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Internet will never replace library

by Linda Deacy

In recent weeks, there have been a number of newspaper and magazine articles and television productions that address searching the Internet. Some writers have attempted to convince end users that it is possible to do the same level of research using a home computer and the Internet as used to require extensive work in library reference collections. No one will dispute that there is a great amount of information on the Web. I will dispute the idea that all information is there, is available at no charge or is easy to locate.

While the Web provides access to an escalating amount and variety of information, much of that information is located in databases that charge for access, is poorly organized and is often ephemeral in its very existence. In addition, the Internet is heavily weighted in favor of the latest data. A person might search for hours and never find anything written before 1995. Libraries retain the history of civilization and do so using established selection techniques that consider such issues as accuracy, currency and authority. No such criteria exist for Web publications. Anyone can publish anything and put it on a Web page.

Even with practice and patience, mastery of a search engine such as Alta Vista or a subject directory such as Yahoo is problematic, at best. These commercial vehicles for information search, unlike a library catalog, are governed by proprietary ownership rules. One does not know, and the company will not tell you, how they rank the sites retrieved.

Should you practice diligently and develop some level of expertise with search engines, there is still the issue of information glut and Web clutter. A search in Alta Vista on the term “biblical archaeology” retrieves 3,676 Web pages. To people who value their time at all, searching more than 3,500 Web sites seems a poor choice compared to visiting a library where one has a number of information choices. Even if delivery of electronic information is the desired product, librarians are professional, expert searchers who can save the researcher countless hours of fruitless wandering in cyberspace.

The Web may be a wonderful, exciting place to visit and explore, but using it to do research is akin to answering your college professor’s midterm using Trivial Pursuit.

Perhaps the day will come when the Web is organized as well as a library and the end user will need no intermediary between massive amounts of raw data and himself, but until that time, use the services of those dedicated professionals who collect, organize and provide access to information – your local librarians.

– Linda Deacy is library director at Douglas County Public Library.