Equilibrium & Opportunism:
information strategies and the new environment

Keynote Address

eLib Conference 2-4 December 1998

Good afternoon. My thanks to the sponsors - Chris Rusbridge of eLib and his colleagues at UKOLN[1]


for their kind invitation to be with you at this conference and for the honor of starting off our discussions.

My colleagues at The Research Libraries Group as well as in the North American research library community more generally have watched the activities of JISC and of the eLib program carefully. There's much to admire in what has happened over the past few years and I congratulate you for it. I must say that from a distant perspective it seems as though eLib has met at least one of its goals - the dissemination of results. In preparation for this meeting I assembled an absolutely daunting stack of reports, memoranda, web site references and descriptive material. I can only say along with Sam Goldwyn that "I read part of it all the way through". It was helpful and does give me a context for understanding the conference program over the next few days.


I was invited start off our time together by picking up the Information Ecologies theme; in particular the impact of new information `species'. I've tried to enter into the spirit of the analogy and discover how this particular ecological perspective served up the conference organizers helps us to understand our activities, our challenges and the nature of the new environment in which libraries and information providers find themselves. In particular I want to reflect on some of the strategies suggested by ecology and how they might provide some general insights.


I've structured my reflections as shown on this slide: To begin, there are a few prefatory warnings in which I'd like to indulge, then I want to cover some ecological principles that should tether our collective creativity with the available metaphors as we proceed with the conference, and finally I'll reflect on some specific ecological principles as they might be operating in our new information environment.


Having attended a number of conferences that turn on libraries, information technology, the internet, and the euphoria surrounding the world wide web, I promised myself that if I ever had a chance to begin such a conference I'd do it with a kind of secular examination of conscience. Some reflections that would remind us, as we come together to grapple with our challenges, of our overall place as librarians and information providers in the broader environment, remind us of the general limitations on our knowledge and be sure that we knew the limits of understanding afforded by analogy and metaphor.

1. We should acknowledge that while we labor hard and certainly honorably to understand the impact of information technologies on our work and on those we serve, it is and will likely be for a considerable time laboring in the most rarified of air. Here I suggest we remember the rest of the world...


to understand just how rarified our concerns are. This slide should give you a sense of the very narrow technological band in which we're working. Only two percent of the world is online and of those online 85% are in North America or Europe. What we're discussing here is important to us but largely irrelevant to the overwhelming majority of the world. In fact, the relevance gets put into perspective very rapidly when you look at the income distribution associated with world population.


We work in the 18% of the world population that earns more than $7500 per year. At the bottom end of the income spectrum you can compare YEARLY income with what a US consumer spends on communications and information technology - that is, books, cable television, home video, recorded music, newspapers, magazines and online and internet access services. The average US consumer spends enough on these things to support someone in the bottom 20% of the world income distribution for eight months out of a year.

(Manuel Castells, a UC Berkeley sociologist refers to this situation as the "black holes of informational capitalism" by which he means situations in which segments of society are marginalized and the system itself doesn't suffer at all. As he says, "They're not valuable as producers, consumers, - in fact, if they would disappear the logice of the overall system would improve. If you are outside of the network, in other words, you don't exist."[2]




2. Not only are we working in a very rarified arena, we're almost inevitably ignorant about the real impact of what we are doing, creating, and constructing in this new information environment. My observation on this point was made eloquently by Bill Ivey, the new director of the National Endowment for the Arts in the US when he offered the following observation at a recent conference:

"The notion that we are in a unique new era dominated by technology is one of the

longest-running stories around. Tales of the digital revolution have occurred in the press

with drumbeat regularity during the past twenty years. (...)

Think back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within a few decades,

our society absorbed photography and motion pictures, radio and sound recordings -- to

say nothing of electric lights, automobiles, telephones, and flying machines. Not since

the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century had humankind experienced

such a potent reshaping of the relationship between art and society, between author

and audience. True, we live in exciting, fast-paced times, but the pace of innovation in

the early twentieth century could easily have caused Bill Gates to shed silent tears into

his sleeve.

