Searcher The Millennium Issue Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000

Myths for Today, Hopes for Tomorrow
Gary Price Webmaster, George Washington University, Virginia Campus Library

The final years of both the second millennium and 20th century have seen nothing short of a major evolution in information access and delivery.

Information professionals today share many of the same goals that our predecessors had, but the tools and methods we use to reach these goals have changed and continue to develop dynamically. Some of the differences between the past and today include, but are not limited to, the sheer amount of information available, the way it is accessed, who can access it, where it can be accessed from, and the cost of accessing the needed information.

It could be considered an understatement to say that many of these changes involve the Internet in one way or another. The Internet, a “network of networks,” is not a very new idea. Development began over 30 years ago. Throughout the same period, information professionals have accessed electronically disseminated information via a slew of access methods, database systems, and information networks. However, only in the last 7-8 years, since the commercialization of the Internet, the development of the World Wide Web, and the widespread deployment of graphical Web browsers, has the explosion of information available “on the Internet” and “via the Internet” occurred.

We should mention that both information/library professionals and the general public are taking part in this explosion together. These days, URLs for how and where to “find more information” appear everywhere you look. For the first time members of the general public appear excited about locating and accessing information directly from their homes and offices in an unmediated manner. With the Internet and electronic access to information becoming so popular so quickly, it is not surprising that several myths, misunderstandings, and misconceptions have arisen.

What follows is a countdown — (By the way, thanks David Letterman and Casey Kasem!) — of what I consider a few of the most popular myths, misunderstandings, and misconceptions extant in the last 100 days before Y2K. Please be advised that this list is neither comprehensive nor scientifically assembled. The coming years will see new myths develop and old misunderstandings disappear. Things move and develop so rapidly at this point in human history that keeping up is nearly impossible.

I follow each myth, misunderstanding, and misconception with a few words on how the future might change the way they are dealt with. It is very possible, even likely, the current myth will disappear. However, a new misconception about a replacement technology will very likely arise. We can only wait.

We do know that the development and growth of the Internet and other electronic tools and resources will continue at a incredibly rapid pace. Success with pending technology and information resources will only come if developers listen to and address the views, concerns, and needs of the information professional.

Price’s Countdown of the Top 12 Internet Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misconceptions

12. The Internet is the World Wide Web; the World Wide Web is the Internet.
For information professionals especially, the distinction between the Net and its Web does not represent a case of hair-splitting definitions. All of us should understand the differences. The Internet is a lot more than just the Web. While the WWW serves as a “common interface” to a great deal of what the Internet has to offer, the Net provides us with numerous additional tools and applications. Perhaps the most important of these is e-mail, with its ability to put you in contact with people from all over the world who share similar interests and who have the answers you need. Additionally, electronic discussion groups (i.e., listservs) and electronic bulletin boards can also help searchers locate answers. I have had numerous opportunities to contact an author of a needed document via e-mail, and, most often, authors have sent the works to me (often via e-mail) in a matter of hours. Truly remarkable!

The Future: Information professionals must make staying current with new terminology, information sources, and access tools a top priority. We must communicate clearly with end users on how to best use a resource and with engineers on how and why a tool needs to be developed. Increased bandwidth to all users will make many new resources and tools available. Information professionals will also make contributions to the development of many new applications. The number of information professionals in non-traditional jobs will continue to grow rapidly.

11. The Internet is just text and graphics.
It’s not! We often forget that the Internet is much more than a bunch of static text and pictures. In fact, at this very moment you can listen to a newscast from Germany or watch a recent keynote address at a conference that took place last week on the other side of the world. As broadband connections become commonplace, even more non-textual information will become available in audio, video, and some formats not even developed at this time.

Hope for the Future: For information professionals the challenge is to make these new resources (audio/video, etc.) easily locatable and accessible for our users. As more and more of these new resources appear, our role of assisting users in choosing resources will gain even greater importance. We will have to teach users how to use information resources at more than a cursory level. As we invest more and more effort in developing and acquiring new tools, we will have to insure full-powered use. Retrieval tools will become more powerful and capable of handling multiple and new formats. We will face another challenge in working with information providers to build archives of material.

10. There is no difference in material found “on the Internet” versus “via the Internet.”
Because many use a common interface (most often a Web browser) to access both types of information, users do not clearly understand the difference between the two.

