|The Millennium Issue||Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000|
• VIRTUAL ACADEMY
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet
Amy M. Kautzman — Head of Reference, Lamont Library, Harvard University
We have spent the past decade facing the promises and the failures of computers. Yes, computers have been around for almost 100 years. But never before have computers loomed so largely in the work, play, and commerce of everyday life. This overview expresses my thoughts on the technologies that I have seen succeed, the ones that fail, and those that sputter about, refusing to transcend mediocre beginnings.
Ten years ago I entered the MLS program at Simmons College. Like many library programs it was weak on technology and strong on book format. The professors, for the most part, could not begin to imagine the changes that were coming in the field. The few cutting-edge scholars who had a clue were hampered by poor telecommunication systems and a lack of computer facilities. Those of us who were indoctrinated into the rustic e-mail system, called Fidonet, did not understand the implications of the Internet, much less the possibility of communicating with another person outside of our program.
Five years ago the Web was becoming a visual entity. Some librarians claimed that all reference questions could be answered online, while the rest of us just nodded and e-mailed our friends. While our primary resources remained print-based with some supplementation from the WWW via Lynx, CD-ROMs had earned a solid place in our vernacular, along with FTPing and UNIX. There was (and often still is) a strong distrust concerning the permanence of digital, not to mention the issue of ownership. It was bad enough that at the time we had to send CD-ROMs back to ABC-Clio. How could we justify taking money out of a collection budget simply to “rent” access to a Web page?
Well, here we are, deep into transitional technologies, and we have not yet answered any of the questions concerning ownership, copyright, and archiving. OK, that is an overstatement. Lawyers are specializing in cyberlaw and there are all of those darned contracts to be signed. However, the calming effect of the legal language is superficial. In late November freelancers won an appeal in a copyright suit against mega-giants like The New York Times, University Microfilms International (since the start of the suit, renamed Bell and Howell Information and Learning), and Mead Data Central (renamed LEXIS-NEXIS by its new owners, Reed-Elsevier). Please! If these folks do not know the rules to the game, who does?
Yet we continue to move forward — if nothing else, the Internet does encourage (nay, require) movement. Just this week I bought videos and books [http://www.amazon.com], flowers [http://www.1800flowers.com/flowers/welcome.asp], and airplane tickets [http://www.priceline.com/] off the Web. My Visa card number has circled the globe many times, without me. If e-commerce has entered into my sphere, at work my life has changed more than I ever imagined it could. The Web supports the majority of our digital resources. The advent of individual Web pages for libraries has made HTML as necessary a skill as DOS was just a short bit ago. And yet HTML is just a phase that we are clocking through in record time.
The biggest change
in my life stems from the simplicity and the depth of the Internet. Our
users go to a variety of sites without questions. They demand full text
– and they get it! Older titles materialize all the time, and the digitization
of our world has made technology mavens out of each and every one of us.
Gone are the days of the “resident expert,” that one person we would call
when a file was accidentally deleted. Now there are troops of IT people
wandering around putting out fires everyday. The budget is unbalanced as
digital takes over print costs and nobody has money for FTEs anymore.
Successes or Paradise Gained
I am often filled with wonder at what we now can access. As a government documents librarian, nothing has been as gratifying as Thomas [http://thomas.loc.gov/], a Web site to end all U.S. information Web sites. The ability to trace laws in the making, read committee reports, and go directly to various organizations’ sites is powerful. If a democracy is known by its ability to share information freely, we are solidly placed.
When the Internet first appeared on the average academic’s screen, the majority of the URLs led to science and technology sites. After all, there was little money to be found for the humanities. Thanks to companies such as Chadwyck-Healey [http://www.chadwyck.com/], recently acquired by Bell and Howell Information and Learning, there are multitudes of databases that allow researchers in the humanities and social sciences to accomplish important historical research via the Web.
such as ProQuest, netLibrary, LEXIS-NEXIS, and others have changed the
way we think about content and how our users think about us. What is a
library when the bulk of its current periodical collection is online? What
is a library when its patrons need not set foot in a building and still
can access the reserves reading list? I posit that the library is the epicenter
that makes all things virtual possible. Our jobs have not changed. We still
select, process, and make information accessible. What has changed is how
students access and read their texts of choice.
