Faster does not mean better - it just means faster

by William Curran, Director of Libraries

Libraries 1This is the first of two articles on the future of academic libraries.

When a new medium emerges, there is often fear that the old one, and the old way of doing things, will disappear. For example, when television sets first became household items in the early 1950s, some parents felt it unwise to purchase a TV because the children would never read the classics (or anything else) or wouldn't succeed in school. When videos appeared in the late 1970s, there were predictions that movie houses would close! When a young mother recently expressed concern that her son was spending so much time accessing the Web that he found school boring, I felt a sense of dj vu.

We are migrating from a print-based society to a digital, network-based society. Network literacy is crucial in this transformation, as an entirely new definition of literacy will prevail. Via the Web, academic librarians are becoming navigators to global intellectual resources.

Librarians have always had the knowledge to organize and retrieve information. In the past, however, most of that information was to be found in the library's collection, right in the building. The difference is that now the collection is worldwide in many formats, and the rate of access is at a much faster pace than it once was.

People sometimes wonder why so much of an academic library's budget goes toward staff salaries rather than directly into acquiring new materials. If Concordia spent most of its budget on acquisitions, there would be a warehouse of materials to which everyone could have easy access. However, it wouldn't ensure that they would find timely and accurate information. With the Web, where access can be very easy, this is also true.

In the past, it was the librarian who knew exactly where information was to be found and it was right there in the building. Now, users have access to an ocean of unedited information via the Web, but because they have quick, easy access, it doesn't mean they can sift through it to make assessments of what they find. To illustrate, here is a classic example of speed versus literacy and critical thinking.

A student came into the library to do some research. The librarian suggested that she first consult the printed indexes or thesauri to be clear on her search terms. The student refused, saying that she had been instructed to conduct her research on the Internet. Off she went. After about 15 minutes, the librarian approached the student, inquiring whether she had found what she needed. "Absolutely, I've found exactly what I need," replied the student. Surprised, the librarian asked to see what she had found. In fact, what the student had found was a term paper on the Web, written by a first-year student at another university, which she was prepared to quote as if it were the latest research findings plucked from a refereed, scholarly journal. That's easy access, but it's also network illiteracy.

We are indeed facing something unknown in the information world. Accessing information is faster now than it has been in the past. But faster does not mean better; it just means faster.

Next time: Adding pictures and sound to text.

Photo: Libraries Director Bill Curran is seen in the new orientation room at the Vanier Library on the Loyola Campus, as reference librarian Melinda Reinhart shows part-time student Chantal Girard how to access information on the Net.

Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.