Systems

Social informatics approaches have been applied to some issues that are of particular concern to designers of digital libraries in working with documentary systems. How do people work with documentary systems? We know that certain visions did not come about, such as the early 1980s vision of the paperless ofŽ ce.

It is intriguing to speculate why one of the hot items in a ‘paperless ofŽ ce’ is a laser printer. Why are laser printer sales rising steadily and faster ones, more colorful ones—if the direction of development is to abandon paper? There is a conceptual disconnect here. Careful studies of professional and clerical documentary work Ž nd that many people

engage in complex activities, annotating documents and comparing them. Just as an editor compares two versions of a paper or a book chapter to see what the changes were; or integrating them, for instance in assembling a long report. The screen space of the more common 14-, 15-, or even 17-inch displays are too limited. To compare two full-page manuscripts, it helps to put them side by side. That would require about 24 inches of display. Today 24-inch displays are too costly for most ofŽ ces. While the costs and overall mass of large-screen monitors will decline in the next few years, paper has other virtues.

Those who work with multiple documents mark them up with quick annotations and diagrams that are more difŽ cult to do with word processors. They can also work with the paper in many locations. Paper is simple and versatile. For certain transaction systems, such as airline reservation systems, the move to paperless transactions has been workable. It reduces operational costs in re-issuing new tickets and people make few additional notations on their tickets.

In contrast, people who are doing analytical work with manuscripts have found paper to be an extremely durable and useful medium, for a variety of reasons. Some of the value of paper is based on comparing and working with documents side by side. It is partly a real estate issue, and partly a portability issue. Documents can be moved around an ofŽ ce, or taken off-site quickly and easily without needing a running computer. Paper plays important roles in some places where we do not think it is in use. An interesting example is in civilian air trafŽ c control systems.

The movie version of air trafŽ c controllers shows them staring at bright green displays. In real life they do depend upon computer displays. They also keep track of the planes that they are monitoring on little pieces of paper, which record ights, ight vectors, and speed, among other things. Because they divide their work by air space, when the plane moves from one scope to the next, they pass the paper over to the next person responsible. Gary Stix 26 examines

  • (a) the nature of the work and communication via paper strips, and
  • (b) IBM’s efforts in 1993 to automate it.

Stix reports that IBM had a database with 65 Ž elds—a little complicated for real-time control! The project has since been abandoned by the FAA in the United States, at a cost of several hundred million dollars. But the FAA will continue to develop upgrades, because the computers on which the air trafŽ c control system runs are aging, and it is hard to get spare parts, technicians, and so on.