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Magazines > Information Today > December 2003
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Information Today
Vol. 20 No. 11 — December 2003
But We're Not Allowed to Use the Internet!
by Shirl Kennedy

Here at MacDill Air Force Base, our library supports not only those students who take classes at the five colleges that have a physical presence on the base, but also those who participate in distance education from institutions around the world. Between the subscriptions the Air Force buys for us and what's available through some of the educational institutions we support, we have access to a fair number of online databases.

Generally speaking, we don't have many dead-tree subscriptions. Most of what we get in this format is either general interest, mainstream business, or military-related. We don't keep back issues of anything for more than 2 or 3 years. First of all, we're a relatively small facility and don't have the storage space. Second, well heck, most of this stuff is readily available online through one of the databases.

The local community college provides us with 12 customer-access computers that are connected to the Internet through its T-1 line. We offer customers another four Internet computers of our own. These share a local DSL connection with a few others that are set aside for staff use—one at the reference desk, a couple in the back for access to OCLC, etc.

In other words, provided that all the network plumbing is functional and none of the computers is in immediate need of an exorcist, our customers have ready access to the online databases. And yet there's often fear and loathing of them. I've tried to figure out why. I think I'm beginning to understand.

The Internet Is Not a Database

Because of the population we serve, most of our students are either young, inexperienced undergraduates or older folks who have been away from a classroom (and often, a library) for many, many years. Either way, there's a great deal of confusion about online research. Some assume that "everything is on the Internet" and become quickly frustrated when a few Google searches fail to turn up anything substantive. (And tragically, they often walk out of the library disgusted, without ever stopping to ask for help.)

Others just plain don't want to use the computer for research and are dismayed at the relatively small size of our print collection. We are not, after all, a full-bore academic library. While we can readily obtain most books a customer desires via interlibrary loan, this is not much help to the student who has waited until the last minute to do his or her research paper. (I'm sure that no customers like this ever walk into your library.)

Then there's the journal conundrum. To wit:

Customer: I need three references from academic journals. Do you have any?

Me: Yes, we have access to lots and lots of journals in our online databases.

Customer: What do you mean?

Me: Sit down here and I'll show you. (I fire up the browser and head for EBSCO or Gale.)

Customer (with an element of panic in his or her voice): No, no, no! We're not allowed to use the Internet.

OK. Time for a little guerrilla bibliographic instruction.

The Internet is not a database. It's a collection of networks that connect millions of computers worldwide. Some of these computers offer carefully vetted information that can in fact be used for academic research. Alas, many more offer entertainment of varying quality, political screeds, pointless online diaries, commercial come-ons, family photo albums and pet pictures, porn, or deliberately false information. Your instructor doesn't want you to use this type of Internet-based content.

Forget About Google?

You can also use the Internet to connect to proprietary databases that contain organized, searchable collections of journals and magazines. They offer the same content as the print editions, which come from publishers and have been checked for accuracy and reliability. These databases are not free. As a matter of fact, they are very expensive. The Air Force or your college pays the subscription fee so that you can have online access to academic journals. You get to these databases through an Internet connection, but you eventually reach a tollbooth. Without a login and password, you ain't gettin' any farther. These databases are cut off from the outside world. This means that Google can't search them either. So forget about Google.

Forget about Google? Whoa! We're in uncharted territory here.

I find out what the research paper is about and show the customer which databases are likely to be the most appropriate. We try a few simple keyword searches together and I explain the publications he's looking at and how to do a correct citation, if necessary. When a customer seems to be reasonably comfortable with the interface, I back off and let her fly solo into the database blue yonder.

For most people at this point, it's happy happy joy joy. A whole new world has been opened up to them. The next time they have a research paper to do, they'll stop by my office and ask for advice about databases. When I make suggestions, they nod eagerly and head confidently in the direction of the computer room.

Some people need more hand-holding. Maybe they're simply not comfortable with the computer, or they don't quite "get" the concept of keyword searching. A few are put off by the higher-level language that characterizes most academic journals and would like to be shown something that's easier to read.

And then there's the occasional soul who approaches my office with an inch-thick stack of full-text printouts from EBSCO or Gale and tells me: "These are just what I needed, but are you sure it's OK for me to use them? I mean, the instructor said we were absolutely not allowed to use anything from the Internet."


Shirl Kennedy is the reference librarian at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. Her e-mail address is
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