Why you need both libraries and the Internet

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Many libraries – not just public libraries but ones that serve schools, other educational bodies, and commercial and industrial companies – have closed in recent years because the people who pay for them have taken the line that “It’s all on the Internet” and so there is no need to keep books on shelves. I regard this as a mistaken view that is based on general ignorance of how the Internet works and how it is accessed.

For one thing, it’s not “all on the Internet”. OK – there is a vast amount of information that can be found there, but until every piece of text that has ever appeared in print (or, indeed, manuscript) has been digitized and made available via an Internet search, it won’t “all be there”.

Another huge problem with the Internet is that there is far more there than most people will find useful. The fact that it is possible with anyone with anything to say to get it published on a website means that millions of people have done precisely that, and a large proportion of what they have produced is (IMHO) complete and utter trash.

Somebody once said that the Internet is like the largest library in the world, but with all the books thrown on the floor. In other words, the information is there but you’ll have a huge problem finding what you want.

You do have tools at hand to help you find things, namely search engines such as Google and Yahoo, but they are by no means the whole answer. When you enter your search terms you are likely to be presented with thousands of hits, but how do you know which are going to be useful and which are not? Some of the pages and sites to which you can link will be pure advertising, some will be put together by people who are presenting a very one-sided view of the topic, and only a small proportion are likely to give you impartial and well-organised information. There are tricks that website owners can use for getting search engines to present their sites on the opening pages, so the user cannot be sure that what they see is reliable information or the result of search engine manipulation.

On the other hand, libraries contain material that has been specially selected by trained and experienced professionals, and presented in ways that make it easy to find. A book – to take the average library’s most obvious resource – does not get published unless it has been through a rigorous process of checking, organisation and approval. It is a package of information that is designed to make access as easy as possible. You can flip through the pages in a matter of seconds to get a feel for whether it is likely to be what you are looking for, and it is probably indexed in a way that allows you to get to exactly the right place with little delay.

It would be wrong (and silly) of me to say that a book is always the answer and a web page is never so. However, what I am saying is that they both have their advantages and there is room for both in the world of information gathering. The great thing about public libraries is that they have both – there are books on shelves to browse and computers with Internet access for web surfing and finding out the latest information.

So why make do with only half the picture? Go to the library and get the lot!