Will the web eliminate the need for librarians, libraries, and printed books? Will more web-work mean less library-work? Does more web-work lead to a lower quality of resources and research?
It will depend on the way web catalogues, search engines, resources, projects, assignments, and syllabi are designed.
Will We Become the
Victims of an Uncultivated Offspring?
Reports Suggest That the Web Competes with Libraries for Users--But Also that Libraries and Web Resources are Complementary
"The distribution of electronic full text to users wherever they are has resulted in fewer transactions at the reference desk." --IT Report from the Field: Building the Virtual Reference Desk (See also: Collaborative Digital Reference Service, and CDRF's Building the Digital Reference Desk
"'The public focus has swiveled to the Internet and away from libraries,' said Donna Dinberg of the National Library of Canada." . . . "We know that libraries can provide authoritative information, both online and offline," she said. "And we feel that the only thing stopping us is the fact that patrons aren't coming to the library much anymore." "Ask a Librarian, Not Jeeves," by Kendra Mayfield, Wired News
"For students like Sam who grew up with the Web, the idea of roaming library stacks is as quaint as the thought of writing with a quill pen. Even though libraries are organized and easily navigated, students prefer diving into the chaotic whirl of the Web to find information." --"Choosing Quick Hits Over the Card Catalog," By Lori Leibovich, The New York Times on the Web
"'I don't do libraries,' stated an engineering student last year at an Ivy League university, pleading with his professor to absolve him from an assignment requiring him to seek information in the campus library, presumably necessitating use of the library catalog. Increasingly, even at leading institutions of higher education, one encounters not just students, but also faculty and deans who assert that they get all the information they need through the Internet. "--"The Catalog as Portal to the Internet," Sarah E. Thomas
"I'm a lifelong technologist who's been on the Internet since the late 1980s. I make my living designing and promulgating services that run on the World Wide Web. I should know better than most that print is dead, the book is obsolete, the future belongs entirely to digital transmission, and the screen's the place for reading. This is not going to be a quickie book about using the Web, writing Java, or any of those hot topics. So why am I contributing to a dead medium?
Because paper persists. A paperback book is the best way for me to communicate a fairly lengthy and complex narrative discussion.
Paper persists. The physical print collections in public and academic libraries will continue to grow and be central to the missions of those libraries.
Books continue to matter, now and for any plausible future. Not as the only means to transmit information, entertainment, and knowledge--that hasn't been true for more than a century. Not as the dominant force among media--that hasn't been true for decades. But as a vibrant, healthy medium--one that serves a variety of needs better than any alternative and that makes good economic, ecological, and technological sense for the new millennium--the book just isn't going away."--"Paper Persists: Why Physical Library Collections Still Matter," Walt Crawford, ONLINE, January 1998
"When confronted with a pronouncement that books may die, one might well look first at the eulogist. A few have been apologists for the glossy, brand new, improved, and patentable. But most have either been theoreticians inclined to follow the trajectory of technology to the furthest imaginable conclusion, or else those whose professional lives as practitioners are at stake. . . . Books are, finally, intricately interrelated to the rest of the media system - economically, socially, intellectually, even symbolically; and those who have envisioned or feared their wholesale removal from the system have generally underestimated that involvement. If one would predict the death of books, it is necessary to know how they live."-- "Books Are Dead, Long Live Books," Priscilla Coit Murphy
"We experience a world of ever-expanding websites, CD-ROMs and other digital electronic media led by the developed industrial nations today. What will become of the paper-printed media of books in relation to the rapid evolution of this new media? Much has been discussed about digital media in the context of multimedia and its interactive features, but not in relationship to carrying printed words and characters. If they were discussed at all, a negative outlook has been very pervasive. Is there any way we can expect a positive effect of the new media on books?" --"What is the Future of the Book in the Digital Era?" Roundtable: The Transformation of Written Culture, Roger Chartier (France); Electronic Books and Reading, Liu Zhiming (China); The New Online Book Community, Howard Rheingold (USA); Text Makes a Comeback: The Power of Words, Ueno Chizuko (Japan); The Oral Tradition in the Digital Age, Thanes Wongyannava (Thailand).
We Face Yesterday's Problems Today
It will never be possible to preserve everything.
Artifacts are preserved to be used, but excessive use leads to destruction.