And in this backward glance, there's an important cautionary tale. About twenty years

ago, I edited the reprint of an obscure volume entitled The 1898 Edison Phonograph

Dealer's Convention. By the time of that meeting, the phonograph had been around

for more than a decade, and what were Edison's troops talking about -- cylinder sales?

Not on your life. The phonograph was introduced as a business machine, a

head-to-head competitor to the typewriter. Imagine voice-recorded wax cylinders

mailed from office to office, replacing the business letter. Edison ultimately had a

business machine success, of sorts. His cylinder became a flexible belt, and his

phonograph became the dictaphone.

Very little entertainment potential was seen for the Edison invention. When the

phonograph did perform for an audience, it was not in the home, but in a concert hall. A

hall, like this one, was rented, the phonograph was placed on stage, and patrons bought

tickets to come into the theater to hear the machine "sing" or "talk" on stage. The idea

of placing phonographs in homes, and selling interchangeable parts to consumers --

well, that was just too radical to be considered.

So even today, as smart as we all are, and as long as we have been staring at the

digital horizon, it is still very likely that we, like those early Edison salesmen, don't know

what is really going to happen.[3]



I think it's a good thing for us to remember that the current tide of technological transformation is actually a continuation of waves of change that have taken place throughout history. There are going to be profound benefits as well as substantial costs, the mixed blessings will be apparent and we should expect unexpected consequences from what we're doing. <Those of you inclined to think this way should consult the Technorealism website[4]


where some very sound principles to remember are explicated.>

3. And finally, I think that only a dim understanding of what's happening will come through metaphor and analogies with other disciplines or technologies. The Edison phonograph anecdote makes the point as does the relative trendiness of Bionomics earlier in this decade; some of you may have read the book that suggested that the Newtonian physics underlying current economics was misguided and that the biological sciences were the proper lens through which to understand economies. If you read the book or go to the Bionomics Institute web site[5]


you can watch that metaphor get wrung and twisted for every bit of potential insight. And it will probably be wrung as long as there's a single consulting dollar left.

In this venue not so long ago we have had Peter Lyman and Clifford Lynch and Richard Heseltine moving us from the landscape metaphor on to ecologies which does give us a different and arguably more apt vantage point from which to contemplate our activities. It is, however, an analogy no matter how illuminating. I think we would all need to know a lot more before we could subscribe to the judgement of Stuart Kauffman, the Texas Instruments scientist who remarked: "Biological metaphors aren't just metaphors. It's how the real world works.[6]



Having indulged me in my application of discount factors I want to pick up my theme for which I have two principal jumping off points -


1. Some baseline ecological concepts that ought to ground the rest of our metaphors and

2. Chris Rusbridge's overview of the Electronic Libraries Program titled Towards the Hybrid Library [7]


as published in D-Lib Magazine this past August (Parenthetically my congratulations to Chris for practicing what he preaches and publishing in this worthy electronic magazine and my particular admiration for the overall quality of the article; it is a very thoughtful and honest overview of an extraordinary amount of worthwhile effort, etc.)

Let me start with some baseline definitions of ecology with apologies to the "Father of ecology" - UK biologist Charles Elton in his book "Animal Ecology "defined the concept of niche.

The simplest definition of Ecology is the study of the relationship between living things (within species and between different species) and between them and their environment.


In general living things are studied at six different levels (here's a picture[8]);

1. Individual - a particular species

2. Population - a group of individuals of the same species

3. Community - different populations of species

4. Ecosystem - several different communities existing in a characteristic way

5. Biome - ecosystems that share the typical geography and climactic conditions

6. Biosphere - the thin life-bearing layer that forms the outer surface of the planet

Just to illustrate that the metaphors and analogies in this discipline are lying around on the ground for easy harvesting here's another picture that ecologists use often in different forms a food chain or food web.

Contrast with this diagram of the entertainment and technology industry that appeared last week in The Economist[9]



<SLIDE 9 and SLIDE 10>

You look at that and think maybe these aren't metaphors but the way the real world works.

