Information Update - Fall 1995

Internet—First The Hype; Then The Anti-Hype—Now (Maybe) Reality

Without question the most publicized revolution in informational technology has been the Internet. News magazines have carried cover stories on it. Newt Gingrich. while advocating welfare cutbacks, proposed tax rebates on laptops for poor people on the assumption that computer access would pull them out of poverty. Parents have been made to feel that their children will be educationally disadvantaged for life if they do not have home access to the network (never mind that encyclopedia salesmen have used the same ploy for years).
What few of these publicizers have done, though, is tell the average person what. exactly he or she would be doing on Internet. And fewer still have told the public how to do it. Those of us lucky enough to have access to the Internet have quite often either relied on hearsay from colleagues on how to use it or have been at the mercy of the plethora of user manuals, in most of which it is impossible for the average person to get off of page one.
It was inevitable that a backlash would develop. You heard it at the grassroots first. People would snicker over the inane newsgroups. They would scoff at the trivial home pages (a Meg Ryan home page, for example). There seemed to be a delight in topping each other with the silliest, slowest dump of "information you could find. And now the books that discs the Internet have started.
Foremost among these is Clifford Stroll's Silicon Snake Oil. Strol, a veteran computer wiz, sees the network as distancing users from reality. Too much time is spent paging through voluminous e-mail. learning commands that are soon out-of-date, and gazing at screen after screen of unorganized information of dubious value and credibility. Worse yet, according to Stoll, educational and research institutions are expected to spend millions of dollars updating hardware and software that are obsolete almost before they are installed or understood.
Stoll's book is not without merit, but it no more gives the whole picture than the hype that he so vehemently attacks. From the point of view of the library, there are things which Internet offers which simply- are not available any other way. The Congressional Record, for example, updates daily on
Thomas. one of the governmental Internet sites, and includes indexing. Keeping a print or even a microform version of this in a library requires a sizeable chunk of shelving space and certainly would never update daily. Also included on the government sites are such things as statistics, presidential speeches and press releases, and Supreme Court decisions.
However, while looking through the governmental databases it is worth noting that the Government Manual, the authoritative directory of federal structure and office holders, is out-of-date, and still lists, for example, Thomas Foley (and not Newt) as Speaker of the House. Now the print copy of the Government Manual kept at our Reference Desk is of the same vintage, but somehow having a print version out-of-date does not seem all that disturbing. We expect a time lag between annual updates; online we expect the updates to be instantaneous.
This expectation is symptomatic of what is wrong with the attitude many of us have towards the Internet. Even when we know better logically, we somehow feel it should he all things to all people, and when it is slow or obscure or inane, we either blame ourselves for not knowing enough about it, or condemn the network wholesale. We would not expect ourselves to have detailed knowledge of more than a fraction of the honks in even a medium-sized library, but we feel guilty if we are not familiar with hundreds of different online databases. Nor would we condemn the publishing business as a whole because it produces comic books and pornography, but we are quick to panic when we learn that the Internet has online equivalents of these.
Where does the future of Internet in library research lie Money will he (as always) one of the determining factors. Libraries have always given the impression that information is free, but, in fact, it is quite expensive both to produce and to purchase. It seems likely that many databases on Internet which are currently "free" will need to at least recoup their costs in order to stay online and will have to have some sort of access fee (as many of them already do have). Libraries will have to choose those that are most in line with the needs of their patrons and their budgets just as they choose printed materials. Of course. online databases that charge only when used and not a set subscription fee might ultimately save a library money; information would be purchased only when needed, and costly subscriptions to little-used materials could be avoided.
The other factor, though, that cannot be ignored is human nature. Students will spend hours searching through online periodical indexes, but will often become impatient with a print index within minutes. On the other hand, almost everybody who clues an online search wants a printout of the results with abstracts; very few like to spend much time in actually reading lengthy citations from the monitor nor will they download unless they plan to manipulate the data. Computers have not produced the "paperless society" so touted a few years back; people simply feel more comfortable reading from paper than from a screen. Having a complete library online might have many advantages, but books other than reference sources and indexes might simply be too unwieldy for the average person to use effectively.
In any case, the next few years should prove to be interesting as library staff and their patrons adapt to new means of accessing data. Flexibility, innovativeness, but also a respect for traditional means of research will all play a part in increasing our capabilities for providing and using information.
Kevin Norris
Pride, Passion, Promise: Experience Our Jesuit Tradition