By Roy M. Mersky and Rhonda Hankins
Special to the Austin American-Statesman, Sunday, May 23, 2004
Reprinted with the authors' permission
If you believe all you read in newspapers and popular magazines, you might conclude that the advent of easy-to-use search engines and the phenomenal growth of the World Wide Web mean that libraries and librarians will soon go the way of the dodo bird.
No one can deny that technology has created greater access to information than ever before and that anyone who uses the Web may be considered a research specialist. In fact, at no time in history has information been so accessible in the United States to so many people. It is no exaggeration to suggest that high-speed Internet connections and the abundance of material freely available will eventually revolutionize our thinking about the world, information and the role of libraries and the people who work in them.
Technology has already radically changed the way librarians define themselves and the way they think about their jobs and the institutions where they work. Like many other former "library schools," for example, the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Texas has changed its name to the "School of Information." Many of its students pursue a master's of information science degree in hopes of becoming "information specialists," rather than librarians. The difference is not merely semantic. The new terminology reflects substantive changes in the way information is accessed, the way it is delivered and the new role of information professionals in society.
Many basic questions can be satisfactorily answered by conducting a quick search in a popular search engine such as Google, AltaVista or AlltheWeb.com. Popular search engines can't be beat for finding a simple fact such as the capital of Botswana, the price of a New York Yankees baseball cap or the formula to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius.
For more substantive or obscure research questions, though, searches on standard search engines may be frustrating and often can produce misleading results. There may be tens of thousands of answers to a query, for example, with no one URL standing out as having appropriate or comprehensive information. Certain kinds of information — such as audio or image files — are not readily accessible through popular search engines, so seeking something other than text documents can be futile. Popular search engine results lean toward superficial or commercial results, and to be satisfied with those answers is to do a disservice to scholarship and to fail at deeper thinking on issues.
Information professionals, however, can teach people how to go beyond popular search engines and identify the best resources available on the Web. Information professionals know that popular search engines access only a fraction of the Web — Google, for example, accesses fewer than 6 billion of the 600 billion pages of information available electronically. To limit a search to Google means to settle for less than 1 percent of the total information available electronically.
How to access those additional 595 billion Web pages, though, is not obvious to the casual Web surfer. Professionals trained to access information not only have the key to unlock the "deep Web" resources, they also have the teaching skills to share that knowledge effectively with others.
Even so, no single search engine can find all of the relevant information on a given topic. The Web is just too big to be corralled so easily. Information professionals often have specialized knowledge of a particular subject area that enables them to home in on the most appropriate search engine and make more successful searches. Information professionals also know how to ask questions to narrow a search and formulate appropriate queries to get the best possible results.
Information professionals have a tremendous respect for the vast wealth of knowledge available in good, old-fashioned books. So when the Internet doesn't provide the best answer, the information professional knows alternative resources. Without paying hefty subscription fees, for example, archives of newspaper articles are not readily available. Even when paying subscription fees, a searcher is unlikely to find a newspaper article earlier than the 1960s — you still have to go to microfilm or microfiche to get that kind of material.
As technology continues to improve and become more affordable to more people, it is likely that traditional library services will be transformed. Services such as checking out laptops to patrons or providing electronic tables of contents to subscribers have already become standard at UT's Jamail Center for Legal Research.
Technological developments will continue to create new opportunities for information professionals to enhance access. Libraries, for example, have played a leading role in digitizing information formerly available only in print. The digitization of the Texas constitutions by the Jamail Center is a case in point (tarlton.law.utexas.edu/constitutions/). These constitutions are fully accessible in a user-friendly online format, thanks to the efforts and ingenuity of librarians at the Jamail Center. Rare books and archives have also become more accessible to the public by library-orchestrated digitization projects.
Highlights of the rare book collection at the Jamail Center, for example, are available to the public at tarlton.law.utexas.edu/rare/dictsweb.html, whereas a decade ago only people who had the time to visit the Jamail Center were able to see these materials. Though time and budgetary constraints prohibit digitizing a massive amount of specialized material, libraries around the world are offering more and more electronically and opening up worlds of literature heretofore seen only by scholars. The Harry Ransom Center, for example, has digitized its copy of the Gutenberg Bible so that for the first time in its history anyone with access to the Internet can "flip through" the pages of this monumental work at www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/gutenberg.
All of this is to suggest that libraries and librarians are changing both what they do and how they do it. Even so, the traditional role of reference is unlikely to simply disappear. People will still depend on librarians — whatever their titles — to assist in narrowing down a search query and identifying reputable sources.
It is an exciting time to be part of the information profession. The dodo bird should have been so fortunate.
Mersky, a UT law professor, is director of the Jamail Center for Legal Research. Hankins, a master's candidate at UT's School of Information, worked for four years at the Jamail Center.