<SLIDE 11>

In any case here's the picture of ecological relationships again. I'm going to concentrate on the second and third levels - population and communities - and close with a comment about the fourth - the ecosystem that information species will inhabit.

Pursuing the ecology theme set by the sponsors obviously encouraged me to do some reading about ecology and I learned just enough to realize the richness of the discipline and to feel completely unequal to the task - this was a circumstance where a little knowledge wasn't dangerous but daunting[10].

It's daunting because ecology focuses on the connections. Because of those connections it's very difficult to enter the discipline without getting pulled very deeply into the entire study. As Robert A. Heinlein[11] said "The trouble with ecology is that you never know where to start because everything affects everything else."

Eventually I pulled myself out and back far enough to settle on three principles from ecology that I think have some immediate applicability for the new environment in which we find ourselves. The three principles I offer up for analogy are:

<SLIDE 12>

Equilibrium and opportunism - these are the two principal population survival strategies...

In any environment there are limits to the resources available for any particular species - called the carrying capacity. Two principal strategies to succeed - multiply as rapidly as possible (the r-strategy referring to the reproduction rate and how fast a population can grow, usually small species with a short life span, these are known as opportunistic species) OR invest more energy in a small number of offspring over a longer period of time (the k-strategy referring to the carrying capacity and how close a population can stay to the carrying capacity, usually these are large species that live longer etc., these are known as the equilibrium species).

<SLIDE 13>

Second, I suggest the principle of Symbiosis - the entire spectrum of ways in which species can live together...

Deep in the heart of ecology is the idea of `community': collections of different species that apparently live harmoniously together, or at least in what seems to be balance, each adapted to some extent to the presence of others. And it's in communities that we often perceive Nature as an endless chain of parasites and predators. This is the familiar Thomas Huxley view - "the strongest, the swiftest and the cunningest live to fight another day...no quarter is given" which stands in contrast with the idealistic view of "mutual aid". Darwin leaned towards this mutual aid view thinking that parasitism might be replaced by more equitable partnerships: "in numberless animal societies the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears: struggle is replaced by cooperation." One form of living together of symbiosis then has come to be referred to as "Mutualism" in which there is a partnership beneficial for both, although in practice one partner usually exerts a slightly greater degree of control. < E.g. flowering plants entice insect pollinators via nectar.>

There are, of course, lots of gradations between the opposites of beneficial mutualism and parasitism that is injurious to one of the partners. One interesting variation that is a step further away from true parasitism is a relationship where benefits are gained from the host without harming them seriously or providing any benefits in return. Such a relationship in which one partner benefits without serious harm to the other is known as "commensalism" (literally `being at table together'.) Symbiosis (literally `living together') is generally used to describe the whole spectrum of relationships.

These different ways of living together help to define an ecological niche - basically a niche defines the functional status of an organism in its community; it explains how a species uses available resources to survive and the way its existence affects the other organisms living around it. Most species occupy different ecological niches to avoid competition when resources are limited.

In fact there is a principle of competitive exclusion - that says no two species can share the same niche. It is believed that this is to avoid competition between species when resources are limited. If two species were in direct competition, one of them would inevitably become extinct or would have to seek an alternative niche.

<SLIDE 14>

The third and last principle I want to introduce is Ecological succession - the process of transformation as one kind of community succeeds another within an ecosystem . If you think about the gradual replacement of meadow grasses by trees you're considering an example of ecological succession.

(Here once again we have to give credit to a UK botanist Arthur Tansley who coined the term ecosystem to describe several different communities existing in a characteristic way. Tansley also formed the first ecological society - The British Ecological Society in 1913)

The general idea of ecological succession is that within an ecosystem different species succeed each other, so species that appear early in the process are unlikely to play a role later on. The diversity of species increases, so that in its final state, that is at climax, there are more niches to be exploited. The total amount of organic matter present increases, as does the amount of energy being used, but the rate of production slows down, so that in a mature forest the rate of tree growth will have passed its peak.

