Leader: A Google-eyed view of the world

The web's instant access to good, bad and unfiltered data means we need libraries, and librarians' expertise, now more than ever

June 5, 2008

The University of Wisconsin at Madison boasts a very imposing library. It was founded in 1848, the same year as they established the state but way before they got around to housing the politicians. "See to the stacks - the capitol can wait," must have been the cry echoing across the plains. Would the descendants of 19th-century Midwesterners feel such an urgent affinity? They might share their ancestors' view of government in the proper order of things. But libraries - who needs them when vast online pools of knowledge are a click away?

Universities still respect the centrality of libraries as the learning heart of an institution, even as schools seem to have forgotten it - as Tara Brabazon discusses on our website, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, in her latest column, "We can't let schools become book-free zone" (go to http://tinyurl.com/4d5xht). Leicester has a spanking new library, Aberdeen has plans for an even grander one and the University of East London was proud enough of its repository to invite the Queen to frank a few books.

But it is undeniable that as the world has discovered the web, it has neglected to renew its library card. Although many campus libraries are visited frequently, book loans are declining. And despite perceptions to the contrary, this is not simply a generational phenomenon. As journals and other sources of information migrate online, academics no longer have the need to visit in person. Even the custodians of the stacks have been seduced. Last month we conducted a survey of university libraries. The first resort of the majority of librarians in answer to a query? A search engine. And who can blame them? The web is a far faster, more catholic and more efficient tool than a battery of reference books.

Does it matter? Yes, it does. Information online is catalogued only by popularity. It is unmediated by the specialist knowledge of librarians, and it lacks the sanction of a bouncer who knows how to throw out the trash before the place succumbs to a trashing. Not all views are equal and not everyone's opinion deserves respect. But the web's demotic reduction pretends otherwise. That is a difficult lesson to unlearn for a younger generation that has not been taught how to discriminate. If students are to become scholars, they need their libraries and their librarians.

More insidious is the assumption that easy retrieval of knowledge is synonymous with its comprehension. The promiscuous nature of online searching allows an acquaintance with vast numbers of sources. Arguably, this can be as stimulating and rewarding as browsing serendipitously among the bookshelves. But to students unaware of any hierarchy of esteem and used to grazing rather than drilling, an easy association with so much information must be dangerously comforting. Cut and paste - but why interrogate?

In deference, or surrender, to the Google generation, a reference from the film Naked may make the point better than any insight from Bourdieu:

Louise: "How did you get here?"

Johnny: "Well, basically, there was this little dot, right? And the dot went bang and the bang expanded. Energy formed into matter, matter cooled, matter lived, the amoeba to fish, to fish to fowl, to fowl to frog, to frog to mammal, the mammal to monkey, to monkey to man, amo amas amat, quid pro quo, memento mori, ad infinitum, sprinkle on a little bit of grated cheese and leave under the grill till Doomsday." Amen and discuss.

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