Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 10 • Nov./Dec. 2000
E-Mail Makes the World Go 'Round
by D. Scott Brandt

E-mail technology really enables librarians to have all sorts of relationships with patrons from around the world.
The Web links us to the world, but e-mail connects us. Web pages are international, but e-mail is intra-national. Web sites help us round out our picture of the world, but e-mail makes the world go 'round.

The Web was intended to be a communication medium for everyone everywhere. For the most part, as a resource (Web sites) it is a very passive medium. Sure, you can visit sites from all around the world, but you have to get pages and bring them to your machine to view them. However, the Web as a delivery medium (http) is highly interactive. Using the Internet protocol and a browser interface you can do almost anything, from chat to telephony to real-time conferencing. Oh, and of course, e-mail.

I know that the Web, even more than television, allows us to see and share with every and any country around the globe, but it's e-mail that truly makes the world smaller. I am in constant contact with an editor in New Zealand and a research colleague in England, both of whom I work with closely. I have other colleagues in Finland, Egypt, Scotland, Canada, and Hawaii (all right, it's not another country, but it might as well be!), who I may contact less frequently, yet I know they will respond when I need to contact them.

E-Mail Rules the Net
Sure, mail actually has its own protocol to run over the Internet, SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol), and you don't need the Web to send or receive mail. 1 But for many, the delivery of e-mail, often through a Web client, is almost synonymous with the Web. It is a strange beast, as ubiquitous as it is ambivalent. And you have to admit, it makes for an interesting and different communication tool: immediate, but not live; stream-of-consciousness, but recorded. In a course we teach in the Purdue University Libraries called "E-Mail: Etiquette and Effectiveness," we talk about the contradictory nature of e-mail—it can be formal or informal, personal or impersonal, immediate or delayed, and at the same time all of the above. And interpretation is largely at the discretion of the receiver, not the sender. I know, because I get a lot of e-mail.

I lead a great life, and I have many friends, all of whom I e-mail. Some of them are from high school or the military, some from places I've lived or worked, and some from where I live now. I have several interesting friends I've met at conferences that I correspond with continually, and occasionally I get to see them at various meetings. I also have several friends who I've only met once, but with whom I correspond occasionally. And I even have a few friends I've never met, but whom I e-mail on an occasional basis. (Just about the only people I don't e-mail are my parents, who are staunch Luddites.)

So many times a year I get e-mail from people I don't know and have never met. And this can come from anywhere around the world. Often their messages start out with "I just read your column in the latest Computers in Libraries magazine ..." We'll strike up a conversation and talk about myriad topics and exchange advice or suggestions. In addition, I often get mail from students—anywhere from elementary school to college—who are asking for help. For instance, I got one not too long ago that read: "Subj: INFO NEEDED!!!!!@@@@ How do you find the person's name who wrote one of the articles on the internet when it's not written down and date as well????" Or, consider this one: "We are students at [X] who have attended a brief tutorial on creating a home Web page. We now have to create such a page ourselves but the problem is WE HAVEN'T A CLUE WHAT WE ARE DOING. CAN YOU HELP!!!!!" (See the sidebar for more stories.)

Dear Techman ...

Like Miss Manners or Dear Abby, Techman receives dozens of requests for advice from all around the world. Here are some interesting samples:

"My question is, I had been having trouble retrieving recent articles on my topic and I just recently found out that articles such as yours had been published. Now I am worried that projects similar to mine have already been published, and that my work may not be considered anything new in the field.

If possible, please let me know if you have seen any work done on mental models of students in grades 1 - 12. Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time." 

[a high school senior]

"I looked at the LOC page last nite. Is there any particular tutorial you recommend? So many of them look good."

"I haven't been able to subscribe to the following list-serve. Maybe I've copied it down wrong. If possible, could you send me the correct address & message for subscribing to it?"

"I'm a high school student and learning how to code html documents. I have one problem though. Is it possible to create a link (on one page) to a specified place on another page? I think that this is called an external target link but I'm not really sure (my book has nothing on this). If this is possible, please e-mail me back with the basic code. I appreciate your help."

"Do you know of any sources of visual representations of computer and technology related concepts that you could recommend? Such as posters, mental models, mind maps, etc. I'm looking for basic concepts, how a computer works, the internet, how search engines work, and so on."

"I'm actually looking to shoot some interviews with a video camera and then edit them and put short clips into my PPT presentation. I'll likely use a digital video camera. I was also thinking about Premiere, but am wondering if there's a simpler solution... there must be some way I can just pull clips right off the video and insert them...????????"

" did they do this?"

What's the Half-Life of an Online Relationship?
If I counted all the times I've helped someone, and all the times they thanked me, and extrapolated that we were buddies because of the interactions, I'd say that I have lots and lots of friends! What do you consider a friendship? Something involving multiple interactions? Would a repeat e-mail or chatroom conversation count?

Do you remember Alvin Toffler's Future Shock? 2 Wow, the guy was talking about the consequences of the uncontrolled and random development of technology, like, two decades before the Internet really started to take off! His descriptions and predictions (and suggestions) definitely apply to the Web civilization in which we are working, living, and thriving. Toffler was mostly concerned about the human condition, and about how people would be affected by technology.

