The Internet vs The Library – A Sensible Approach To Modern Information Science

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp, 1977

“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
William Thomson, 1st Lord Kelvin, president of the British Royal Society, 1895

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
A memo at Western Union, 1878

By the facetiously ironic power of the statements quoted above, as by virtue of their illustrious authors, it can be affirmed that technological advancements may baffle or bewilder even the most knowledgeable of minds. Human progress is ever surprising and even its most devout advocates may at times fall short of comprehending the full complexity of its devices. It is this undeniable fact that kept creeping through my mind as of late, as I repeatedly stumbled upon the dilemma of the Internet vs the traditional library as a means of conducting academic research. This topic has sprung up in various contexts for quite some time now; whether by means of television talk shows, articles in media outlets or casual chatter, the subject of Internet vs library is as relevant today as it was back in 1999, when J. Stephen Downie presented to the members of ALISE (the Association for Library and Information Science Education) an inspiring paper entitled “Jumping off the Disintermediation Bandwagon: Reharmonizing LIS Education for the Realities of the 21st Century“.

The problem of Internet vs library can take many forms…
Is the Internet killing printed books?
Can the Internet indeed replace the library in terms of depth and accuracy?
Is the Internet creating pseudo-intellectuals?
Are printed books outdated?
Is there a way to filter digital media?
Should we look for quantity or rather quality for our research efforts?
The majority of exponents of the traditional library seem to postulate that the Internet is far from being a pool of knowledge and that it is merely a good starting point for your research efforts. To quote an astute partisan of the library, Edie Kurnik of Edie’s Bookstore, “My opinion is that books still hold some advantages over the Internet. The Internet is a jungle and if you are not skillful with it, you may have a lot of problems in finding the right information.” On the other hand, technology freaks seem to prefer the Internet due to the large-scale availability and accessibility of information Or, as Sarah Bostock of Radford University puts it, “The influx of the wide array of Internet sources has greatly reduced the necessity of print media.” It seems to me, however, that most of these viewpoints remain blind to the fundamental essence of the Internet vs library debate. This essence can be distilled into one keyword: complementarity. The question is not which medium is better than the other, but rather how can we find ways to harmonise the two channels, in order to fully cater to our academic needs.

Making A Case For The Library
Current estimates by Google evaluate the size of the WWW to reach 5 million TB (that’s 5,000,000,000 GB), out of which the leading search engine only managed to index 170 TB so far, while the indexable web is made up of 25 billion pages, with only 1% of these providing educational content. A great deal of educational documents remain hidden to conventional search engines within the confines of the space we call the deep web; this portion of the Internet is thought to exceed the size of the surface web by 500 times. Considering these figures, one could argue that the wealth of knowledge necessary for proper academic endeavours is unreachable, thus rendering the “accessibility” advantage of the Internet null.  Furthermore, while the WWW does indeed provide information in abundance, more often than not we find the structure to be chaotic, the authenticity unverifiable and the axiological selection criteria non-existent.

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly titled “As We May Think“, where he introduced the concept of a hypothetical system, called the memex. The memex (a portmonteau for “memory” and “index”) would be a mechanised proto-hypertext model, operating on microfiche scrolls, that could be used to store entire libraries of books, records, notes and communications and access them via associative trails. While the write-up itself is quite a spectacular example of visionary prowess and did herald the later development of PCs, the Internet and online encyclopedias, the structure system proposed by the author has been severely criticised for a lack of thorough understanding of information science by a host of prominent intellectuals; most notable among the detractors of the memex is Michael Buckland, an Emeritus Professor at the UC Berkeley School Of Information, who has suggested that “Bush thought that the creation of arbitrary associations between individual records was the basis of memory, so he wanted ‘mem(ory-)ex’, or ‘Memex instead of index’. The result was a personalised, but superficial and inherently self-defeating design.

In contrast with the disordered and superficial nature of digital information, printed books collected at a traditional library offer trustworthy, ready-to-use knowledge, most appropriate for scholarly pursuits. The resources have been individually selected by a staff of trained professionals and the librarian is usually skilled at helping researchers retrieve the proper materials needed for their work. On the same note, the positive impact of school libraries on student achievement has been proven by various reports.

As a conclusion, the Internet is a very powerful research aid and a good starting point for conducting academic work, but it is utterly flawed in terms of structure, accuracy, objectivity, depth and authoritativeness. The offline library is still the prime source of knowledge when conducting research. The volumes have been critically verified and thoroughly selected and the authenticity of information is guaranteed.

