Thousands of web pages compare the advantages and disadvantages of using the Internet instead of a traditional library. No-one disagrees that about the fact that a bank of computers looks very impressive, and gives even the most decrepid of libraries a contemporary patina. However, it is appropriate to consider an analogy with Banjo Pattersons Mulga Bills Bicycle. Fancy machinery is no guarantee of success in travelling along the Information Superhighway.
Unfortunately, one of the great urban myths in our schools and the wider community is that "everything" is available on the Internet. In a significant number of schools, there have been reductions in library funding, in favour of increasing the number of computers in libraries. Aging reference books are not being replaced, due to the flawed rationale that Internet access has negated the necessity for such print material.
There can be no denial that the Internet can be an incredibly powerful research aid when used by those with an awareness of advanced search techniques. The value of the Internet as a communication tool is beyond dispute. However, it can also be a time-consuming, frustrating, or misleading reference source. The oft-cited advantages of using the Internet for research purposes regularly include:
- The ability to access the very latest information.
- Being able to communicate directly with subject experts by email.
- Twenty-four hour access, 7 days a week, 364 days a year.
- Its interactivity makes it enjoyable to use.
However, when these advantages are weighed against some of the disadvantages, it rapidly becomes apparent that the net is not the universal solution to educational information needs. Consider:
SIZE OF THE INTERNET
There are over 4 billion unique, publicly accessible web pages. A study conducted in 2000 by the School of Information Management and Systems of the University of California, Berkeley ("How Much Information") found that 1.5 billion gigabytes of content are produced each year.
Only 6% of web sites have educational content, according to Maureen Henninger, author of Dont just surf the net: Effective research strategies (UNSW Press). Compare this with the average school librarys reference collection. Every resource has been selected by an educational professional, on the basis of its contribution to teaching and learning.
According to Search Engine Watch, the organisation that constantly monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of online location tools, Google provides the best performance. However, even the mighty Google has indexed a mere 18% of the known world wide web. It has been estimated that the unknown content, buried in the Deep Web, may be up to three times the volume of the Surface Web with which most users are familiar. Recently, the "Dark Web" has been identified - documents which are impossible to index, even with the lastest innovations in technology. It is suspected that this is where most of the "good stuff" resides. Included here are the paid-only access sites; databases of full-text articles.
The school library does not attempt to compete with the Internet in terms of volume, but in even the most modest collection, every resource has been critically assessed, catalogued and is easy to locate - and on open access.
CONTENT OF WEB SITES
There is no quality control", and anyone with even the most basic computer skills is able to produce a slick digital document.
An alarming number of web sites are parodies, or hate sites, heavily biased or simply non-authoritive. In addition, there are an increasing number of hoax sites whose sole purpose is to mislead.
In a recent informal survey of Year 7 students, it was found that nearly 60% of the students could not differentiate between a news item and an advertisement on an authentic newspaper page. Can the average student differentiate between the factual or otherwise on the Internet, let alone locate them?
Purpose of Web Pages
The glossy parody whitehouse.org website has an almost identical URL to that of whitehouse.gov , the official US Presidential web site. However, students being much more familiar with the "com" suffix used with URLs may inadvertantly access whitehouse.com. [WARNING: the last link opens a sexually explicit page of graphics.]
Other parodies include http://home.inreach.com/kumbach/velcro.html , which provides statistics on the failure of the velcro crop, complete with production figures and graphs. The Onion has an appearance similar to many tabloid newspaper sites. Its layout is so 'authentic' that it nearly generated an 'incident' between the government of China and the US.
Currency of Web Pages
One of the many touted benefits of using the Internet for research includes the ability to access the latest information on current topics. Consider the facts that firstly, nobody is responsible for removing outdated information from old web sites. In the areas of technology and medicene in particular, ongoing research results in rapid changes in the 'known facts'. At the library, information that has been superceded is ideally removed.
Secondly, the lack of "quality control" means that information available via the Internet can be misleading, incorrect or just plain dangerous. Apart from sites that may contain information obviously explosive in nature, incorrect information has even lead to death. There have been a number of cases where cancer suffers turned to the Internet for non-medical cures. But the mis-placed trust in Internet-based information is not restricted to the young or the uneducated. There is also the case of the doctor who fatally overdosed his patient after checking the 'facts' on a website.
The materials available to members of school communities in the library are assessed for such factors as gender neutrality, lack of political bias, and currency before their purchase and inclusion in the library. Even prior to publication, books and other reference material undergoes a rigorous review process - so librarians make their selections from peer or expert-reviewed material.
Undesirable Material on the 'net
Filtering software such as Net Nanny is in use at a number of schools. Unfortunately, these computer programs block many educationally valid web sites by creating black lists. These include information on breast cancer (due to the keyword block on the word breast) and adult education (adult being considered a risky proposition). In some instances, the word library was thought to lead potentially to online video libraries with offensive content. Conversely, the use of white lists (where content is preselected for access by software) creates a very restricted fare. No-one could possibly anticipate the information needs of the school community, and adequately prepare a sufficiently comprehensive listing of appropriate websites let alone constantly update these for new sites or changes in information needs.
