Technological history offers a panoply of transformative tools in the realm of information: the printing press, the microscope, photography, the telegraph and telephone, the phonograph, radio and television, xerography, fiber optic cable, the microcomputer... Each created new opportunities, and found applications not anticipated by the original inventors. Each posed challenges to established orthodoxies, but quickly became indispensable and passed from wonder of the age to ubiquity --became, in short, a tool. In general terms, electronic tools have fundamentally altered what we know and can know, and have given us access to a truly global landscape of information.
Clearly it is the microcomputer which is the primary enabling tool of the present, and this is especially true in realms of education. Students (and their teachers) must learn effective use of the tools of the present, and will certainly participate in developing the tools of the future.
'The present' is often quite transitory; many of the information access tools we used and taught only two years ago are now quite obsolete: gophers are rarely used, text-based lynx access to the World Wide Web has been almost completely supplanted by visual browsers, and many library catalogs and databases are now web-based. Audio and video via the web are frontiers of the moment, and seem to have no particular relevance to the world of libraries. Developments in compression and transmission technologies could shift the balance abruptly.I have spent much of my time over the last few years on the development of the World Wide Web as an instructional tool. The combination of a simple command language (HTML) and the metaphor of hierarchically linked branching structures (hypertext) has enabled a form of presentation that I imagined years ago (and subsequently found that Vannevar Bush had presaged in the mid-1940s with his vision of MEMEX), and now provides a means for anyone to publish to a global audience. This tool is well on its way to changing education at all levels, and its successors will surely accelerate the process.
Librarians are both elated and suspicious, seeing both the optimistic side of the democratic and participatory nature of the medium and its obverse in the low signal-to-noise ratio and the raggedy anarchy that dominates most sites. For our students the problems of information access are like those of traditional paper (how do I find what I need? how do I know what to trust?), but with little of the control and order that librarians have created within the Library's walls. The unruly imp in the workstation dangles temptations and disgorges red herrings; the credulous user lacks the critical and evaluative skills so necessary to separate true ore from gangue. How shall we teach appropriate and fruitful use of the tool? The only answer is to create value in the medium ourselves, and seek and link worthwhile material at other sites.