Researchers' web use could make libraries redundant

Study says university collections are not meeting the needs of the Google generation, writes John Gill

January 17, 2008

Libraries could be "swept aside by history" if they continue to fall behind the internet in addressing the changing demands of researchers and students, a new report has cautioned.

In an age when the internet is king, say the study's authors, university libraries are not keeping pace with change. They recommend that libraries foster closer links with internet search engines.

"Librarians need to make things simpler or consumers will simply vote with their feet. At worst ... findings suggest that massive failure is taking place at the library terminal and, despite the high investment, library systems are not delivering," they write. The report is based on a study by University College London's Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research. It was commissioned by the British Library and Joint Information Systems Committee.

The study examines the concept of the so-called Google generation - those born after 1993 with no recollection of life before the web - and it asks how future researchers will access resources in five to ten years' time.

The analysis identifies evidence of new research behaviour linked to the rise of online resources, including "power browsing", where researchers quickly "scan and flick" their way through a number of titles, looking "horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins".

"It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense," the report says.

Another challenge is the ease of access offered by the internet and the need to match it.

The report says: "Any barrier to access - be that additional log-ins, payment or hard copy - are too high for most consumers, and information behind those barriers will increasingly be ignored."

Arguing the case for tighter integration of library content with commercial search engines, it says: "The business case for libraries is beginning to look weak to many outside the profession."

The report continues: "Libraries offer an enormous range of valuable publisher content to their users but often through systems that seem far less intuitive than the ubiquitous search engine. So librarians need to gain a much better understanding of how people actually behave in a virtual library setting.

"Without this, there is a real danger that the library professional will be swept aside by history, as relevant to 21st-century Britain as the hot metal typesetter.

"The popularity of desktop access to electronic journals is already immense, and use is growing very rapidly as publishers open up their content to be indexed by Google and other search engines."

The study notes a number of "startling" differences between age groups in their approach to finding articles.

It elaborates: "This suggests that the shift away from the physical to the virtual library will accelerate very rapidly, and that tools such as Google Scholar will be increasingly a real and present threat to the library as an institution."

While acknowledging the relevance of age, the report also debunks the myth that the Google generation has exclusive ownership of the web, or that older academics have little interest in what the internet can offer.

It says: "Focusing on the Google generation phenomenon is a form of escapism from the real issues that libraries are facing now. The virtual scholar, the rise of e-books, Google and declining status of the librarian: the future is now."

Ian Rowlands, a senior lecturer at UCL's School of Library, Archive and Information Studies and one of the report's authors, said libraries are now operating in a "very complex information landscape".

He added: "Whatever happens, libraries are sitting on a large print legacy, and that isn't going to go away."

"The web is my first port of call"

Forty-two-year-old PhD student Pat Parslow is proof that new research methods, based on what the internet rather than the library has to offer, are not the preserve of the teenage "Google generation".

"The web is my first port of call. I almost never go to our library, which is horrifying really," said Mr Parslow, who is studying for a PhD at the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading.

"The traditional approach to research, of sitting down to read through a set of journal papers, never suited me. Using the web, I can jump from one subject to another, keeping notes as I go, and I find it much easier," he said.

Mr Parslow returned to university as a mature student after several aborted attempts at a degree as a younger man. He said the day-to-day business of research had changed drastically.

"I came back to university aged 36 to do my first degree," he said.

"I'd started degrees before but never got very far with them, and I think a major reason was that the internet wasn't there. It really suits the way I learn.

"When I first went to university when I left school, I found that by the time information was published in journals, it was pretty much out of date," Mr Parslow said.

"Libraries couldn't carry enough journals and conference papers. I would find that the things I wanted weren't there - but now most are available online.

"Most people I know now tend to use the web as their first port of call - probably Google first and then specialist sites, which are good for pre-filtered papers.

"Search engines such as Google and Google Scholar have been a godsend, and with the explosion of social networking tools, people are starting to share information more.

"People are working on the recommendations of others to find their information, and using other people's recommendations as a launch point for their own research on the net."

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