Where Have All The Good Books Gone?

100-1116 Huey P Long Bridge Baton Rouge northwest
Image by Chris[topher] Lin via Flickr

Studio readers know that I love the internet. I adore it as a source of information and enlightenment, engagement and development. I truly appreciate what the internet offers to researchers and data gatherers and content junkies.

But I really must relate the experience that I had earlier today. It speaks to our growing reliance on the internet / Wikipedia as not just A source of information, but THE source of information. I am not sure this is the correct position for all applications and it certainly shouldn’t be the “be all and end all” of the researchers tool-kit.

Today, as my children and I were traveling by car, we passed over a bridge. My eldest son, a 9 year-old, relayed to me that a boy he met on the beach had told my son that he had traveled over the world’s longest bridge: a span running from New York City into the ocean and terminating on an island in the Atlantic. I replied that I did not think that the world’s longest bridge was in New York, explaining that I had traveled on a seven-mile-long bridge in the Florida keys.

I asked him where we could find information on the world’s longest bridge (“WLB”) and he answered that the 2007 (?) version of the Guinness World Book of Records would have the answer. I then suggested that we would be passing right by an honest-to-goodness library filled with reference books and that perhaps we should stop there for our answer.

So we did. A nice local library positively filled to the ceiling with real paper, ink and board books! We walked straight to the spacious desk bearing the grand sign – REFERENCE. The youngish, maybe-early-20’s gentleman behind the counter asked if he could help us. I explained to him that we were in the car talking about the WLB and decided to stop at the library to get an answer as to how long it is and where it might be located. He gave me this knowing wink and grin and immediately turned to his computer, located right in front of massive stacks of reference books. In under 20 seconds, he had found HIS answer to the question, and spent about four or five minutes printing several pages. I stared at him during this printing process and asked him “gee, if you were going to look in a reference book to find the answer, which one would you use?” He thought for a moment and answered “The Guinness Book of World Records. Or, maybe, an encyclopedia.” He glanced at his printed pages, explained the WLB was in Japan and proudly handed the sheets to me.

Along the upper right hand corner was printed the Wikipedia URL. The title of the entry was longest suspension bridges.

A few thoughts:

  • why wouldn’t the reference librarian leap at the opportunity to teach children about the value of book research, an asset unique to libraries – institutions desperately seeking to maintain relevance in an increasingly on-line society?
  • why wouldn’t the reference librarian either ask the customer a few questions about what kind of information he or she was looking for before assuming that he or she is interested in the subset of suspension bridges, a decidedly shorter construction method than other bridge-building techniques?
  • if the reference librarian must use the internet, why wouldn’t he or she use Wolfram Alpha, rather than the sketchy likes of Wikipedia?

A good researcher is both an able detective and a willing educator. A good researcher is not content with the quick answer, although efficiency certainly is a desired trait. A good researcher takes advantage of the best tools available and prides himself or herself on keeping up to speed with the latest and greatest techniques, be they on-line or in the real world. A good researcher should never “come up short” and should seek to “bridge” the gaps between the question and the answer with the strongest, most comprehensive structure to be crafted with the tools at hand. And a good researcher should never forget the research “roots” – honest-to-goodness reference books!

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4 comments on “Where Have All The Good Books Gone?

  1. Pingback: Twitted by erwiest

  2. When I was 5 or 6 (1959-60), Ike was president, and phones were attached to walls, I was already scanning library shelves on my own. The twins are 9, don’t know a world without wireless phones and the ‘net, and saw their first card catalogue in the Tufts museum. They don’t wander the library like I did. Like your librarian, they haven’t heard that new tools, no matter how good, supplement–don’t replace–the old ones.

  3. Absolutely spot on. I try to remember that the printing press caused a similar stir and now we are lamenting the loss of that old tech in favor of the new tech. But I see value in all of the forms. Books demand a different interaction, suited to another type of digestion than the internet does. There is something learned from how the books are organized on the shelves and how the entries are organized in the books and how the books themselves are tracked in the library. I hope we don’t completely lose their more tactile appeal.

  4. How sad that a person staffing the Reference Desk would miss such an opportunity to demonstrate for children the value of a library full of books & what a powerful resource the Reference Desk can be.

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