“On the Internet” refers to the material that anyone with Internet access and server space can make accessible. This information can comprise anything from a government document to a collection of pictures of a recent trip to Tahiti. This mass of information changes literally minute by minute. A large amount of this information is available free or at a very low cost.

“Via the Internet” refers to using the Internet as a “transport vehicle” to many of the databases that information professionals have used for many years and that have now become directly accessible to end users and professionals “via the Internet.” These databases often have thorough value-added indexing, full text, etc., but often at a price and often a high one.

The Future: The lines will blur as new business models develop, making a great deal of information currently found “via the Internet,” available free or at a reduced cost through subsidizing by advertisers or other third-party sponsors.

9. It does not make a difference which search engine I use when searching “on the Internet.”
The excellent work of both Greg Notess [] and Danny Sullivan [] clearly illustrates this point. Briefly, many do not realize that each of the major search engines (e.g., AltaVista, Northern Light, HotBot) use different methods and software “spiders” for locating and accumulating Web-based material to place in their database of searchable material. This means that each search engine’s database of accessible data is unique.

Each tool handles the information on a page differently. For example, material located in frames is handled differently from engine to engine.

Each engine has a different update schedule for checking material availability and removing entries from the database.

Every search tool has a different searching method and ranking algorithm that determine how, where, and why results appear in the manner they do.

The Future: Although a basic knowledge of how search tools work will continue to be useful (especially for the professional), a great deal of the guesswork will be reduced concerning which tool or tools to select and search. New, more sophisticated search and retrieval tools will eliminate much of the guesswork. Spiders will crawl databases that today they cannot reach.

8. If I utilize several general Internet search tools (AltaVista, Northern Light, Google, etc.), then I know I have searched everything.
While the aforementioned Internet search resources are essential for “on the Internet” searching, they do not and cannot find and make all that is “on the Internet” accessible. They also do not make the material found in “traditional library databases” searchable and accessible. While recognizing the impossibility of turning over every stone, the effective Internet researcher must use specialized search and interactive tools to find a great deal of information. This “hidden” information is often called the “Invisible Web.” To see what I mean have a look at my Direct Search compilation [] or the Lycos Invisible Web Collection [].

The Future: Users will realize that thorough research of material both “on the Internet” and “via the Internet” is not a quick and simple procedure; it takes work. Additionally, more standard interfaces and syntax capabilities will make all search resources easier to use. The Search Engine Standards Project is today working on this very important issue (

7. Metasearch tools (Metacrawler, Dogpile, Savvy Search, etc.) and pages that offer single interfaces to multiple search engines on one page save a lot of searcher time.
Although these tools appear as useful timesavers at first glance, they are not.

Why? Most often they do not allow users to use the “power searching” or “advanced searching” capabilities that many of the best tools offer, and searchers need to limit and focus searches. Many of the “all in one search box” compilations contain no documentation. Overall, these compilations cause more problems than they solve with very high recall and very low precision. These resources also work to reinforce the myth that effective searching simply involves typing in a few words and that all search tools work the same way. The key to effective use of “general” Internet search tools is to use them at more than basic levels.

The Future: New metasearch tools will support more sophisticated searching and search limiting, the “power searching” capabilities that today exist only in traditional professional online services.

6. If you can’t find it on the WWW, it does not exist online. The Internet is the ultimate information tool. Traditional information tools are no longer needed.
Give me a break! This fallacy comes from a simple lack of understanding of both what is and is not available. It comes in part from the mass media reports that make it seem that if you can’t find it on the Web, it just doesn’t exist. Information professionals understand that both traditional databases like ABI/Inform and INSPEC are still crucial in getting the job done. The same holds true for printed materials. Once again the media plays into this myth with advertisements that make it appear that the full content (books, serials, maps, etc.) of all major libraries is available online.

