Can the internet substitute for library searches?

Bill Purves purves at MUDDCS.CS.HMC.EDU
Sat Oct 5 14:39:37 EST 1996

Rob Alba finds himself concerned:

>I find myself a bit concerned about a trend I am seeing more and more
>frequently on the discussion lists I subscribe to.  What I
>notice happening is students sending very basic "topical" queries to
>appropriate discussion lists in place of (I believe) the "old fashion"
>library search. 
>I guess I have 4 questions:  First, have others noticed such a trend?

Yes.  The number is in fact not great (in my opinion) and I don't see a
sharp acceleration.  A couple of years ago I saw a query from one of my
advisees, arising from a colleague's class.  My initial reaction was one of
horror and embarrassment (omigod... what will people think of my
department?).  In fact, she was treated seriously and politely and got some
very useful input she would not likely have gotten by the old fashioned
route.  And she fed it into the class via the research report she was preparing.

No doubt, we are seeing some questions that should not be asked via the
Internet. Ones that make some of us want to snap at the student for not
RTFM, as the computer scientists say.  However, I would urge faculty types
*not* to snap back.  If something is so unreasonably low level as to be
irritating, ignore it. Consider replying seriously.  I usually send e-mail
(trying to answer the question or deal with it somehow) directly to those
whose questions seem inappropriate to the net, and I have often been pleased
and surprised by the results.  There is often a reasonable story behind what
seems like an inappropriate question.  One thing I particularly like about
plant-ed is the presence of some people who take the time to send truly
wonderful answers to questions, often aimed at getting the inquirer to work
out the answer rather than being spoon-fed it.

However, I would also urge faculty members to stress to their students that
some questions ARE inappropriate (use your textook, or whatever!).  Point
out that some questions will irritate other busy people and that they can
reflect badly upon the student and the institution.  But, as I write these
words, I must also remember that drawing the line between the reasonable and
the unreasonable is difficult to impossible.  Think of an inappropriate
question, and then think hard to be sure it's not a better or more
appropriate question than you think...

>Second, assuming this trend exists, do you think the value of getting
>students to use the internet for research purposes sufficiently great
>enough to risk a decrease in our future students' ability to use library
>resources efficiently/effectively?

Absolutely, IMO.  The Internet is undoubtedly a mixed blessing, but a
blessing it is.  A student who can't use it is missing out on an important
resource, as is a scholar who can't use it.  (Here I am thinking of the
Internet in its broadest sense.)  Sure, there's a risk.  An acceptable risk.

>my third question is this:
>How does one successfully convey to students the value of using the
>internet without (mis)leading them to believe that libraries are no longer

Tell 'em ;-)   Of course, one can't just tell 'em and expect 'em to believe
it. An axiom in my view of learning is that people learn only what THEY want
to learn, and they learn it only when they WANT to learn it--i.e., when they
NEED it.  I think it's been true for many years that most people don't learn
to use libraries and "the literature" unless they become professionals and
realize that they're dead meat without the literature.  Sure, we may go to
great lengths to teach them how to use libraries as we (may) do, but it
doesn't stick with most.
They CAN learn later, and they WILL if they need to.

> My fourth question is tangential:  Do you think the internet
>will eventually make libraries obsolete?

SOMETHING wil make them obsolete.  Writing made the oral tradition obsolete,
and there have been technical revolutions in writing/preservation in the
past.  They won't become obsolete before the bulk of their contents are
reliably available by another technology.  Some may become more like
museums.  Most people and probably the great majority of scientists WILL
stop using them. But when?  (Note that this flight of fancy is meant as a
serious answer to a serious question.)

I think Rob's questions are very good ones, and I look forward to seeing
other people's impressions.  As Rob said, the opinions of both faculty and


Professor Emeritus of Biology
Harvey Mudd college

William K. Purves                   phone: 909.626.4859
2817 N. Mountain Avenue        voice mail: 909.621.8021
Claremont, CA 91711-1550              fax: 909.626.7030
USA                         e-mail: Bill_Purves at

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