Mark Y. Herring said the Internet is no substitute for a library in 2001. Now, in 2006, in an effort to save our profession, strike a blow for librarians, and, above all, correct the well-intentioned but misguided notions about what the future holds, here are 10 reasons why the Internet will soon be a substitute for the library for many people.
1. Everything I Need IS On The Internet.
2. Catalog This!
3. Quality Control Does Exist
4. Nothing Is Perfect
5. Check Out Dan Brown's Bytes @Your Library
6. The Ebook Is Coming
7. Look Ma, No Books!
8. Everything Is Born Digital
9. We No Longer Care What Was Written In 1970
10. The Internet Is Already Ubiquitous And Portable.1. Everything I Need IS On The Internet: If I need to search powerful databases like Lexis I can do that from home. If I need to find something less important, I can use Google, et. al. Compared to most people, I have relatively high information needs; today they are met almost entirely by the web. I print things out to read when I can't be at a computer, soon I'll just be able to download them into something that's easy to read anywhere. Everything my wife needs is on the web, and everything all my nieces need is on the web as well. I know everything is not on the web, and probably won't be any time soon. Everything everyone needs will never be digitized, but we're already at a point where a large number of people's needs are met by what they can get through their computer.
2. Catalog This! Post coordinate indexing is the only way to go when we talk about billions of pages. Sure, you're never searching the entire web, but chances are you'll find what you need. Saying you're not searching everything in the world is like saying you're never going to drive your car on every road, therefore, don't get a car. There are millions, if not billions, of quality documents on the (free and paid) web. It's relatively easy to find quality in the mediocrity now. The time lag problem of 5 years ago has been overcome, try to imagine what we'll be able to search in another 5.
3. Quality Control Does Existâ€¦ It's Just Different: How would you catalog a book about the Informatics program at The State University of New York at Buffalo? Could a patron ever find it in your OPAC if they searched on "ub informatics"? Probably not. But I just tried that in Google, Ask, and MSN and they all got it right. "Real" cataloging and authority are great, they're also hard to use for more people. Rather than trying to educate the users and make them see the strengths of a new way of thinking, search engines know how people think and work with that. Using links, tags, and a multitude of secret ingredients search engines use the authority inherent in the web to brew up some decent search results. As search algorithms grow more powerful things will only get better.
4. Nothing Is Perfect: People love to attack anything new based on how it underperforms in it's current state. My car breaks down all the time, I'm not going to stop driving. My furnace breaks down, I'm not going to start heating my house with a wood stove. Whether it's free or paid, all databases have quality control issues. The list of problems goes on and on, but why throw everything away? The strengths with current systems far out weigh the weaknesses. As new systems come online to address the obvious problems we have now they will only make things better.
5. Soon you will be able to share books digitally: (If "they" don't stop you) More and more we have choices for digital circulation options. Libraries are now "checking out" electronic books and music. Vendors are working on hardware, software, and new systems that will deliver ebooks to ereaders. The days of libraries being collections of dusty old books are already behind us. There will be increasing numbers of people who only want to check out ebooks. If DRM doesn't strangle the technology, it holds great promise.
6. The Ebook Is Coming: Hitachi, Sony and others are working on the new generation of readers, and from all reports, they look good. The big question, of course, is will people want it? The Sony Libre and now Hitachi Albirey are the first generation of what appear to be truly usable ebook readers. While it's doubtful it'll catch on like the iPod, popular acceptance of these new useful readers is just around the corner.
7. There aren't library-less universities, NOW: A fully virtualized library (or damn near fully) is only years away for most small colleges. We have already reached the point where the information needs of most people can be met most of the time with what's available on the web, add in paid databases available from libraries and other sources and that number grows even more. With budgets being pinched it won't be long before some schools make the switch. Missouri State lawmakers voted Tuesday to create a "virtual public school" that would link students to teachers and textbooks by computer starting in 2007. It should be easy to imagine how a library building could be replaced by a web site now.
8. Everything Is Born Digital Now: We have now reached the point where everything created from this day forward could be available on the web. If everything is available electronically what will our patrons be checking out other than electronic media? Obviously libraries and archives, particularly in larger research institutions will always serve archival purposes, no one advocates trashing digitized works, but with Google and others racing to digitize print we should see a critical mass of digital books soon. The cost to do this work will drop just like the cost of all technology. The biggest problems will come from people fighting to keep their works from being copied freely. Plenty of content creators will be fighting to keep their work safe with DRM and even the elimination of fair use.
9. No One Cares They Can't Read Something From The :1970s (even thought they increasingly can) I worked in one of the largest academic libraries in the country for a couple years and I was surprised at how infrequently I was asked a challenging reference question. Most students, even at a large research library don't need much from the archives. How will you be able to convince people it's worth it to run a library that is visited only by the most dedicated researchers? Though the majority of the world doesn't need OOP materials, much of them can already be found in paid and free sources, and more is added all the time. There will always be a limited need for older materials, but that need is much smaller than what most people want, and are willing to pay for or support. If most people don't need most of the things libraries have to offer, will they see any value?
10. The Internet Is Both Ubiquitous and Portable: Assuming humankind will always want to curl up with a good book because that's what we grew up with is just plain wrong. I never felt nostalgia to sit around a radio at night, my father never missed riding the street cars, his father never missed outhouses. People born 30 years from now aren't going to care they don't have iPods. Though we've heard it for what seems like decades now, ebook reader technology will reach the point where it will be an easy replacement for books, and for many people they will leave print behind. Why curl up with one book, when you can curl up with something that's the same size, and holds many books, plus what ever else you can download? It may be we'll still use our local library to fill our devices, and we'll call our librarian in a panic when it crashes.
To paraphrase Herring again, the Web is great; and it's already a substitute for a full-service library for a growing number of people. For many people libraries are already obsolete. The Web is far more than just a tool, and most of the technology we're currently using is only in it's infancy. Libraries are increasingly being seen as icons of a time in the past, totems to the ancient arcane knowledge only used by researchers. Libraries are marvelous, but to claim, as some now do, that people aren't increasingly seeing us as outdated is just plain dangerous. The web makes much of what libraries do faster, easier and cheaper for many people, why would they need anything else?
[I hope it's obvious that I'm playing devil's advocate here. Some of my arguments may be easy to pick apart. I'm trying to point out some things I believe we as a profession are ignoring. If I've convinced you I'm right about something, great, let's figure out what we can do, if you think I'm making some good points, then good, let's all start working on raising the profile of our profession. If you're convinced I'm wrong, let me know why, what I'm missing, and tell me why everything will be just fine and that I have nothing to worry about.]