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Magazines > Online > Jan/Feb 2006
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Online Magazine

Vol. 30 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2006

The HomePage
Rethinking Collections, Libraries, and Information
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Flying across the U.S. Midwestern states, particularly in late summer and early autumn, I’m always struck by the green circles of irrigated land scattered among brown rectangles of farm fields. These are not as obvious when you’re on the ground, driving across, say, Kansas. Looking out a car window rather than an airplane window you see solid rows of wheat, corn, or soybeans. Late in the growing year, many have turned brown and that’s all you see.

The fields are akin to traditional library collections—with individual plants representing the books, journals, and other documents in the collection. Browsing the physical stacks is like walking down a row of corn, picking off the ear you think will be the most scrumptious. Today’s library users are more likely to use their personal computers to access information than to walk down a library aisle. They’re at 30,000 feet, looking down at the green circle, ready to swoop down and pluck the juiciest morsel they see. They’re looking for a scrumptious piece of data and they don’t care which field it comes from. Looking down on the fields, they can see where the irrigated portions are located.

Scholars are often exasperated by these behaviors of information end users. They want books read cover to cover. They prefer methodological rigor. They want publications to be viewed as complete entities, not as bits and pieces pulled out to support whatever paper a student is writing or point of view a researcher is espousing. They’re like traditional farmers, whose patterns of plowing, planting, and harvesting are careful, controlled, and systematic.

Today’s end users are looking at the green circles of irrigated land. They don’t care about how the farmer plants or harvests his crops. They just want to eat. They are not methodical. They do not read books from cover to cover, unless it’s fiction with a strong plot that requires starting at the first page and ending on the last. They multitask. They instant message while searching the Internet, listening to music, and blogging. I believe, however, that this is the natural outgrowth of the free-text searching on full-text documents that developed in the early to mid-1980s. It’s the next level of online.

We are moving from an information environment dominated by publication entities to one of snippets and pieces. The irrigated circles become more important than the field. The methodology changes from one that starts at the upper left of a page (or a cornfield) and continues line by line, row by row, to the lower right, to one that celebrates peripheral vision, the gathering of bits and pieces to make a whole, and data overlays.

Call it the snippet generation. But are today’s snippets any different from yesterday’s KWIC display? Hasn’t 30 years of online search, retrieval, and dissemination trained all of us to think of information as piecemeal? Rather than bemoan the snippet approach, we’re better off recognizing the benefits of serendipitous research, realizing that it’s a natural evolution of the online search environment, and relishing new approaches to information discovery.

Marydee Ojala [] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to

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