Douglas Adams was a great technophile and visionary. In 1999 he wrote how to stop worrying and learn to love the Internet and said:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
In 1993 Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, was released. In 2004 Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was awarded a knighthood, and topped a poll for Greatest Briton. Douglas was right - it took us about ten years to cotton on to the importance of this new technology. But Douglas went on to explain that we still don't understand the Internet. We're stumbling along, cobbling it together. We don't understand it instinctively. We overemphasise the risks and underestimate the benefits. It will take the generation of digital natives, those who grew up with the Internet, to make the best use of it.
The world has been transformed since 1993. Libraries have been at the forefront of this. In 1993 we had too little information. Now arguably we have too much - the volume of information sources is overwhelming! The role of the librarian is to act as a trusted guide through the maze of good and not so good sources. Teaching people about information literacy is more important than ever.
The instinctive reaction amongst some academics to Google was to decry it. But people used Google anyway - it is convenient and it works. So instead we need to harness the power of the network. If I go to google.co.uk/scholar from within the University then resources the library holds show up in the results, with a "Get it@UoB" link that takes me to the full text. That's working with the network, not against it.
It's fantastic that we are already doing this, but we could be doing more.
We could export our library catalogue to WorldCat, the worldwide catalogue of over 10,000 libraries. It would make our holdings visible to a wider audience, while also benefiting our own staff and students. You can already search WorldCat from a mobile phone - not something we offer ourselves.
We could deposit all our PhD theses, and many of our published papers in ROSE, Bristol's e-print repository. This provides persistent, long-term, reliable storage for papers to reference papers. They show up in any search engine, exposing the research to new audiences. This increases the impact and reach of our research, enhancing our reputation.
These examples harness the power of a larger global network to enhance Bristol. In a networked world we must think globally, not institutionally.
Should we feel nervous? Once upon a time we were in control. People would come to the IT department with requests, and if we didn't like it we could just say no. Now in an Internet-connected world it is very easy to bypass us. Anyone can get a free webmail account from Hotmail. Laptops are cheap enough that people buy them with their own money. You can get network access from your mobile phone company. File storage and processor cycles cost just a few cents a GB from Amazon.
It may be a hoary chestnut, but this threat is also an opportunity. This is an exciting time to work in Information Technology or Information Management. We should be the trusted guide that people turn to. We won't have all the solutions ourselves, but can find them. For every requirement that comes along we should assess it pragmatically, considering the risks and benefits of different solutions. Some things we'll invent or deploy entirely in house. For others we will use a service delivered over the Internet. Often it will be a hybrid between the two. There is a huge amount for us to do with such services: to customise, build on top, integrate, and train people on them.
Just understanding all this is half the problem. You could read Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology from JISC. You could read the report from Sir David Melville (former VC of the University of Kent): the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience. Both argue very strongly that higher education must embrace the web and new technology. Alternatively ask a real expert - try one of this years Freshers, who were three when the first web browser was released.