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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Digital Immigrants Will Make Way For Digital Natives …

… or traditional institutions will suffer the consequences. Yasar Tonta at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey focuses his lense on libraries and stresses that they must “evolve or die” when it comes to digital technology and connectivity in his article Digital Natives and Virtual Libraries: What Does The Future Hold For Libraries?. Tonta initially explains the different styles exhibited by “digital natives” (those who were born and raised in a world surrounded by modern computing and technology) and “digital immigrants” (those who came to the digital realm from their previous analog existence). While recognizing that libraries must continue to cater to both groups, Tonta urges institutions to be mindful of the need to offer an experience catering to the digital native or risk “extinction.” Until such time as digital natives comprise 100% of the user base, librarians must run their show in both the real and virtual world.

To this end, Tanto suggests that libraries forge relationships with their patrons that represent a give-and-take: offering bi-directional service and information flow back and forth between institution and client. Tanto speaks in terms of “diffusing” and “concentrating” services. Diffusion entails building relationships between people, applications and data through services like blogs, wikis and social networking, while concentration involves pulling users into major hubs of information, such as Google and Amazon.

I found particularly compelling Tanto’s direction that libraries must move from being “resource-centric” towards becoming “relationship-centric”, emphasizing a more personalized service. Tanto also points out that technologies “converge” just as the facets of our lives converge – business, social, professional, personal. Thus, the library is tasked with effecting its own “convergence” by melding its own curated resources with the freely available resources of the Web and entering the on-line “hangouts” that digital natives inhabit. To survive, libraries must meet the more demanding needs of digital natives as they replace digital immigrants as clients.

Finally, more is required of institutions than merely becoming digital destinations. Libraries must actively seek to enter the actual networks of digital natives and meet them where they live. Tanto closes with this quote:

In libraries’ part, this requires “connectivity, communications, and content” (Social, 2009) so that library resources and services can be more visible and usable from within social networking systems. This seems to be the way forward for libraries if they are to tackle the impact of the convergence of technologies and the convergence of people’s social lives.

I daresay that the reader could insert the name of just about any institution for the word “library” in this article and the same conclusions still hold true. Consider the plight of law firms as they experience pain from this compulsion to effect major change and are forced to  learn how to deal with both clients and new hires firmly inhabiting the virtual space. Firms that cater to digital immigrants will soon be as obsolete as their client base. Firms catering to digital natives not only will learn how to speak the language, but also will understand how to walk the walk along the highways and byways of the on-line world, stopping to socialize at all the best hangouts.

Hat tip to Resource Shelf.

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Follow The Librarians!

Connie Crosby, a tech-savvy librarian from our neighbor to the north, mentioned on her blog today that the Online University Lowdown has created a list of the 50 best blogs for law librarians to follow. Why do I mention this? Anyone interested in research, writing, technology and reference management should make a point of finding web-friendly library scientists and reading their offerings religiously. I have several of these blogs in my reader and I never fail to pull interesting and enlightening information from them. My first exposure to many of the resources that I have adopted was from a blog entry authored by a researcher or librarian. My first exposure to Twitter came from blog posts by Connie and another professional mentioned in her blog above, Steve Matthews.

Time is definitely precious, with all of the possible venues for information and engagement cropping up in our real and virtual worlds. If you have to budget time for information gathering, I recommend offering a little shelf-space to some of the fine resources mentioned in this list

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