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Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jconnolly@nsl.org, Assistant Editor

October-December, 2006
Volume 52, Number 4

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Openers

by C.A. Gardner

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard the arguments: "The library offers more accurate and valuable information than the Internet." Or, "Ask a librarian, not Google." Librarians protest the prevalence of Internet searches over reference interviews with truisms such as "The Internet contains a lot of inaccurate, misleading, and incomplete information," or "Top-ranked search engine results do not necessarily represent the best websites."

Reference librarians in particular have expressed concern that their staff and resources are being underused while Internet searches seem to rule the day, particularly among younger patrons. Studies of Internet searching behavior have revealed that users are aware that their hits may not generate the most complete or appropriate information, but that overall, they are still satisfied with the results — getting something usable in a fraction of the time is preferred to getting something great after taking the trouble to call, let alone visit, a library and then hunt for, or wait while a librarian searches for, the results.

The problem is, even librarians find themselves relying heavily on Internet searches during the course of a day, and computer users aren't going to alter their behavior just because we tell them to. Perhaps it is time to spend our energy finding ways to embrace the information revolution, rather than extolling what's left by the wayside.

Let's face it:
Internet search engines
such as Google
have won this round.

There are already several projects underway that take advantage of Internet use behavior to provide traditional services in a new way. The Open WorldCat initiative keeps getting stronger in its union with Google to provide users around the world with knowledge of their local library holdings without requiring the hassle of locating regional libraries and searching individual catalogs. QuestionPoint provides a collaborative means for libraries to pool their resources in providing 24/7 virtual reference to all their patrons. Many libraries are working on digitization projects that will make out-of-copyright holdings available to seekers regardless of location or affiliation. Some libraries are making use of blogs and RSS feeds to contact computer-savvy patrons about current happenings, or providing online tutorials on a wide range of library and research topics.

There are so many ways to use information technology to our advantage — so many new ways that we can step forward and provide the accurate, complete information that we've complained the Internet users are failing to obtain. Let's be honest: at least some of our protests stem from fear that computers will eventually put many of us out of our jobs. But if we aggressively pursue new ways to engage our users in the style that they prefer, instead of continuing to spend our time touting the admitted value of our traditional services, we should find more need for our services than ever.VL


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