Among many things he mentioned as a consequence of future shock was that people would be put into situations where they would make and lose friends quickly. He said, "Relationships that once endured for long spans of time now have shorter life expectancies" (p. 45). In fact, he titled his chapter on relationships "Transience" to emphasize this effect. In this chapter he spoke about a spectrum of friendships, from LDRs (long-duration relationships) to M2Fs (Monday-to-Friday friends or colleagues) to SDRs (short-duration relationships). This was at least 15 years before popular e-mail and 20 years before chatrooms!

To Toffler, an SDR was someone with whom you interacted with over short periods of time, like a clerk or cashier at the store. He didn't really anticipate online friendships or relationships. Short duration for him was related to continued turnover in jobs, which meant that you might see a new cashier each year or each semester. However, he might have gone even further and designated something like MDR—micro-duration relationship.

While you can argue the extent to which it is a relationship, an MDR would be defined more along the lines of talking with someone in line while waiting for the cashier. Surprisingly, you will often find out more about that person in one conversation than you will about the cashier in a year. Another example of an MDR might be what is sometimes called "a road buddy," someone in another car that travels the highway with you for a long time.

But more likely, an MDR would be someone with whom you strike up an e- mail or online conversation and continue it for a period of time. In addition to the examples of students and people who read my column, I have had people just out of the blue who begin e-mail discussions that might last a month or two. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Once it was someone I work with who was responding to an announcement. We ended up exchanging a dozen or so e-mails, discussing growing and the influence of television on our lives. Once it was someone on the West Coast who had stumbled across one of my Web pages. We ended up exchanging e-mail for about 6 months, discussing everything from training and presentation styles to parenting styles. I don't consider these pen pals, though that may be what they are—micro-pen-pals (micro as in duration, and perhaps, as in microcomputer).

But I have to wonder: Are we more likely as librarians to get e-mail than other people? Or are we more likely to respond to e-mail requests than other people? (Perhaps it's because, to paraphrase that great New Yorker cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a librarian." 3 ) Ninety times out of a hundred, whenever I get a question or request via e-mail, I respond, and that's it. Usually, if the person is simply asking me for an answer, I try to teach as well as simply give a response. Often I do this by recommending a site he can use (and reuse) or by asking Socratic questions. But there are times when simple requests end up as MDRs.

Do we feel more obligated to help people who e-mail? That question can be taken in two ways—more obligated than non-librarians, or more obligated to e-mail requests than to in-person requests. Believe me, there are plenty of non-librarians out there who are willing to answer questions; just check or! But do we feel compelled to respond immediately when e-mail beckons? I know from my previous experience doing e-mail reference at MIT in 1992 that you often feel the need to be faster when it's an online questioner.

The 'Slow Hand' of Certain Types of Communication
My interaction with e-mail usually goes like this: I sort through it first thing in the morning, identify those messages that need a response, prioritize them, synchronize them with the rest of my schedule, and act on them as I can. I remove superfluous e-mail (including jokes, cartoons, etc.), save listserv mail to read during "break time" (for me, usually before or after lunch), and save other mail into folders so that I can retrieve it later. I use my sent messages to remind myself how and when I responded to someone.

I use e-mail as a pager, and my In Box as a To Do List. Those items left in my In Box are waiting on some kind of action, either on my part or someone else's. When I finish an item, I delete it. And I treat each new mail (except as noted above) as a page—someone wants to get a hold of me for some information. Sure, the phone might be more interactive, but I move around a lot, and check my e-mail more often. Sure, ICQ chat software might be faster, but it can be an annoyance ( Both phones and ICQ are more demanding than e-mail. They tend to put pressure on you to respond right now, whereas e-mail beckons with a "respond when you can" kind of effect. With phones and ICQ, the emphasis seems to be on answering the call, whereas with e-mail the emphasis seems to be on answering the request.

And, as we move forward with online reference using video, telephony, and chat, just remember that some people (like me) are willing to be patient and use e-mail to get answers, advice, and information. Somewhere between the passive nature of Web pages and the screaming immediacy of "in-your-face" technology lies a simple, slower, but very effective alternative. Sure, I have a video camera and the ICQ client loaded, but I rarely use them. However, as long as I'm online, you can reach me by e-mail. And I'm available for micro-duration relationships.

D. Scott Brandt is technology training librarian at Purdue University Libraries in West Lafayette, Indiana. He has won several awards and frequently speaks at professional conferences. His e-mail address is

1. For a simple review of how e-mail works, check out the site (for instance, or (for instance,

2. Toffler, Alvin. Future Shock. New York: Random House,1970. (For a "blast from the past," check out the video by Metromedia Producers Corp., 1972, distributed by McGraw-Hill, narrated by Orson Welles. Did anyone else watch this in high school?)

3. Steiner, Peter. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." The New Yorker, Vol. 69, No. 20 (July 5, 1993): 61. (

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