Why the Web is no substitute for library
The Bakersfield Californian
In an effort to save our culture, strike a blow for reading, and correct the well-intentioned but misguided notions about the Internet and what it can and cannot do, librarians state the following reasons why the Internet is no substitute for a library.
First, not everything is on the Internet. Very few substantive materials are on the Internet for free. Only about 8 percent of all journals are on the Web, and an even smaller fraction of books are there. If you want the Journal of Biochemistry, Physics Today or Journal of American History, you will pay, and to the tune of thousands of dollars. (Consortiums of libraries offer these kinds of databases, if their budgets haven't been cut too far).
Second, the Internet is like a vast uncataloged library. No matter the search engine or metasearch engine, you're not searching the entire Web. Sites often promise to search everything, but they can't deliver. What they do search is not updated daily, weekly or even monthly, regardless of what is advertised. If a librarian told you, "Here are 10 articles on Native Americans. We have 40 others, but we're not going to let you see them, not now, not yet, not until you've tried another search in another library," you'd throw a fit. The Internet does this routinely and no one seems to mind.
Third, quality control doesn't exist on the Internet. Yes, we need the Internet, but in addition to all the good information (when accurate), there also is the garbage. Any fool can put up anything on the Web, and, most have. There is no quality control on the Web, and there isn't likely to be any.
Fourth, what you don't know really does hurt you. The great boon to libraries has been the digitization of journals. But "full-text" sites, while grand, aren't always full. Articles on these sites are often missing, among other things, footnotes. Tables, graphs and formulas often do not show up in a readable fashion. Use of digitized journals is convenient, but their use must be a planned and measured one, not full, total and exclusive reliance.
Fifth, there are copyright restrictions that apply to books, which cause prices to soar to two or three times their printed costs. What is on the Net are about 20,000 titles published before 1925. You'll have to pay for digital access to those relatively few newer titles that are available to download onto your e-book reader. If you are a student needing access to academic book titles, forget it. Fewer than a couple of thousand of them are available online, of the 50,000 or so titles published every year.
Sixth, most of us have forgotten what we said about microfilm ("It will shrink libraries to shoebox size") or when educational television was invented ("We'll need fewer teachers in the future"). How many people like to read from an e-book screen or computer screen for long hours? The cost of e-book readers remains high as well. It won't stop the publication of books.
Seventh, the newest state university in California at Monterey opened without a library building a few years ago. Well, surprise, surprise, they couldn't find what they needed on the Internet. For the last several years, they have been buying books by the tens of thousands. California Polytechnic State University, home of a very high concentration of engineers and computer geeks, explored the possibility of a virtual library for two years. Their solution was a $42 million traditional library with a strong electronic component. A fully virtualized library just cannot be done, not yet, not now, not in our lifetimes.
Eighth, what ups the cost of digitizing copyrighted books is copyright releases. For example, Questia Media, the biggest such outfit, spent $125 million digitizing 50,000 books. That is about the size of the book collection at a small public library branch. The cost of having everything digitized is incredibly high.
Ninth, the Internet is a mile wide and an inch (or less) deep. Not much on the Internet is more than 15 years old. Vendors offering magazine access routinely add a new year while dropping off an earlier one. Access to older material is very expensive.
And lastly, the Internet is ubiquitous but books are portable. We have nearly 1,000 years of reading print in our bloodstream and that's not likely to change anytime soon. In a recent survey of those who buy e-books, more than 80 percent said they like buying paper books over the Internet, but not reading them on a screen. Granted, there will be changes in the delivery of electronic materials now, and most of those changes will be beneficial.
But humankind will continue to enjoy curling up with a good book.
The Web is great, but it's a poor substitute for a full-service library. It is mad idolatry to make the Internet more than a tool. Libraries are icons of our cultural intellect, totems of knowledge. If we let them become obsolete, we've signed the death warrant to our collective national conscience, not to mention sentencing what's left of our culture to the waste bin of history. No one knows better than librarians just how much it costs to run a library and we are always looking for ways to trim expenses. But to claim, as some now do, that the Internet is making libraries obsolete is as silly as saying shoes have made feet unnecessary.
Mark Y. Herring is the university librarian at Winthrop University in South Carolina. This article was originally published in American Libraries magazine.
Imagem: James Cook University