End User's Corner - August 1997

Jack SolockLibrarians--Gatekeepers of the Information Age, or the New Luddites

Views from the 116th ALA Conference

Jack Solock, Special Librarian

August 1997

When you spend the greater part of each day searching for quality resources on the Internet, you begin, after a time, to think that the Internet is everything--a fantastic repository of the human endeavor, awesome and mundane, brilliant and banal. A trip to an ALA (American Library Association) Conference will quickly end such a notion, as a trip to the 116th annual ALA Conference in San Francisco at the end of June did for me.

An Internet Librarian has a tendency to feel a little out of place and, frankly, awed at such a conference. Thousands of participants flooded the city. The detailed conference schedule was the size of a small telephone book, and sessions took place in many hotels, as no one place could hold all of the activities. Two enormous exhibition halls were filled to the brim with library automation, search service, publishing, and even furniture vendors (to name just a few) hawking their wares. In such an atmosphere, I thought that the Internet would be a major topic of conversation.

"Regular "librarians view the Internet in a very different way than Internet Librarians, or than any other Internet-philes, for that matter. Libraries are about the collection, organization, and preservation of knowledge. They are also, in democratic societies at any rate, about making that knowledge universally accessible. Within that mission, the Internet is seen as just another container, lumped in with books, newspapers, periodicals, videos, CD's, art prints, and vertical files.

However, the Internet is a new kind of container, one that can swallow many other containers within it, and that is organized in a fundamentally different fashion. Librarians look at it with an eye to the knowledge it can contribute to their mission. They have a stunning capacity to be utterly unmoved by the technical brilliance of the new medium, and to cut straight to the point and ask what use (if any) Internet access can be to a library.

This was well demonstrated at the most interesting of the conference sessions I attended: "To Net or Not to Net? That is the Question." Moderated by Ross Atkinson, Associate University Librarian at Cornell University, a fascinating range of ideas about the place of the Internet in libraries was discussed by Michael Gorman, Dean of Library Services at the Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno (well known as the editor of Anglo-American Cataloging Rules); James Rettig, Associate Dean of University Libraries for Reference and Information Services at the Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary; and Samuel Demas, Head, Collection Development and Preservation Unit at Cornell University's Albert R. Mann Library.

Gorman is more than a librarian. He is a philosopher of knowledge, articulate, clever, and very humorous. He shared many ideas in a rambling talk, but the essence of what he said is that the library is a repository of knowledge, no matter what container that knowledge comes in. He did not want to throw away the books, but he also did not want to break the machines. His philosophy seemed to be quite utilitarian. Whatever forms that knowledge takes, the library should be ready to collect, organize, preserve, and make it accessible. He has stated this eloquently in another forum, Five New Laws of Library Science (http://www.ala.org/editions/openstacks/future/):

We hope to demonstrate that the truth of the matter lies in respecting all forms of communication for the strengths that each brings to the conquest of space and time; in acknowledging that the library of the future will use all kinds of carriers of knowledge and information; and in studying the realities of each means of communication in the light of the history of innovation in communication.... We do not advocate clinging to print-on-paper, images on film, or grooves on discs in cases when newer technology clearly offers better alternatives. Equally, we do not advocate replacing print-on-paper, etc., when new technology is less effective, more costly, or has other disadvantages. We believe very strongly that the best approach to the future of libraries lies in this utilitarianism. Furthermore, it is surely more affirming and positive to see each advance in communication as enriching and enhancing the universe of knowledge rather than to see it as narrowing and destroying choices.

For one who has been to many conferences in which the "medium was the message," and the Internet all but deified for the simple fact that it existed, this was a refreshing, welcome change.