I'm now happy to point out that an American ecologist can finally be referenced. Frederic Clements demonstrated that in each geographical zone, plants succeed each other in a particular sequence developing toward a `climax' vegetation specific to that zone.

<SLIDE 15>

Having established our understanding of these three ecological principles I want to turn to the Hybrid Library. In this context our host Chris Rusbridge has told us that it is "Important to take an ecological approach". Before moving on I can't resist a brief sidebar from the great contemporary essayist of biology and other matters, Lewis Thomas, who wrote:

"To start with we ought to get another word to take the place of `hybrid'. Not that it doesn't describe itself satisfactorily, but there is something not sufficiently straightforward about it for the scientific needs it is intended to serve. `Hybrid' is itself a relatively new word, easily disposed of without sentiment, but standing blank-faced behind it is the Latin hybrida, which was the name for the unsuitable offspring of a wild boar and a domestic sow. The word had no use in English until around the seventeenth century, when a casual mention of hybrids was made, referring to the boar-sow mismatch. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century that it really entered the language. At that time it was needed for botany, zoology, and the rapidly developing discipline of philology, and there were even usages in politics (hybrid bills in Parliament.)

The real trouble with `hybrid' is in its more distant origins. It is a word that carries its own disapproval inside. Before being `hybrid' it was hubris, an earlier Greek word indicating arrogance, insolence against the gods. Hubris itself came from two Indo-European roots, ud, meaning up or out, and gwer, with the meaning of violence and strength. Outrage was the general sense. Hubris became a naturalized English word in the late nineteenth century, exhumed by classical scholars at Oxford and Cambridge, and promptly employed as slang to describe the deliberate use of high intellectual capacity to get oneself into trouble. Hubris was the risk of losing in an academic equivalent of juijitsu; if you used your full mental powers you could be hurled, by your own efforts, into limbo."[12]

With that warning let me return to the three ecological principles and see how they illuminate our current situation:

<SLIDE 16>

Equilibrium and opportunism

Let's look at these population strategies and see how they've been working in the activities of eLib, The Library more generally, and the Information Economy in its broadest sense.

First I think the projects of eLib have been an r-strategy species. Small projects, lots of them, very opportunistic. ELib's approach to project funding was an opportunistic population strategy - do a lot; some will survive and prosper. I suppose the Higher Education Funding Council's non-formula funding may also have been in that category - lots of digitization projects etc. In the HEFCE case it remains to be seen which have survived and will prosper.

Contrast this with the US approach to digital libraries taken by our National Science Foundation in which a very small number of projects were undertaken to be played out over a very long time. Lots of energy put into what they hope will be species that survive and establish the patterns of survival in the community.

In the Library world more generally you have a similar contrast between the UK and the US approach. In the US it seems every research library has launched one or more significant digital library projects, they've forged ahead proliferating ideas and approaches without a clear idea that any particular set of activities will be the survivors. At the library and institutional level we seem to following an opportunistic population strategy even while our government funding takes the equilibrium approach.

If you turn to the Information Economy broadly you see the opportunistic population strategy being played out in a very extensive way. Having the world wide web as its environment, every business has rushed to create a web delivery mechanism. Publishers, libraries, scholarly societies, individuals are all spawning enormous varieties of service offerings with every form of resource, technology and architecture. In its least complicated form this opportunistic strategy informs all the self-publishing on the web. The question is will this rapid reproduction rate produce the right combination for survival? I think there's evidence in the recent consolidations of the major information producers and internet providers that a different population approach is being taken. These companies - the AOL's, Netscape's, Amazon's, Yahoo's - have assembled an extraordinary reserve of resources. Their market capitalizations are immense. They have the internal resources to outlive or to consume all the opportunistic forms that have made up the vast majority of the web population. Ultimately they will dictate the survival paradigms which libraries will have to adopt and they will establish the final shape of the information economy in which libraries and their institutions will have to live.