Making A Case For The Internet
Through the Internet, mankind witnessed an epistemological paradigm shift, with the balance of media hierarchy shifting towards user-generated-content and traditional media channels are becoming obsolete. With complex search-and-retrieve algorithms, such as Google’s, Yahoo’s or Bing’s, it is becoming increasingly easy to look up any combination of data queries in a matter of seconds. And with the wide availability of niche search engines, like Blekko, Wolfram Alpha, Yippy Search, MathJournal, Goby, Blinkx TV, IMDB, Healthline, as well as aggregators such as Dogpile or DuckDuckGo, the Internet covers most of your academic needs and almost guarantees you will find the proper information for your work. Furthermore, with self-publishing sites like Docstoc, Issuu, Slideshare or Slidefinder, accessing and sharing virtually any published document becomes universally available, as opposed to the traditional library.

Granted, the Internet can be time-consuming, frustrating and misleading. But the advantages are infinitely superior to its shortcomings. Information on the Internet is one click away, whereas traditional libraries suffer from several limitations, including location, work hours, limited stock, limited copies etc.

[later edit] I will not make too complicated a case for the Internet for several reasons. One, the advantages of availability, accessibility and speed of retrieval have already been addressed in this article. Second, the arguements for the Internet as opposed to the traditional library are widely known. And third, I do believe the majority of this blog’s readers will be quite familiar with the pro arguements, as am I, thus I decided to rather focus on the contra arguements and then state my opinion…[/later edit]

The Bottom Line

As we have observed both sides of the debate, I do believe it is time to voice my own opinions on the matter, as they are quite conflictual with both sides, ironically enough. First, I would like to make a statement of relative impartiality. I say “relative”, as I am inclined to favour both parties. First of all, my bookish upbringing would beckon me to take the side of the library advocates. But then my geek nature would compel me to side with the Internet freaks. However, it is this exact duality that obliges me to take neither side, but rather issue my own thesis with respect to the issue at hand.

I do believe that, while both sides of arguement make some fine point, they are both missing the obvious. That is, that the library and the Internet are both means to an academic end. More specifically, both digital media and printed materials are tools that, used properly, provide comprehensive, if not exhaustive knowledge into a certain topic or field of study. In the concluding lines of this article, I will try and combat three of the most persistent cliches of the Internet vs library debate…

1. The Internet offers half-baked, superficial information

While it is true that most of the UGC is superficial, we must not forget that there are also digitalised versions of printed materials readily available online. A fair host of web properties have built special tools to facilitate finding, sharing and even publishing scholarly content. With splendid examples of digital preservation efforts, such as The Gutenberg Project, JSTOR, Project MUSE, Open Content Alliance or the Internet Archive, the discrepancies between “online” and “offline” resources are waning, since the collected works are but digital copies of their “offline” counterparts. More and more search engines with a specific focus on scholarly literature appear by the hour, such as Google Scholar, Microsoft Academic Search, Scopus, Mendeley, Inspec, Infotopia or BASE to name but a few. Digital libraries with a multidisciplinary orientation span the WWW, facilitating access to a wide array of books, documents, multimedia files, images etc. Some prime examples include the Internet Archive, the Internet Memory Foundation, the Library Of Congress, Ourmedia et. al.

2. Information on the Internet is disorganised

Granted, for the most part, the Internet is still a wild, chaotic mess and, aside from search algorithms, there have been few efforts to catalog and organise the information. But herein lies a challenge, and not a shortcoming. This is exactly where traditional information science should come into play. An exemplary library service should not only focus on sheer volumes, but also on structure and indexing, hence library teaching programs should include focused instructions on using the Internet. And I do not mean basic “searchin” and “finding” of web pages, but also detailed knowledge on how to evaluate the quality of information, bookmarking, referencing, using directories and databases, meta-search engines and deep web search engines, online publishing, digitalising and archiving. By using specialised information science and applying it to the digital space, we would uncover a whole new range of useful information and optimise the research process.

3. Printed books are obsolete

This statement is as preposterous as it is profuse. Printed books are neither obsolete nor dated. Printed materials are merely predecessors of their digital counterparts. Our efforts today should be to digitalise and preserve printed books, not abolish them altogether.

It is expected for a new technology to be greeted with animosity. When Gutenberg introduced Europe to the printing press, not everyone was cheering. High-ranking clergymen and political authority figures alike were appalled  at the possibility of losing grasp on knowledge and information and at the prospect of changing a craft they had commanded and perfected for centuries.  In the words of Thomas Carlyle, “He who first shortened the labour of copyists by device of moveable types was disbanding hired armies, and cashiering most kings and senates, and creating a whole new democratic world: he had invented the art of printing.” Likewise it is expected that the Internet would be frowned upon and would be regarded as a threat to the advocates of traditional printed media. Equally, it is expected that the supporters of the new technology would resent the traditionalists. However, it is my sincerest of hopes that such suspicions will not prompt us to remain blind to the obvious advantages the Internet brings to information science, provided the two sides learn to work together.