Failures or Paradise Lost
“What Productivity Means Today.” This is a quote taken off of the Microsoft Office page [http://www.microsoft.com/office/]. Here’s what it really means:
How many more years do we need to suffer through announcements of the death of CD-ROMs? And where are the DVDs? I have watched this front for some time and the defining moment — the takeover of one technology by another — has yet to happen. I have one friend who buys DVDs to watch on her computer. I cannot imagine a worse use of a laptop than watching a movie on it. In the meantime, I do not see evidence of DVDs entering the library world. But I’m waiting. . . .
The Wasteland of Library Catalogs
To this day there is no one standard for an online library catalog. Before computers a user could walk into any library and use the card catalog. The search mechanism was the same no matter what (excepting for the Dewey/LC breech). Today every library has a different catalog. My knowing Harvard’s catalog does not ensure that I can effectively use the University of California’s Melvyl system. Even using the same vendor does not ensure portability of knowledge. Customization and specialization have guaranteed that our users will need to relearn inherently useless information time and time again.
Would it be so
difficult for RLG or ACRL to sponsor and develop a catalog for its member
institutions? Are the days of OCLC past? Do we exist in a time when a consortium
cannot build towards the greater good of its users? After all, most scholars
do not stop at one database, they jump around promiscuously looking for
the elusive title not found in their home institution. Why do we allow
our patrons to work so hard at such a basic task?
There are many ways in which libraries sputter along, not using technology, not rewriting job descriptions, not reexamining traditions. Too often we are the keepers of a culture based on behaviors past. The down side of this conservative behavior is that we fail to take advantage of cutting-edge opportunities. The upside is that we carefully measure our needs against the promise of technology and find the best answer.
One example of a sputtering technology is JSTOR [http://www.jstor.org/], the journal storage project. When this database first came about, it was revolutionary. It is still a highly useful database that allows full-text access to a large collection of journals, usually back to the first issue. The problem with JSTOR is the platform underlying it. It can be slow, and it is impossible to print anything until you download the proper software. To complicate matters, if one does have the proper print software, one then has three options of printing with five possible derivations. I find that my staff spends an inordinate amount of time instructing students on how to print from this database.
Compare JSTOR to
Project Muse [http://muse.jhu.edu/].
There is an equivalent list of academic periodicals, a great search engine,
and Web access — just like JSTOR. The differences lie in the ease of use.
Project Muse allows for printing via the browser. This includes the ability
to delineate which pages to print; with JSTOR, it is all or nothing. The
final piece of cyber-superiority is the linked e-mail address to the author
at the end of each article. Minor — yes, out of date soon — yes. By virtue
of being a bit later down the pike, Project Muse is a superior product
on many levels.
Virtual or distance education has been developing a following, especially in rural areas where colleges and students are often hundreds of miles apart. Academics have a Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy going when it comes to distance education. We are attracted to the technology, to the increases in enrollment and budget. However, we also do not trust that it represents a serious academic endeavor or that the students will do the quality of research (we think) they would do in a physical environment.
According to Elizabeth Kirk and Andrea Bartelstein in their article “Libraries Close in on Distance Education,” (Library Journal, April 1, 1999, pp. 40+), colleges and universities are jumping on the virtual bandwagon. According to their statistics, “85 percent of ‘traditional’ colleges and universities either offered, or would soon offer, distance-accessible courses.” This number could soon include Harvard, where we find mention of the words “distance” and “education” in this year’s annual speech by the president.
My feeling is that
distance education will never take the place of the undergraduate experience.
But this seems beside the point as more people need advanced degrees to
simply get a basic position in a competitive work environment. With university
degrees as necessary as union cards in the trades, people will take whatever
shortcuts they can to become employable. Technology has opened the gates
to distance education. The promise of full text, interactivity, and the
branding of major university names makes possible what was looked down
upon when it was simply a correspondence course.
What I’d like the future of technology to bring:
Oh, by the way, Happy New Year.