May 20, 2004

Do we really need libraries anymore?

  • Yes! The online universe has created new opportunities and new demand
    UW Information School


    Even well-meaning people raise The Question. We hear it voiced in community gatherings, the halls of government, and even in schools: With the Internet, with everything available instantaneously and at our fingertips, do we really need libraries anymore?

    The answer is a resounding, YES, ABSOLUTELY! It's exactly because we live in an information society that we need libraries more than ever! The main challenges of living in an information age are:

    • information overload

    • information quality, and

    • equity of access for all.

    The Internet isn't the solution to these challenges, it's one of the main causes of the problem. You've probably heard the following quote by John Naisbitt in “Megatrends” or similar ones: “Science and technology information increases 13 percent each year and doubles every 5.5 years.”

    Bill Gates has said that computers today are a million times more powerful than just 10 years ago, and it's going to happen again. In 10 years, computers will be a million times more powerful than they are today!

    Tunnel vision

    Are our lives easier and more fulfilling due to the Internet? Certainly in some ways. Through instant messaging we are in immediate contact with family and friends around the world. E-mail facilitates communication and sharing of thoughts and ideas. The World Wide Web gives relatively easy access to all kinds of information and makes new forms of commerce possible.

    But instant messaging can also be annoying and interrupting. E-mail makes us anxious because of the sheer volume and can raise unrealistic expectations for prompt response. The Web is filled with junk and information that is inaccurate or incomplete or even offensive and dangerous.

    Studies show that most teens now use the Internet as their major resource when doing a big project for school. But, in a study of 500 sites used by Colorado high school students to do research, only 27 percent of the sites were judged to be reliable for academic research!

    Furthermore, even as the Internet extends our information and communication reach, it limits our view and scope.

    John Seeley Brown, former senior scientist at the prestigious Xerox Palo Alto Research Center spoke about this at a recent two-day gathering sponsored by the Information school at the University of Washington concerned with “Information and the Quality of Life.”

    Brown pointed out the “tunnel vision” aspect of the Internet. Instead of a rich, varied information environment in terms of forms and modes of delivery, Internet use funnels everything to screen-size. And those screens are getting smaller and smaller!

    Our information world is increasingly reduced to the screen on a laptop, Palm, cell phone, or Gameboy. Internet tunnel vision narrows our perspective to specific content viewed in a specific way. We lose the wider and peripheral vision that is necessary to provide context and a sense of the bigger picture.

    Life in the information age calls for a rich and varied information environment; for a wide scope filled with options in terms of format, delivery mode, and treatment. And while we certainly want easy and efficient access to information that we purposely seek out, we also want to “bump into” interesting and worthwhile information that sparks new ideas and thoughts.

    In short, we want, need and deserve a rich and varied information environment, an “information commons” that has been thoughtfully and systematically created to meet a wide range of information needs, to provide equal access to all members of our society, and which can be relied on for breadth of scope and viewpoints and quality of treatment. We want, need and deserve ... the LIBRARY!

    Free and easy access

    Libraries of all kinds — school, public, academic, and special — are dedicated to meeting people's information needs — wherever, whenever, in whatever form. Libraries meet needs by understanding the nature and needs of its clientele and the carefully selecting, managing and organizing a system of information services, resources, and facilities.

    Because of changing capabilities due to information technology — particularly the Internet — libraries now provide resources, facilities and services anywhere, anytime, in any form.

    To help deal with information overload and make sense of the glut of information, libraries help people through 24/7 digital reference desk services and offer instruction in information literacy as well as technology literacy.

    New library facilities must support and blend the physical and digital because library use will flow back and forth among physical and digital spaces, collections, and services. For example, today's separate computer use area will likely evolve to foster more integration and provide more flexibility due to changes in technology and use patterns.

    To fulfill needs related to information quality, libraries provide free and easy access to high quality, full-text magazine and newspaper databases (even from home or other remote locations), select Web sites for inclusion in the online library catalog or on special lists, and provide assistance in-person or via telephone or Internet by trained librarians.

    Though demand for print reference and periodical collections is seriously diminished, in-library and remote Internet access to resources and services is skyrocketing. So is the demand for books — fiction and nonfiction — for users of all ages.

    Libraries as place

    To help deal with equity of access, libraries seek not to bridge but to fill the digital divide.

    Libraries serve an important role “as place” for all populations and all age groups. Libraries make hardware, software and Internet connectivity available for all and offer training and support for those who do not have or don't know how to use.

    People also have needs for working together with information and resources. Library as place means providing facilities, services and resources in numerous physical locations as well as virtually. Also, a new form of library as place use is emerging across types of libraries — group work with technology such as laptops, projection, multimedia and communication.

    To view libraries as passive or static places, as repositories of dated information, as obsolete or optional is itself obsolete. Today's libraries are active and dynamic, with quality and timely content, and available physically in a range of places and virtually 24/7. Today's libraries are essential, egalitarian, and above all else, people-focused. Libraries are society's information institution, using information and information technology of all kinds to meet individual and collective needs.

    The information age creates more demand than ever for libraries. Libraries are the single institution in our society devoted to information. Libraries exist to meet information needs of all people — wherever, whenever, in whatever form — now and in the future.

    This means expanding library and information services in communities, schools, universities, organizations and corporations. The Internet is a major new too and libraries can play a major role in helping us to realize the full potential of the Internet and other emerging technologies without overloading or overwhelming us.

    Michael B. Eisenberg is dean of the Information School of the University of Washington.

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