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Magazines > Online > May/June 2004
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Online Magazine
Vol. 28 No. 3 — May/June 2004
Being Virtual
By Marydee Ojala • Editor

Language is a funny thing. When I first learned about online searching, it was taught as commanding the system to find what we needed to find. Not wanted, needed. Searchers were in charge, controlling the process. The onus of a successful research result was on us. It was serious business and we were properly intimidated. We worried about search strategy construction, syntax, order of operators, and index terminology. We performed searches as conscientiously as doctors performed surgery.

The language has changed. I now hear about destination sites. Should I take my camera? Am I answering questions or going on vacation? Does Chemical Abstracts qualify as a destination? How about LexisNexis? Search is described as an experience. Should I worry about proper attire when involved in this experience? And why does it sound so passive? It's not the Jimi Hendrix Experience, is it? Human indexing has devolved into automated taxonomy building. Is that why event codes in PROMT are a vanishing species? Could people, albeit more expensive, ever surpass computers' perceptions of context?

Nicholas Negroponte wrote a book titled Being Digital in 1995, with theories and conclusions drawn from his work at MIT's Media Labs. ONLINE's columnist Walt Crawford countered in 1999 with Being Analog, his book about the state of libraries in a digital world. No one has yet written a book called Being Virtual, or at least that's what the Library of Congress' catalog told me, but that seems to be the way forward for some observers.

Digital libraries, 24/7 reference, Web conferencing, and e-mail have removed from our professional lives the necessity to ever meet anyone face to face. I have to wonder if this is a good thing. I recognize that the virtual world has its attractions, particularly when it comes to "always on" reference services and virtual training. Where I question total virtuality is the conference world.

Personal interactions during conferences are the unorchestrated, unscripted, and unplanned encounters that enhance the overall conference experience. No matter how carefully a virtual conference is staged, whether it uses conferencing software or even streaming video, attendees are unlikely to catch the raised eyebrow or shoulder shrug of a fellow attendee. The focus of virtual conferences is on the speakers. This is only part of conference learning, however. Hallway conversations, reactions of listeners, and impromptu meetings happen in the physical world; they are almost impossible to create virtually. Despite my predilection towards technology and keeping in touch via my computer, I don't think I'd like to live a totally virtual life. Particularly when it comes to conferences, you're likely to see me live and in person at events such as Web Search University and Internet Librarian. I hope to see you live and in person at these destinations as well.

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

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