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Library !
Now that most information is just a click away, traditional libraries are refashioning themselves for the digital age.
by Marty Munson
illustrations by RANDALL ENDS


These days, practically everything we could possibly need is right at our fingertips thanks to the Internet. More than ever, we're using the Internet not just to swap pictures of the grandkids, browse ebay, buy the latest Harry Potter from Amazon, or download MP3 files from Napster. For many of us, the 'Net has supplanted newspapers (perhaps even TV) as a primary source for information. Got a health problem? Find some answers at WebMD. Dealing with being dumped? BreakupGirl knows your pain. Fancy yourself a day-trader? Dozens of sites clue you in to every flutter of the market. For every question in our lives, there's a Web site with an answer.

The Internet's easy accessibility for information consumers makes it the most egalitarian communications tool to come along since the printing press and television. But not only does the Internet pipe data right to our desks, it has also changed the way we think about information itself. We no longer see information as something static, trapped on paper in books and journals, tucked away in hushed libraries or bookstores, accessibleonly when we walk through the door. Today information is fluid, a rushing tide, continually updated, and available--instantly--at the click of a mouse.

This new cultural shift has had a major impact not only on everyday living but in the more rarefied realm of educational research. There's no question that the research process is much less a chore now that anyone can access the Internet or library databases in the wee hours, and while thousands, maybe millions, of other people use them, too. Excellent works that once gathered dust are now considered de rigueur.

"There's a standard reference called American History and Life," says Oberlin history Professor Gary Kornblith. "You used to have to go physically from the index into the volumes, and no one I knew used it on a regular basis. Now it's electronic, and I wouldn't think of going very far without consulting it."

The promise of the Internet is astounding, yet the move away from a books-and-mortar library to a digital model is "a double-edged sword," cautions Rick Rubin '71, acting director of the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State University. "Technology enables lazy people to be lazier and enables diligent people to get more done," adds Troy Williams, CEO of Questia Media, Inc., a Houston-based company that's building a searchable database of classic literature. Scott Bennett '60, director of libraries at Yale University, echoes the idea: "Technology isn't changing what people do. It's changing the convenience with which they do it."

For as seductive as the new "cybrary" is, it does raise some troubling questions. For instance, does the point-and-click culture mistake information-gathering for knowledge acquisition--and do quick-clicking folks abandon the process too soon to get any meaningful results? Can people sit at home and sift through the Web without falling prey to bad information dressed up as nice-looking Web sites? Finally, does this new accessibility make the physical library itself obsolete? Although it will be years before the Internet's impact is fully understood, it's clear that digitization will have profound effects on the quality of research and education.


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