There is rarely adequate funding for preservation and dissemination because the public--and even the government--rarely has a full understanding of the true significance of library collections.
"Some sharp debates occurred in Congress about the wisdom of purchasing Jefferson's library as a replacement for the nearly destroyed contents of the Library of Congress. Some congressmen were particularly concerned that there were large numbers of books in foreign languages and about subjects not believed germane for the use of Congress. Jefferson had anticipated such concerns in his September 21, 1814, letter written to Samuel H. Smith, his friend and editor of the National Intelligencer."
--Excerpt from Jefferson's Library, which is part of the Thomas Jefferson Exhibition Hosted by the Library of Congress.
The information explosion sparked by digital technology has fostered an increasing awareness of the sheer mass of information available today in a variety of media, from traditional formats such as paper to the more recent film, optical, and magnetic formats. Today, the world produces 2 billion gigabytes of new information a year, or roughly 250 megabytes for every man, woman, and child on earth (Lyman et al 2000). Institutions charged with collecting, storing, preserving, and making accessible recorded information are struggling to keep pace with the growth of information production, even though their brief is to collect only a portion of what is published and an even smaller portion of what is produced and disseminated in unpublished form.
Although information overload is not a new problem, the introduction of digital technology onto campuses and into research libraries has fundamentally altered the information landscape and created potentially serious ramifications for scholars and students. The creation and dissemination of digital resources are creating new models of service and access, such as licensing rather than owning essential intellectual assets. The mutability of digital documents is redefining what constitutes a text. For example, are back issues of a journal that are in digital form simply a bunch of articles or a rich database? Moreover, the conversion of texts into hypertexts is resulting in increased interdisciplinary research, as researchers in one field serendipitously find resources that had heretofore been confined (in print) to another field.
Accompanying these trends are others that at first seem paradoxical. There is increased scholarly attention to original, unreformatted materials. There are eruptions of public outcry when material losses in libraries and archives are discovered. Scholars demand increasing attention to an ever-expanding range of candidates for preservation, but library budgets simply cannot support those demands. Preservation has thus become an unfunded mandate, the more pernicious for often being implicit. Academic institutions have learned the huge costs of penny-wise facilities management and deferred maintenance. It is reasonable to fear that libraries are incurring future costs by deferring preservation.
The Benefits: Could We Be Entering a
New Era of Self-Culture?
Although most Americans had access to good libraries by the twentieth century, it continues to be the case that only a small group of scholars and others have regular access to special libraries and archives. Digitized resources help bridge the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots." They also provide a means by which casual users can become transformed into serious researchers.
1) Doing Research Has Become a Way of Living
Years ago, Janet Emig revolutionized the way her entire profession taught writing by publishing an article entitled "Writing as a Way of Learning." We have already come to a point in our culture when even library-averse people routinely log on to the internet in order to compare prices on videos, find out about possible vacation spots, or investigate medical information related to a personal ailment. Casual research has, in fact, become a way of living for Americans. The question that remains is whether the casual user will ever develop more serious research habits.
2) Casual "Clickers" Can Become Researchers--Especially if They are Trained to Connect the Web and the Library
For one example of this phenomenon, see "'Drowning in a Sea of Grimkes': Selected Correspondence Between Two Students and Their Professor."
By allowing users to indulge their curiosity and personal interests, web resources draw people into deeper types of research. Preliminary research on the web can also lead students into libraries and archives. Properly used, the web replaces the (incredibly limited) textbook, not the library. This should mean that the availability of on-line resources could result in a new generation of researchers who use and support libraries.
3) A New Kind of Teacher-Scholar Will Emerge
Even elite scholars often find it necessary to travel great distances to visit the collections important to their work. Often this time and travel is only possible because of fundng and other support provided by universities, grant agencies, and the libraries themselves. Consider, then, the case of faculty members who have taken positions at academic institutions where the priimary focus is on teaching. Without the time or funding to sustain a "track record" of publication, it can become extremely difficult to pursue advanced research projects. Digitized resources make it possible for teacher-scholars to engage in research from the home or office even when only brief portions of time are available. Because it is possible for individuals to create their web sites incorporating their research, faculty members at teaching-intensive institutions also have the chance to integrate their teaching and scholarship in a manner appropriate to the missions of their institutions. My own work is just one of many possible illustrations of this principle.
Will New Users Bring New Library Patrons
and New Patrons of Libraries?