It seems to me that when considered from an information service viewpoint hybrid libraries are going to be the survivors of eLib's opportunistic strategy, of the North American institutional approach to digital libraries and of the equilibrium strategy being pursued by the commercial providers in the broad information economy.

In the case of eLib you can follow the money to see that this is likely to be the case. I presume that since Agora, Hylife, and Malibu project all drew the largest funding sums per annum they may be best positioned to survive as services. In the case of the institutionalized North American efforts those that survive will likely look like specialized cases of the equilibrium species being spawned by the commercial sector. I found Dan Atkin's observation on this matter fairly compelling - he says that the role of the digital library is in fact no more than a specific case of an information economy in this case the brokering environment. And the brokering environment is the arena of the successful equilibrium species emerging from the commercial information economy[13]



<SLIDE 17>

Symbiosis - the entire spectrum of ways in which species can live together is exhibited in the new information economy and many of the principal relationships are changing. Established relationships that have been balanced are now out of balance because they've been moved into a new niche - the electronic environment - where resources have shifted and established success behaviors don't obtain. In the information provision arena reflect on the relationships between

Creator - Distributor

Library - Publisher

Library - Institution

Library - User

and whether we define them as predator/prey, parasitic, mutualistic, or commensal. In fact our definitions have been changing rather rapidly and there isn't a consensus about the nature of the relationship.

One example of the changing relationship is in the way the debate between librarians and publishers had been framed and is now being framed. Not so long ago the assertion was that publishers were parasitic, extracting more and more dollars from the library. The debate was about price. Now the debate seems to be about the distribution role. It's now been framed so that the publishers are predators and the library is its prey. The implication is that the publishers are out to occupy the distribution role that librarians had filled in the information ecosystem. Much of contemporary thinking in librarianship is about how to redefine that role so librarians survive and succeed in the new information environment. There are librarians who believe that one survival strategy is to occupy the publisher's niche (and occasionally it is proposed that we can fill the educator's niche) by denying the publishing community access to the creative resource, by retaining the scholarly products of the university, and taking on the publication and distribution role. And in that particular arena it's not yet clear whether or who is going to become extinct or be forced to occupy a new niche.

In that regard I observe that some groups of closely-related animals are able to occupy the same geographical space without directly competing for the same resources, because they exploit different niches, particularly different food sources. If libraries choose to pursue the information production role then we should be asking just what niche we can successfully exploit. Is it publishing? Is it learning materials? Is it primary sources and historical collections?

A related observation is that when a species moves from one niche to the another it changes its place in the chain and it moves up or down the hierarchy of predator and prey. In the information provision arena where is the library? Should the library be making common cause with the publishing community as we alter our distribution role? It seems to me that establishing library systems that allow borrowing or purchasing would be the beginning of a sustainable relationship between species. We'd be presenting our users with the fullest set of choices. Perhaps a commensal relationship requires libraries to rethink the type of buffet table that we set.

My final observation about these changing relationships is that to avoid being forced out of the system entirely we ought to pursue a strategy that consisting of collaboration, adaptation, and resource specialization. That is, libraries ought to be seeking mutualism with publishers (if we know the role that we want to play we ought to go up the chain and clearly establish the principles and requirements of that role with those we believe are the biggest predators), we ought to adapt the style, look and feel of those information provision entities that are succeeding in the commercial and entertainment sectors of the new information environment (if we want to serve our user communities as they expect, we need to acknowledge that those expectations are being established outside of the library population) , and we ought to exploit the resources that we alone have as long-established collectors of the cultural and scholarly record (we ought to ensure access to the primary sources, the archives, the museum, the historical collections that we've preserved and protected for so long). If we collaborate, adapt and specialize we'll have a successful, sustainable and important role in the new information environment.

<SLIDE 18>

Ecological succession

Finally I turn to the concept of ecological succession.

One application of this principle is to interpret the current library as the climax state of the knowledge product environment; it's the mature forest of this ecosystem if you will. And from a particular ecological viewpoint that would be comforting. After all given a stable environment, a lack of interference, and generally a lack of catastrophic phenomenon, an ecosystem will eventually reach a point where subsequent succession does not occur. For a very long time that would have been a good description of the library's environment and its role in the information provision system. Libraries have been what they are for a very long time.