The Future: A seamless environment will allow users to move easily from source to source to locate what they need. This will be true for both information resources as well as commerce. We can see the beginnings of this today as search tools that locate and compare prices of items at many stores continue to become available, e.g.,

5. Searching is very easy — nothing more than choosing a few words and typing them in. If the answer does not show up, I guess it does not exist.
Are you starting to cry? What a mess! This issue touches on many of the themes that we have already discussed. Most importantly, we should let end users know that searching “on the Internet” is an interactive, give-and-take experience that often takes a non-linear path. It often takes time. Many search engines advertise a “type-and-find” process, in which the exact answer will always appear at the top of the page, immediately after hitting the search button. Additionally, Internet search tools used in a simplistic manner will most often result in less than satisfactory answers. Consider the difficulty many users have with fully utilizing a traditional library that we spend so much time and resources organizing. Then multiply it by a world of unorganized, dynamic data. User frustration in locating the information they need in a timely and efficient manner constitutes one of the Internet’s most critical problems to solve. Developing successful solutions to that problem must involve information professionals.

The Future: Systems will be developed that embed directly into the search software to conduct online, dynamic questioning of the user, something similar to a reference interview, before formulating and implementing a search strategy.

4. “Everything is free on the Internet” versus “If it’s free it’s no good.”
The “everything free on the Net” misunderstanding is a major problem for all of us. Poor advertising and a lack of training can explain most of it. We must constantly remind users that information you access most often “via the Internet” still and will probably always cost money, sometimes a lot of it. Users must understand the differences between the dynamic hodgepodge of raw information “on the Internet” and the information contained in well-indexed, subject-enhanced, stable, thoroughly searchable databases. Further confusion will no doubt arise as more and more providers “on the Internet” begin to charge for material, often using a “pay-as-you-go” system.

Going to the other extreme, we meet the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” fallacy. While some material costs money to access and use, it does not mean that the information available for free is simply junk and a waste of time. In many cases, this free information was often difficult, if not impossible, to locate and access just a few years ago without either being at the right place at the right time (literally) or simply being lucky. What once only a few people could get, now, in just a few moments, can be easily disseminated and utilized around the block or around the world.

Perhaps the Net’s most important role might be as a directory to answers. While every answer is not available, often the Internet can at least get you in contact with a group or a person who can lead you to the information you need.

The future: The lines between fee and free will continue to merge as new pricing models emerge. The challenge will be to make sure that outside interests do not manipulate the information in ways that change its accuracy and truthfulness.

3. Whatever data I find on the Internet is truthful and accurate.
Remember that anyone with server space can put anything they want on the Internet. With no quality control available, the teaching of critical information skills should become one of the most important things taught in the “information age.”

The Future: A greater emphasis on critical information skills will become part of everyone’ earliest educational experiences and continue throughout life.

2. Everyone has access to the Internet. Everyone can easily find what he or she needs.
I often worry about what happens to all those people, both here in North America and around the world, who do not have access to information located on and via the Internet. The information “haves” and “have-nots” will continue to constitute a key issue and one in which our profession, in all of its forms, must take the lead. We must ensure that a huge, irrevocable divide does not develop. At the same time we must continue to identify and understand the numerous factors that cause this problem.

The Future: Our profession will continue to demonstrate the power of information to those who can ensure that a lack of access to information does not become another issue to further divide our nation and our world. Simultaneously, we must strive to make sure that in addition to the ability to access the technology, we demonstrate and teach people how to use these resources effectively. Repeatedly poor results will turn users off to a valuable asset.

1. No prior knowledge of Internet content and searching is required to easily locate what I need. Who needs the help of a librarian to find information? I can do it all myself!
I hope many have begun to give up this “fantasy.” As the amount of available information and information sources continue to increase, end users are starting to realize that some assistance and training can go a long way. Our profession is full of individuals who have the requisite knowledge to teach others how to best utilize the Internet world. At the same time, information professionals have the skills to provide comprehensively researched, thoroughly documented, and reliable information, packaged and delivered in a timely and efficient manner.

The future: In addition to what we do today the librarian/information professional will spend more and more time working to customize resources for specific users or groups, in a sense, tweaking already developed systems.

One Final Point
While myths, misunderstandings, and misconceptions will always exist, the single most important thing we, as information professionals, can do to alleviate them has nothing to with improving technology. Naturally, we must work with new technology and new ideas about effective information usage; however, most importantly, we must continue to improve the marketing of our skills both as individuals and as a profession. This holds true for all types of libraries and information centers. It is key that we let people know of our capabilities in solving their information needs. If we don’t, who will?

I believe that the future is very bright for our profession, but it will take work. Our skills and abilities will continue to be key in a world where information and knowledge have such a high value.

Happy Y2K! Happy 21st Century! Happy New Year!
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