This basic architecture of the web and its ethic of openness results from the fact that it was not developed under commercial auspices. Most people know the story of how Tim Berners-Lee, working at CERN in Switzerland, developed the technology that led to the World Wide Web in the late 1980s. He decided to put it into the public domain rather than commercialize it and become a billionaire. It was this technology that led to cheap browsers and the universal Internet.
The issues of copyright law parallel earlier cases involving what could be photocopied or dubbed to tapes and records. Commercial radio stations pay a small fee every time a record is played because our powerful music industry got Congress to pass a law requiring royalties. Libraries in Britain pay a tiny fee to the author every time a book is checked out.
There are many possible paths, and there is enormous pulling and hauling as magazines and newspapers and web sites try to capture revenue. As the publisher of a small magazine, I’m sympathetic to the idea that there be a way to charge people for web access to articles for which they otherwise need a paid subscription to read. But as an intellectual I’m very sympathetic to the idea of the free dissemination of information. I’m also worried that as this whole thing shakes out, a few mega-companies, like Google, will have much too much power as gatekeepers.
The Internet is a mixed blessing in how we use it. It makes it easy to be extremely diligent as a researcher—or extremely facile. I worry about students—I hope not Oberlin students—who have never had the experience of researching a term paper the old-fashioned way at the library (browsing in the stacks, pulling out and flipping through books, finding bibliographies, following the trail of footnotes, writing it all down on 4 x 6-inch cards, and experiencing the joy of serendipitous discovery) and are too reliant instead on Google.
When you walk into a physical reference room and look around, you see all the possible tools for doing a piece of research. It is a bit humbling, but at least you get a snapshot of the whole. Unless you are exceptionally diligent and exceptionally committed to learning how to learn and becoming information literate, and unless institutions like Oberlin make information literacy as much a part of your core education as English composition or basic math, the Internet can make you lazy.
Some fledgling journalists I know seem to think journalism is surfing the web, or commenting on each other’s postings. But if all you do is look at secondary stuff on the web, you will never cultivate a source and become a true journalist. Put away the computer, pick up the phone, and make a date to go see somebody.
As a teacher, I’ve had the experience of having a student Google 10 or 20 sources and throw them into a term paper, without taking the trouble to analyze the fact that the sources contradict each other.
Sometimes I think that students ought to avoid using the computer in research until they have mastered the skills of doing research the old-fashioned way.
More than a decade ago, the novelist Nicholson Baker became distressed and obsessed with the fact that libraries were replacing old-fashioned card catalogs with computer terminals. He argued that the random encounters of the card catalog were richer and more edifying than the searches you could do on a computer. I do agree that there is no good cyber substitute for rummaging in the stacks. If you’re a good speed-reader, you can thumb through 200 or 300 books in one sitting, something you just can’t do on a computer.
When we started The American Prospect 16 years ago, we paid a call on two heroes of ours to seek their blessing—John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Everywhere in Schlesinger’s office, violating every rule about how you’re supposed to treat a library book, were books piled up open, spine on top of spine. In every square foot of space in his office were piles of books, 15 or 20 books high. This was his system of keeping track of his research. If you’ve ever done a piece of historical research in which you are using some of the same sources that Schlesinger has used, you realize with a degree of awe that he has gotten there first and has mined every single good quote that you might want to quote from the primary sources. And the reason is because he’s just an obsessive, intensive reader. Now I suppose you could do that on the Internet, but I was quite charmed to see the way Arthur Schlesinger works. And he doesn’t do it with research assistants, he reads the stuff himself.
I confess, I’m a bit of book fetishist. But I think we book fetishists have to stick together. I recently prepared a lecture, and as a source I pulled out a book that I have long admired, one that I reviewed about 20 years ago for the New Republic—Robert Heilbroner’s The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. And I was absolutely charmed when I pulled the book down from my bookshelf to find that in preparing to write that review essay two decades ago I had sat down and taken about 13 pages of single-spaced notes on the book. Those pages were still there, folded into the book. I know I don’t do that anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m too busy being an editor, but you wonder in an age where everything is cut and paste and point and click if enough students read books with that kind of focus and that kind of diligence.
