Thursday, September 21, 2006

Can the internet replace libraries?

The following is excerpted from a letter I wrote recently. Since I have heard this opinion expressed fairly often I thought I would reprint it here.

I to respond to comments I have frequently heard regarding library service...In the interest of brevity and because it concerns my primary area of work (I am the library's systems administrator), I will just respond to the misconception I tend to hear most often: "You don't need libraries because everything is available on the internet."

The answer to this is threefold. First, you would probably be amazed at the wide array of questions we receive for which an (accurate) answer is simply not available online. Even when data is available it's not always easy to find. In fact, it can often be quite difficult to track down the specific information a person needs. Librarians are trained and experienced in constructing internet searches and organizing the results.

Second, the information is frequently out of date, inaccurate, or purely fictional. There is no regulation of factual accuracy online. Any conspiracy theorist, child predator, or practical joker can post fraudulent information and present it as fact. Even well-intentioned web authors can post misinformation having gotten it from incorrect sources themselves. Most librarians have had a great deal of experience in evaluating the validity of online information and also have knowledge of and access to print resources that can verify the information or prove it false. I have personally helped children, high school students, adults, and seniors who not only have never had the opportunity to learn how to construct a productive internet search, but who then want to consider only the first result returned and treat it as gospel.

Third, many people in Decatur simply do not have access to the internet in their homes. Some students may have access in their schools, but only during school hours. I would invite you to come to the library any time of course, but I would especially encourage you to visit on a weekday after schools let out or on a Sunday to see just how many people use our resources. We are open from 2:00 to 5:00 on Sundays and nearly every week there are anywhere from five to twenty people lined up outside the door at 1:45 waiting to get in. We currently offer free use of 16 internet-enabled computers and there are often people sitting around the tables just waiting to use the next available computer. While they are waiting, we can always find them books, magazines, or newspapers to read. On Sundays in particular none of our computers sits idle for more than a few minutes if that long.

One of our most frequent questions is "When will you be getting more computers?" Fortunately, a grant from the Gates Foundation will provide more computers, but it is clear that we could fill the building with computers and it still wouldn't meet the demand. For a large number of Decatur residents, we are their only source for internet access.

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