information stored on databases tend to be of a high quality.
- The data elements displaying specific information in a database tend to be simple and easy to understand.
- Information is presented in a consistent manner with the help of rigid data elements.
- Databases often have very powerful query processing capabilities.
- Databases have powerful security features to protect all or certain aspects of the information stored on them.
- Databases are relatively easy to construct using the right software tools.
- Databases are reliable. If you type the same search strategy again and again, you will get the same consistent results.
The disadvantages of a database
There are a few disadvantages in using databases:
- Databases can only hold a narrow portion of the total information available in the world because people are still entering information into them on a manual basis.
- The information in databases tend to remain static for years until it is updated.
- Database information is usually updated by people.
- Database information tends to be highly specialised to suit certain users.
What do librarians want from databases?
Databases are useful to librarians so long as the information can be updated regularly enough with the right information in order to ensure accuracy and relevancy to any topic the users want. So the next step for the librarian is to find a database system having the ability to constantly update its own information automatically whenever it is connected to the Internet and other databases and so improve its own inherently incomplete and imperfect data. A bit like the database system of Google in how it gathers and updates information from web pages and so give the impression that someone with the database is updating the information, when, in fact, the people who own the web sites are the ones updating the Google database system.
Already the latest databases are showing intelligent pattern-searching and automatic information retrieval capabilities. Such systems are being used by governments in countries where, for instance, a Social Security system is in place to help people find work and so, in the meantime, need money to survive but at the same time be able to sift out those people who may be abusing the system and getting more money than they are legally entitled to. In more clandestine organisations such as ASIO, CIA and NSA, such systems utilise pattern-recognition to provide a certain level of intelligent discrimination of the vast amount of information they have to collect and process in order to find the one piece of information that might be useful and relevant to national security.
As the authors of this article state:
"[There is a need for] Analysis of patterns and trends through statistical and machine-learning techniques adapted to deal with huge databases on secondary and tertiary storage devices..."
The future for databases
The beauty of databases in simplifying vast amounts of information such as finding unique records, looking at records in a list format, and graphing results to help show patterns, and even finding the odd hidden gem in the vastness of their information storage capabilities is certain there. The next question is where will these databases be heading in the future?
According to article, it seems the future of databases will be:
- To include the ability to handle different data structures and multiple data formats and interfaces of other databases.
- To be able to present and deliver information in a suitable format. In other words, not only must the information look good, it must be deliverable by email, wireless mobile phones (i.e. WAP technology), and on paper.
- To know what is a suitable delivery rate and method depending on the type of transmission of information is required by the user. For example, if a user is querying a database using his mobile phone, the information needs to be concise and sent in a suitable format to be read and displayed easily on the device.
- To show sufficient flexibility in order to avoid a situation of continually updating the software again and again just to expand its capabilities to handle the latest information. The same is true of hardware: if the database is expanded, it should be able to run on the same hardware or any new hardware the organisation may purchase.
- The database must also be able to measure time spent searching on something for the seemingly simple task of billing a client for the information.
- The database must be able to search not only on text, but also other forms of information like audio, pictures, handwriting and video.
Can we achieve the goal?
There was once a time when databases had lots of problems. But thanks to the exponential growth in processing power of the humble computer most have been solved. The few problems that remain seems to be more involved with the imprecise world of human interaction and in designing more flexible and intelligent systems to handle the wide variety of information in different formats outside of the database environment.
Databases are already at a stage where they can handle and manage imprecise data and can analyse vast amounts of information to present interesting patterns. And combine this with the inherent advantages of databases already available today, and we will soon have the ultimate tool to manage any explosion of information today and in the future.
Librarians may soon be relegated to the schools where children and students may need help in how to use such tools. But if these tools are well-designed and easy to use, who needs librarians? If you need an example, just check Google.com. And if there is any intelligent pattern-searching technology built-in to something like Google.com, does anyone need to go to a library to find information, read an e-book, or whatever?