Now however we are faced with the new electronic environment. That environment represents precisely the kind of interference and catastrophic change that would normally eliminate the climactic ecosystem species. And in this scenario the library and all of its roles in the information ecosystem would be overtaken by other species - we're the forest going to meadow again after the catastrophic fire.

Another application of the principle yields a different scenario. Perhaps the library is not and has not been the climax state of the information provision environment. Perhaps we're just one of the species that makes up the climax state. The library is part of the change, just one of the actual participants in the movement towards a climax state whose particulars we don't know or understand. In this scenario all the energy expended in changing and adapting ensures the library a successful place in the new system that will eventually emerge.

And in each of these scenarios our assessment of the New information species - whether they are new information providers, new information types, or entirely new information resources (hybrids themselves; finding tool, info itself, related materials) - will be very different. In the first scenario these are threatening new species that will replace ours; in the second scenario they are the diversity that represent a broadening of the communities that make up the information ecosystem in which we live.


One of the criticisms of the landscape metaphor for the information collections and delivery systems is that it is static. A landscape represents a perspective, a view, a map. Cliff Lynch characterized a landscape as a captured snapshot of the ecology and urged ecologies as a more useful metaphor because they "capture much of the dynamic, interdependent evolution and commerce of information creation, management and use, and in particular the roles of autonomous parties within an information life cycle..." and because as he observes "Ecological systems have been occasionally disrupted by the introduction of new species, the elimination of old species, or the change in the balance and interaction among species." All of these processes are characteristic of what is happening today in the world of information and information use.

While it may be a much more accurate metaphor its application is very difficult since it represents connections, relationships and dynamics among living things. In a landscape I can place myself, the other and visualize the space. In an ecological process I have to consider myself part of the dynamic. It requires both introspection and great distance to gain insight into the processes as they affect us and our institutions; we are, after all, self-aware and self-conscious participants that can adapt, change, and alter our environment. The self-conscious molding of the environment is after all a uniquely human characteristic. And in that sense we are the ultimate form of what ecologists call a `weed species'.

From my readings of your proceedings it seems to be a short but honored tradition for each keynoter to offer up an alternate metaphor for thinking about our work. In that regard I've chosen to close with a concept that I hope represents the actual end state towards which all our efforts are moving. A state that is possible to imagine because of the electronic environment, because of all the new information species and because of the potential for integration that is inherent in the technology. It's a concept cited by Edward O. Wilson the Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard scientist that he terms "consilience"[14] - it's a return to the unity of knowledge, the ideal of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Consilience, literally , a jumping together of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation. It's a worthy goal to set for the hybrid library.

<SLIDE 19>


[2] Jay Ogilvy, Interview with Manuel Castells, "Dark Side of the Boom," Wired Nov 98

[3] http://arts.endow.gov/endownews/news98/GettySpeech.html

[4] http://www.technorealism.org/overview.html

[5] http://www.bionomics.org/

[6] Zina Moukheiber, "Back To Nature, " Forbes, 19 Oct 98 http://www.forbes.com


[8] from Pollok, Steve, Ecology, London , New York, Dorling Kindersley, 1993.

[9] Emma Duncan, The Economist, 21 Nov 98 http://www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/21-11-98survey/index_d1.html

[10] much of the discussion of ecological principles here was gleaned from a reading of Tudge, Colin Global Ecology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991

[11] Heinlein, Robert A. Farmer in the sky, New York, Scribner, 1950

[12] Thomas, Lewis, The Medusa and The Snail; more notes of a biology watcher, Viking Press, New York, NY, 1979

[13] Summary Report of the Series of Joint NSF-EU Working Groups on Future Directions for Digital Libraries Research, 12 Oct 98 http://www.iei.pi.cnr.it/DELOS/NSF/Brussrep.html

[14] Edward O. Wilson, "Back from Chaos," Atlantic Monthly Mar 98