Regardless of the type of filtering used, there is no foolproof method of preventing access to net nasties. However, the resources of the schools library are unlikely to provide any unexpected offensive material. A school library user can confidently open a book on geography without being confronted by explicit graphics of behaviour that wouldnt be tolerated behind the bike shed, let alone in the middle of a class. Although such material constitutes less than 1% (Henninger again) of the content of the Internet, it is specifically designed to be overtly intrusive.
Access to a schools atlas will not provide an opportunity for the student to undertake online gaming. The librarys collection of computing books does not include an invitation to download music or post their name in the online guest book.
In addition, the list of Internet-related crime is growing. Whilst the "stranger danger" message continues to be transmitted, it would seem that many are ignoring the warnings.
Students enjoy using computers and the Internet. The standard printed book will never be able to compete with the interactivity provided by digitally delivered information. On the other hand, students are not distracted from the content by a presentation that adds little to value of the information. However, the possibility of either networking reference software, or subscribing to online databases, may address some of these issues.
ACCESS TO DOCUMENTS
Instability of Sources
A number of authorities cite the average age of a single web page as 75 days. This makes lesson preparation something of a challenge for teachers. For students including Internet based information in a research assignment, it creates a degree of risk, should the assessor choose to check biographical references.
In school libraries, this does not normally generate a problem despite the occasional loss of a book or journal.
Payment for Access
Much of the educational content of the Internet is available only through paid subscription. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica is online - at a cost. A search for Osama Bin Laden reveals a simple paragraph, with an invitation to view more by paying for a 'premium service'. See http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=368438&tocid=0&query=bin%20laden.
Full-text databases such as Nexis provide electronically searchable journal articles, to which subscription to the print version would be prohibitive in both cost and storage. Media sites (such as Sydney Morning Herald Online) provide only part of the text from a selection of news items as they are a commercial enterprise, they expect payment for their content. Although the schools library may not be as extensive in scope, access is available without charge.
Biased Promotion of Sources
When finding documents on the Internet with a locating tool, students often favour vehicles such as Yahoo. Unfortunately, many naive 'net users do not realise that the first 300 results may very well be presented due to a paid listing - the purchase of premium keywords being not uncommon. Compare this to the school library, where all resources are equally accessible. When browsing the shelves or the catalogue, the library user is presented with all the relevant resources given equal priority.
Quantity of Access
Although the Internet is constantly available, twenty four hours a day throughout the year, consider that television also provides this level of service. Interestingly, there is a higher level of educational content available on the humble box although no school would recommend unsupervised, prolonged viewing of this medium. Although access to the schools library may be restricted to school core hours, the teacher librarian is able to refer students to resources in the local public library. Further, resources not held within the physical confines of the school can be acquired by interlibrary loan.
The Internet cannot compete in this regard. If it's not "there", then there is no further recourse - except to a library.
Schools are learning institutions, staffed by qualified professionals. If a member of the school community is unable to locate information in the library, the teacher librarian is available, able, and delighted to assist. Help is on hand for students who may be having difficulty interpreting assignment requirements as teacher librarians have formal qualifications in both teaching and librarianship. No-one hears your screams in cyberspace. Contacting experts via email is no guarentee of a timely reply.
Scaffolding Literacy Skills
The links between reading, vocabulary expansion and learning are well known. By providing a range of recreational reading material of an age-appropriate, and cognitive-levelled nature, the school library serves a number of outcomes. The range of fiction material available on the Internet is limited in scope and availability.
Engagement with the Learning Process
Research conducted via the Internet allows a "cut and paste" paradigm, whereby students do not engage effectively with the text. Although the opportunity exists for note-making, the ease with which large chunks of text can be formed into a collage of information leads the less committed student to shortcuts - where wordage is not proportional to learning. If the student accessed the authoritative, current and accessable information via material held in the school's library, there is a greater chance that a more valid educational outcome would be reached.
The school library provides instruction not only on locating material in any library, but also effective use of information. These skills not only support post-compulsory education, but also life-long learning.
THE PLACE AND PURPOSE OF LIBRARIES IN SOCIETY
Carl Sagan commented in his Cosmos series:
"The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries."
Libraries are not in competition with the Internet. Information professionals acknowledge that it is an important source of information - but it is only one of the weapons in the arsenal against ignorance. Whilst the Internet undoubtedly provides a useful adjunct to any library, it cannot replace the services or information delivered by more traditional means. This is nowhere more apparent than in our school libraries.
Harold Howe, former U.S. Commissioner of Education, stated that what a school thinks about its library is a measure of what it thinks about education. . How does yours stack up? Does your library have qualified staff, a budget that caters not only to technology but also to the continual updating of book stock and locally held resources? Is the library flexibly scheduled so that users are able to access it? These are critical questions. Ironically, the answers will not be found in any book ... or even on the Internet.