Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Internet is no substitute for library

The online library catalog is the first place I look when a new book catches my eye. Lake County is fortunate to have a public library system that is tied to library systems in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Our shared library system equates to thousands of books that are readily available.

This week, I moderated a debate between two of our local Toastmasters from club 8731, the Tenacious Talkers. The resolution that was put before them concerned legalization of marijuana -- but it could as easily have concerned the place of libraries in our Internet age. I put forth that idea a couple months ago when we were screening potential topics that could be subject to debate.

Specifically, I wanted our club's debaters to address whether or not the Internet has rendered libraries unneccessary. When I proposed the resolution, I had already formed an opinion that libraries remain vitally important -- even with the Internet.

To begin with, Internet resources are vast but are not automatically credible. As Danielle Maestretti points out in the July/August issue of Utne, "A Google search for 'nuclear energy' won't give you a well-rounded group of sources that are pro, con, and neutral -- it will return a Wikipedia page at #1; the slick, 'clean energy' home page of a nuclear industry lobbying firm at #2; and a cheesy-looking U.S. Department of Energy informational site for kids at #3. You have to get past three or four pages of results in order to get a taste of the surging debate that swirls around this topic" (www.utne.com/Media/Literacy-Information-Overload.aspx).

My co-worker Mandy Feder made a similar observation about an Internet search on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One of the higher-ranked sites was promoted as "a valuable resource for teachers and students alike." This site was actually created by a white supremacist group. A superficial, uncritical reading could accept the site's political rhetoric as documented historical "fact."

In order to make effective use of a resource as vast as the Internet, we need to develop the vital skill of critically analyzing sources -- and who better to guide us than public librarians -- reference and information professionals who have the responsibility for connecting people with the information they need.

Librarians put a lot of thought into acquisition and weeding of materials in public library collections. Shortly after I began to organize a lending library for the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, I began to research the policies at various public and school libraries. I now have a much greater appreciation for the meticulous care that goes into screening credible, timely resources that reflect the unique character of the community a library serves.

On the other side of the coin, I watched school libraries in the Konocti district be systematically weeded of materials that were out of date. The items to be weeded came before the school board for a vote, with a library professional providing a detailed explanation of why each item's removal was advised.

Some library policies state that members of the public react negatively to the "weeding" of books. That reaction would be understandable if it was an attempt at censorship that was imposed by an outside agency. Weeding, however, is something very different. It's part of a library collection's evolution as it keeps pace with the needs of the community.

Decommissioned books frequently continue to enrich the community. Some of my best finds at Friends of the Library book sales began as library books that were later marked with the "Discard" stamp. My very first adult chapter book, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, was a library discard that was given to me by Beth Volkman, the Calistoga Junior/Senior High School librarian.

The amount of care that a librarian devotes to maintenance of a collection can never be equaled by the Internet, where search rankings are bought and paid for. There is no equivalent of "weeding" for Internet search results, to ensure that the results you get for "Martin Luther King" are accurate historical resources.

Best of all when making the case for libraries, I don't have to abandon the Internet. Thanks to computer terminals and Wifi capability at our local libraries, our access to the Internet is, if anything, expanded. The same cannot be said of the Internet, where current books are only partially accessible. In order to read all of a book you've found via Google search, you will likely have to purchase a copy -- or place a library hold.

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