On the other hand, if you’re an Oberlin student (or otherwise a very well-motivated student), it’s certainly the case that the Inter-net makes it a lot easier to be a truly diligent researcher and truly diligent seeker of knowledge. So like any other technology, the Internet is a tool. There’s no going back, and we need to decide whether we are going to master it, or it master us. It may be, perhaps, that there will be fewer books, or that some books will be converted to an electronic format only, but there’s certainly no substitute for libraries, and to a great degree I think there’s no substitute for books.
My particular Internet nemesis is e-mail. E-mail, as far as I’m concerned, stands for evil. The stuff is like kudzu, and I don’t just mean the spam—the penis enlargements and the Nigerian banking scams. I mean regular ordinary e-mail that we send and receive, day in and day out, with colleagues. It’s appalling that I can send a message and that within a minute, a message will come back. What do these people do all day? For anyone prone to a short attention span or distractibility or procrastination (and which of us isn’t?), e-mail is the devil’s instrument. At the drop of a hat you can check your e-mail and delude yourself into thinking you’re doing something productive.
Imagine if the telephone had been invented after e-mail, instead of a hundred years before it. People would say, ‘Wow, isn’t this fantastic? You can communicate in real time, you can listen to tonality, you can go back and forth, and not have to wait for an e-mail reply!’
And how many times have you been on a phone call and heard a faint click, click, click in the background? Multi-tasking and e-mail excess feed on each other, because the damn stuff piles up. E-mail flatters us into thinking that we can competently manage more relationships than any human being can conduct, and so every relationship gets short shrift.
On the other hand, the Internet is the ultimate revenge of print on video. You read on a video screen, a screen invented for watching TV. When my kids were teenagers I worried that my generation would be the last that practiced the art of correspondence, and then along came e-mail. So this is the good side of e-mail. The letters are short—they’re not like old-fashioned correspondence—but at least people are using video terminals to write. Besides, if there’s anything that makes us idiots, it’s television, not the Internet.
With all of the distractibility that the Internet contributes to, we need nothing so much as a quiet refuge in which the phone doesn’t ring and the e-mail doesn’t beckon. Libraries play that role.
These different media cross-fertilize each other in ways that are paradoxical, counterintuitive, and hard to predict. Nunberg points out that the whole history of media is not a history of new media displacing old media, but new media co-existing alongside or on top of old media. He quotes an oft-cited passage from The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which an Enlightenment scholar with a book is walking past the cathedral. He holds up the book and says, “Ceci tuera cela.” (This will kill that.) But the Enlighten-ment and books did not drive out religion, just as newspapers did not drive out magazines or books, just as radio did not drive out television, just as home video did not drive out movies, just as presumably the Internet will not drive out books.
Some printed materials, says Nunburg, serve no important cultural function. Airline schedules, tax tables, telephone directories—these are just as easily disseminated online with no cost to our cultural patrimony. But books are different. It is unlikely, writes Nunberg, that virtual reality will soon be developed to the point “of rendering Pat the Bunny in all its sensory complexity.” In short, he concludes, the bookless library is a very unlikely prospect, just like the paperless office that we kept hearing about two decades ago. The Internet will not kill books, but it will radically change the terms of engagement, and we need to be vigilant.
When I was an undergraduate, I thought, mistakenly, of the library as a passive place. It held a collection of books, journals, and primary source materials. It was a place to read books on re-serve, get some quiet time to work on papers, and once in a while consult with a reference librarian. Nobody taught me a course on research methods. Today, however, with all this new technology, the library plays a far more active role in teaching students how to be learners. Much of the Internet promotes self-instruction; students are encouraged to use built-in features of software so that costly humans will be out of the chain and the whole process will be automated. Click on Tools, then click on Options, then click on Advanced, and so on. But unless someone is proposing to entirely remove human mentors from the process of learning—a proposition far more radical than even the idea of the bookless library—learners will always require teachers. More than ever, it seems to me, librarians are in the role of teachers, and Oberlin is doing better than most.
Happily, Oberlin is at the forefront of colleges and universities that are making systematic efforts to emphasize good research habits in a new technological environment. Reference librarians at Oberlin work with professors to make sure that research skills and information literacy are built into the process of getting an Oberlin education, so that the new database technologies encourage students to be thorough and systematic learners, not superficial ones.
The moral of the story is that in a digital age, physical libraries are more important than ever. For where else are we going to get the repository of expertise to enable students to take advantage of all of the new technologies, rather than just drowning in it or just surfing on it? Oberlin, as a community of learners and social values, is an antidote to the fragmentation and speed-up that is the dark side of the Internet age. l