The future of agricultural information holds many possibilities. All information resources are now in a period of transition. One problem with speculating about agricultural resources is that little has been written about the future of resources in this area. Many more resources will become available in an electronic format. There will be changes in the formats available. Lets first look at the formats covered in earlier chapters.
The number of databases available will probably continue to grow to meet the needs of increasingly sophisticated users. In my opinion there will continue to be a growth in fact oriented resources such as the chemical databases. There may be a shift to client/server based systems instead of the more traditional online systems. Most online databases will be text based for the near future. Recently, DIALOG and a few of the other online services have allowed access through the Internet. This can lower the costs of such services by doing away with the telecommunications charges after accounting for the cost of connecting to the Internet. It could also result in greater availability to the public if the information “superhighway” becomes a reality.
The growth of CD-ROM has been phenomenal. CD-ROM will be here for many more years. With the recent introduction of cd-rom based packages for home use, the demand for cd-rom can only increase. Many new computer systems come with an internal cd-rom drive already installed. Multi-media products will continue to grow. All that is needed is for someone to identify what the farmer needs to have and then to design a product to fulfill that need. With a greater demand for such products, prices should come down. CD-ROM products will eventually replace products that are now distributed on floppy disk or on magnetic tape.
LOCALLY MOUNTED DATABASES
Locally mounted databases will continue and in fact may become more prevalent as desk top computer power increases. The method of distribution will change. As cd-rom discs come down in price, databases will move from floppy diskette and magnetic tape to cd-rom. Several U.S. government data files are now available on cd-rom. There may be an increase in databases based on local information. With client/server technology and the powerful work stations available today, it becomes much more feasible for a university or even an individual to create a file for local use. Imagine being able to get information from many different sources and then reassembling it in a new way for your own use of the use of others. In my opinion, this is the way local resources will be developed.
The number of libraries that allow access to their online catalogs is increasing. Again, client/server technology will make a big difference here. In the near future, the user will be able to search a large range of library catalogs and even other resources by using the online catalog of his/her choice. For example, the user of the opac at SUNY Morrisville College could search, using the same commands as he/she did on the local opac, any other catalog in the world without leaving the local catalog. This would allow the user to generate an extensive bibliography without having to learn to use another type of online catalog search software. Many other types of information, besides bibliographic, will be available through the online catalog. Many libraries are now including pointers in bibliographic records to full text and databases. All that is needed is for the programmers to work on links to allow a user to “click” on a record pointing to, for example, the Census of Agriculture. It would then be displayed on the screen.
NETWORKED SERVICES (INTERNET)
The biggest area of growth will been on information accessible through the Internet. Electronic bulletin boards will continue to be around for a long time and may migrate to such software as gopher or MUDs. MUDs allow a group of users to interact in real-time without having to use electronic mail. For the immediate future, listservs will continue to provide an important service linking many users together. While many such groups have counterparts in USENET newsgroups, agricultural discussion groups are not widely available through the newsgroups yet. This is very likely to change especially if BITNET ,where most listservs are maintained, users move over to Internet and cancel their BITNET memberships. I have seen this is being widely discussed among the State University of New York campuses. Gopher servers have been available on the Internet for less than three years and there are already over three thousand sites around the world. The number of sites mounting agricultural information is growing. When I started writing this book a year ago there were only one or two sites, there are now over ten including many USDA gophers. It now appears that the number of Almanac servers has stabilized. I have seen some discussion about moving Almanac based information to gopher. Another new tool on the Internet is the World Wide Web. This is a network of hypertext document servers around the world. It was originally designed by the scientists at CERN to allow access to high energy physics research data. It is based on client/server technology. World Wide Web (or WWW) clients allow access to these hypertext services as well as allowing access to gopher, telnet, ftp, and wais (wide area information server) databases. WWW clients are now available for all types of computer and microcomputer systems. Most will allow the use of multimedia products. Such a client could provide a seamless interface to the internet. The user would never need to “leave” the client except to read electronic mail and maybe to use other local services.
ACCESS TO INFORMATION
Getting beyond the format or look of electronic information, the biggest issue is and will continue to be public access to that information. It is not yet clear as to what form the National Information Infrastructure will take. I believe there are two extreme possibilities with the future probably being somewhere in the middle. I call them the optimistic view and the pessimistic view. These views are not based on information from any one source but are based upon my observations and discussions I have participated in. Lets look at the pessimistic view first.
In the pessimistic view, access is limited to those with the money . In this view, the goal of “universal access” is never realized. Most electronic information has been privatized. Colleges and universities have discontinued allowing access to the internet except for those with a demonstrated need such as those faculty with research projects that produce income for the institution. Fear of possible exposure to computer viruses and other security concerns force computer centers to limit access to their systems. Because of budget cuts and fears of competition in the private information sector, the USDA Cooperative Extension Service is forced to discontinue their projects to provide electronic information at little or no cost to the public. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is forced to do the same thing due to lack of funding. Libraries can no longer afford to provide “free” access to their resources because of soaring costs and the need to provide cost recovery for all services. New tools to access electronic information are available but only to those with the money to subscribe to commercial services. The world wide network never matures because of squabbles over who pays for access. Many governments also feel threatened over the loss of control that would result if their people have access to such a network.
The other extreme view is much more optimistic and is somewhat “pie-in-the-sky”. This view is based on Vice President Gore’s dream of “universal access” similar to the access provided by the telephone companies where no one is refused service. Everyone will have the right to a basic package. That package may contain electronic mail, multi-media, and access to some databases. Information will continue to be a mix of private and public information providers and services. Such tools as Mosaic and other World Wide Web clients will allow the average user access to text, full motion video, and multi-media products far beyond those available on current cable and broadcast systems. Pay database services will continue for business and researchers. AGRICOLA and CRIS databases will be freely available to all over the new information superhighway. Consumers and farmers will be able to exchange ideas with each other and with researchers. Cooperative Extensions in the United States and FAO overseas will greatly expand their roles as information providers. Libraries will continue to help people locate information in all formats including paper and electronic. The virtual library will finally become a reality but many people will finally realize that books in paper format will be around for many more decades if not for many more centuries. Electronic journals and newsletters will grow exponentially. Much new research in agriculture will only be available in a electronic format. Popular magazines such as Farm Journal and the American Agriculturist decide to publish in an electronic full text with graphics because it will get to be to expensive to publish in paper. The Holstein Association and other breed groups decide to release their herd books on cd-rom with full graphics and text.
The years ahead will present many new challenges to the agriculturist. He or she needs to be armed with the latest and best information available. Proper use of the sources mentioned in this text will accomplish that task. Look to the future with hope and optimism. The future is up to us. Producers and consumers of information must lobby the Congress for universal access to the information superhighway. Producers and consumers of agricultural information must work together so that information will get to those who need it , not to just those who can pay for it.
FAO overseas will greatly expand their roles as information providers. Libraries will continue to help people locate information in all formats including paper and electronic. The virtual library will finally become a reality but many people will finally realize that information will continue to be available for many decades yet in both paper and electronic formats. The future is being shaped now . Become involved and hel p shape it.