Building Virtual Libraries on the Internet

Nick Arnett, Verity

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University November 4, 1994


As anyone who's explored the Internet knows, millisecond access to terabytes of information can be more of a problem than an opportunity. Intellectual property owners of many kinds, eager to tap into the Internet as an inexpensive distribution channel, are seeking ways to make libraries of information available. These libraries can be "virtual," in the sense that they exist only as a collection of pointers to documents, rather than a physical collection. Thus, multiple "card catalogs" and other information navigation tools, potentially reflecting many purposes and points of view, can exist in parallel.

Copyright, performance and maintenance problems call for a distributed library model. Formatting and conversion obstacles remain for both documents and "meta-information," although emerging commercial products and standards claim to solve the major problems.

Librarians, publishers and electronic forums are undergoing paradigm shifts as their domains increasingly overlap. Publishers find themselves acting like librarians as they build electronic collections of documents; librarians are beginning to behave more like publishers by distributing documents and "packaging" information; electronic forums such as Usenet and CompuServe are becoming social information search and retrieval tools in their own right.

The World-Wide Web and related emerging standards for "Uniform Resource Information," combined with databases and search engine-based information "agents," hold great promise for construction of virtual libraries. Important issues of maintainability and scalability continue to beg the question of information structures. Opinion-based navigation and organic models may address these issues.


Nick Arnett [] is the World-Wide Web product manager at Verity Inc., Mountain View, California. From 1988 through August of 1994, Arnett was president of Multimedia Computing Corp., the leading market research and consulting firm tracking multimedia technologies and markets. He previously was a journalist with publications including InfoWorld and American City Business Journals.

Arnett's recent essay, The Internet and the Anti-net argues that current debate over information infrastructure should embrace the idea of separate internetworks for advertising revenue-based and customer revenue-based information products. The paper draws parallels between today's mass media and the Catholic Church's domination of popular information in early modern Europe, suggesting that technology today will play a similar role in restoring a balance of influence.


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