Rettig, well known for his Rettig on Reference (http://www.hwwilson.com/retintro.html), in a talk entitled Bridging the Quality Gap (http://www.swem.wm.edu/Conferences/JR/alajun97.html), argued that the web was here to stay and librarians would have to use it in their practice whether they liked it or not. He continued to say, given that fact, quality signposts, as well as resource organization, are absolutely necessary in order to be able to help patrons find the best Internet resources available. He spoke at great length, and quite humorously, about the fundamental fact that the lack of the publishing barriers long extant in the print world makes Internet resources much less trustworthy as reliable sources of knowledge and information. He critiqued existing web review sources, and pointed to some evaluation resources that he felt would help the librarian find quality resources. In closing, he urged collaboration between library collection development and technical services programs to select and then organize quality Internet resources. He equated this process to building the Golden Gate Bridge, another project once thought impossible.

Finally, Demas, one of the main forces behind the Mann Library Gateway (http://www.mannlib.cornell.edu/catalog/), discussed the efforts of his library to collect, organize, and disseminate Internet resources via a web catalog. He stressed the importance of web selectors having the same formidable subject skills of book selectors. He also showed a great deal of skepticism with respect to whether Internet resources will be, in the long run, viable for library use, stressing the quality issues Rettig had spoken of. The skepticism is underscored by a sampling of the Gateway. It is a collection of annotated agricultural resources (as Mann Library is an agricultural library), consisting of almost exclusively full-text titles and numerical databases. To the keepers of this gateway, the most trusted Internet resources are those which have already passed muster in the print world.

While none of the panelists were outright Luddites, they each had considerable skepticism with respect to the value of Internet resources as library resources. Of all the speakers, I think that Gorman best understands the place of the Internet in the library. That there is much ephemera on the Net goes without saying. That there are also tremendously content rich sources of information that can be used to create knowledge also goes without saying. Gorman feels that there is not much knowledge on the Internet, and I think this is true at this time, but it is true because of structural factors in the publishing world, not because of any features inherent to the Internet. Already there are primitive print to print Internet utilities such as Adobe Acrobat that allow users to access texts electronically, print them out, and read them.

In the future, there will be new paradigms for scholarly and trade publishing which, while certainly not replacing the book, will make books available electronically in a useful and readable format. When this happens, the holdings of libraries will increase dramatically.

Rettig, in pointing out the mine fields to be navigated in order to reach quality resources, does a service to the library community as well as to the network community. He feels that libraries have a large role to play as gateways to networked information by bringing their considerable skills to bear on the problem. However, one of the skills that librarians can use, and that Rettig shortchanges, is the ability to see where individual subject experts who are not librarians have tilled the soil of a subject and guided users to the best resources available in that subject. There are many such cases in the academic world , and librarians should not hesitate to use them (see the Scout Toolkit Scout Select Bookmarks [http://scout.cs.wisc.edu/scout/toolkit/bookmarks/] for just a few of these.)

Demas impressed me as the most Luddite of the speakers, which is ironic given the fact that he is in the forefront of web resource catalog building at his university. The tone, as well as the content of his talk, indicated that he did not trust the quality of most web resources that were not electronic versions of already existing print resources. Quality print resources have proven themselves over long periods of time as worthy to be collected and disseminated by libraries. Also, paper is still the only preservation medium that has been proven to last over centuries. This is not a trivial fact when we realize that the loss of recorded knowledge, for any reason, is an inestimable loss of human memory. Libraries take their responsibility as repositories and preservers of the human record very seriously.

However, we must also realize that information and knowledge are taking new forms, and are evolving rapidly. It is the librarian's challenge to assess those forms, evaluate them using all their skills, and integrate them into the libraries of tomorrow. Because the Internet will write a chapter in the human endeavor. The size of that chapter remains to be seen, but it is up to librarians to collect, organize, and preserve it, as well as make it accessible to all patrons.

InterNIC News

This article originally appeared as part of the End User's Corner, a featured column of InterNIC News, which was published monthly by Network Solutions, Inc. and InterNIC from May 1996 through March 1998. As of April 1998, End User's Corner will be published by the Internet Scout Project.

Copyright Susan Calcari and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, 1994-1998. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the End User's Corner provided the copyright notice and this paragraph is preserved on all copies. The Internet Scout Project provides information about the Internet to the US research and education community under a grant from the National Science Foundation, number NCR-9712140. The Government has certain rights in this material.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Wisconsin - Madison or the National Science Foundation.

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