Commission on Preservation and Access

The Evolving National Information Network

Introduction

This document addresses the rapidly developing and changing networking and telecommunications environment now being implemented in the United States and across the globe. The creation of a flexible, relatively inexpensive digital network operating at speeds capable of supporting instantaneous access by any individual to information of any type wherever located is a prospect now within our grasp. This new environment for information transmission has the potential to revolutionize the way we publish, access, and preserve information. It has the capability to transform the way libraries acquire and preserve information and introduces new prospects for information preservation and access.

Overall structure of the paper

Evaluating the implications of the networked future for preservation of and access to information requires a broad grasp of the enabling technology. To provide this foundation of understanding, the paper first offers a primer on the technology underlying the current network environment. It then describes the status of the higher education and research networking environment, provides a summary of some of the lessons that we have learned from experience with these networks, and suggests impacts of this technology on the issues of knowledge preservation and access. It provides scenarios of possible futures employing the interlocking technologies of communications, processing power and storage. It addresses the prospects and challenges we face in the further development of the network and its use. It concludes with an outline of the policy issues we face.[1]

Pace of change

Perhaps the most important introductory comment to this paper has to do with the extraordinary pace of change in the technology underlying today’s information world.[2] This assessment of telecommunications and network technology is undertaken in an atmosphere of explosive change and rapidly developing potential. The resulting opportunities for scholarship and its supporting information infrastructure are extraordinary and many of them are certainly not imaginable at present.

Communications

The confluence of microelectronics and new communications media such as fiber optics, laser amplifiers, ultra high frequency and microwave radio technology; the increasingly entrepreneurial and less regulated telecommunications industry, and the global impacts of competition and increasing standards development have all led to a dramatic improvement in the cost effectiveness of telecommunications technology.

Processor power

Accompanying this revolution in technology for communications has been a more rapid growth of processing power, especially personal computers and computers embedded in other technology. This rapid increase in processing power not only allows the use of much more complicated communications protocols than ever before, but also enables strikingly increased flexibility and responsiveness in the interface between the human user and the computer. Furthermore, dramatic reductions in power consumption and size are leading to increasing possibilities of portability and ever larger capacities for manipulation of information environments. Networks have become more crucial since microprocessors are the most cost-effective source of this power and many applications depend on resources beyond the user’s own machine.

Storage

Finally, striking advances in storage technology have accompanied these advances in communications technology and processing. While optical storage technology has received much attention, the advances that have had the most impact continue to be those in magnetic storage technology. It is now possible to store the contents of more than one hundred books in about nine cubic inches.

Furthermore, all the evidence is that there will be a continuing technology explosion in all of these fields–communications, processing power and storage–for at least two decades to come. If one can imagine it and if it will be useful, the fact that an application is not currently feasible is only a temporal statement and quite likely to be overcome by technology in the near future. As an example, we could not imagine thirty years ago that computers would become so powerful, affordable, and compact that they would effectively displace pens, pencils, and typewriters as the primary technology by which many of us would write. Today we can barely imagine that a portable networked computer tablet will displace our note pad, newspaper, magazine, book, television, dictating machine, camera, and telephone. Such an environment is by no means unlikely by the year 2010, less than twenty years from now.