Will ASK systems really change how we get information? I have often been asked if it isn't nicer to curl up with a book rather than a computer. When people first encounter ASK systems, they see them as a beginning of the end of the book. And, indeed, they may well be. But it is important when considering whether computers may yet be the end of the book, exactly what kind of book we are talking about. In this case, we need to specifically consider the reference book. The real question is, will computers replace encyclopedias, textbooks, dictionaries, scholarly compilations of data, and technical reports?
My answer to this is an emphatic yes. Whether ASK systems are the ultimate replacement for these types of books is a question that cannot yet be answered, but some alternative is certainly needed. No one curls up with the D through F book of the encyclopedia, or if they do, they don't last long. After we read about Paris in the encyclopedia, it is possible we will want to know next about Prague, which is in the same volume, but we are just as likely to want to know about London or Amsterdam, which are not. More important, while reading we might get curious about Napoleon, or about the making of Bordeaux wine, or about city planning. Encyclopedia indexers try hard to help with all this by trying to point you in the right direction. The most notable of these attempts is the Syntopicon of the Encyclopedia Britannica, an enterprise in indexing done by the very clever Mortimer Adler. But as clever as this index is to topics of knowledge, it is still limited by its static nature. Knowledge is dynamic and ever-changing, and users have independent, idiosyncratic needs. This means that, ultimately, every user wants his own "specially-constructed-because-of-my-needs-of-the-moment-encyclopedia"; one that changes as if by magic. This is the goal of our ASK systems. If they replace the reference books, few will mourn their loss. What counts with reference books is the speed and ease of access.
It's Not Easy for Students to Access Experts
Where am I in the content of the book?