that most information is just a click away, traditional
libraries are refashioning themselves for the digital age.
by RANDALL ENDS
days, practically everything we could possibly
need is right at our fingertips thanks to the Internet.
More than ever, we're using the Internet not just to swap
pictures of the grandkids, browse ebay, buy the latest
Harry Potter from Amazon, or download MP3 files from Napster.
For many of us, the 'Net has supplanted newspapers (perhaps
even TV) as a primary source for information. Got a health
problem? Find some answers at WebMD. Dealing with being
dumped? BreakupGirl knows your pain. Fancy yourself a
day-trader? Dozens of sites clue you in to every flutter
of the market. For every question in our lives, there's
a Web site with an answer.
Internet's easy accessibility for information consumers
makes it the most egalitarian communications tool to come
along since the printing press and television. But not
only does the Internet pipe data right to our desks, it
has also changed the way we think about information itself.
We no longer see information as something static, trapped
on paper in books and journals, tucked away in hushed
libraries or bookstores, accessibleonly when we walk through
the door. Today information is fluid, a rushing tide,
continually updated, and available--instantly--at the
click of a mouse.
a standard reference called American History and Life,"
says Oberlin history Professor Gary Kornblith. "You used to
have to go physically from the index into the volumes, and
no one I knew used it on a regular basis. Now it's electronic,
and I wouldn't think of going very far without consulting
This new cultural shift has had a major impact not only
on everyday living but in the more rarefied realm of educational
research. There's no question that the research process
is much less a chore now that anyone can access the Internet
or library databases in the wee hours, and while thousands,
maybe millions, of other people use them, too. Excellent
works that once gathered dust are now considered de rigueur.
promise of the Internet is astounding, yet the move away
from a books-and-mortar library to a digital model is "a
double-edged sword," cautions Rick Rubin '71, acting director
of the School of Library and Information Science at Kent
State University. "Technology enables lazy people to be
lazier and enables diligent people to get more done," adds
Troy Williams, CEO of Questia Media, Inc., a Houston-based
company that's building a searchable database of classic
literature. Scott Bennett '60, director of libraries at
Yale University, echoes the idea: "Technology isn't changing
what people do. It's changing the convenience with which
they do it."
as seductive as the new "cybrary" is, it does raise some
troubling questions. For instance, does the point-and-click
culture mistake information-gathering for knowledge acquisition--and
do quick-clicking folks abandon the process too soon to
get any meaningful results? Can people sit at home and sift
through the Web without falling prey to bad information
dressed up as nice-looking Web sites? Finally, does this
new accessibility make the physical library itself obsolete?
Although it will be years before the Internet's impact is
fully understood, it's clear that digitization will have
profound effects on the quality of research and education.