Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 15, 2010

I Can Find Something, Can I Find IT?

We continue our observation of National Library Week. If you haven’t done so, go to yesterday’s post by scrolling down or clicking HERE, and add your contribution to the list of libraries (real or fictional) for tomorrow’s week-ending wrap-up.

Just a brief point to make today about one function that libraries serve that, at least so far, is not provided by the morass of STUFF that’s online.

Let’s say I decide to have a late mid-life crisis and return to my abandoned career as a scholar of Old English, figuring that with the plethora of stuff online, I can spend 6 months or so boning up on the basic literature, polishing up my vocabulary and refreshing my memory about the grammar and so forth. I could probably accomplish that. There’s an impressive amount of material publicly available. Try it yourself. Pick a search term like “Beowulf.” Depending on which of a hundred search engines you use, and which of a hundred returns you click on, you’ll find more about Beowulf online than you can read in six months, even if you resist the temptation to follow secondary and tertiary-level links inside THOSE links. HERE  is just ONE return from one search.

I’d learn a lot following this course of action. But I’d miss a few things, especially contextual references to current research and authoritative publication. Without that information, I’ll never be more than an informed amateur. The Web is an undifferentiated mass, particularly insofar as that “authoritative” requirement goes. Anyone can post anything. Not all of it is correct, or well-informed, and it certainly isn’t all current.

That’s where libraries and librarians come in. Not all the world’s STUFF is digitized and posted online, and by no means is a lot of knowledge in specialized fields publicly available. Specialized information for recondite fields like Anglo-Saxon literature might be digitized, but often it resides in collections that can be accessed only by special permission, IF one knows that exists at all: a Web search might not reveal its existence. However, this information, along with ditital facsimiles of original manuscripts and limited-circulation journals and reviews ARE something one can retrieve with the help of a good library and librarian.

To generalize from this specific example, each one of us can think of one of our personal interests that are not supported in-depth on the Web in general. Lawyers, scientists, medical professionals, all rely upon such proprietary tools, many of which are open only by subscription, often with fees, and even the most practiced amateur can’t get there without some assistance.

Perhaps someday the currently undisciplined world of digitizing, indexing and search technologies will evolve to that state, but the research disciplines, tools and specialized knowledge are the domain of libraries — public and professional — and we owe them our support.


  1. My interest lies more in visual works than in literary works. Thus, for me, books are far superior to digital media in the sharpness and color quality of their printing of paintings, drawings, engravings, and photographs (or even the half tones of B-W photos). That’s why I prefer books over what I can see on the internet, or in a DVD viewing, whose reproductions I have often found greatly distort what the original work looked like.


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