NZSM Online

Get TurboNote+ desktop sticky notes

Interclue makes your browsing smarter, faster, more informative

SciTech Daily Review

Webcentre Ltd: Web solutions, Smart software, Quality graphics


Books versus the Internet: A Cautionary Tale

Wellington city councillor Chris Parkin recently suggested that Wellington should dispense with its public library and instead, provide each home in the town with a computer terminal so that everyone could browse the Internet. In this way, the educational needs of the citizenry would be catered to and there would be less expense for the city whose rates were being drained, says Parkin, by middle-aged women using the library to access romance novels for their own amusement.

Parkin reinforced his point by arguing that the book has had its day and that libraries are now anachronisms. What I will argue however, is that the public library system is a planned resource which aims, and generally succeeds in benefiting the whole community. The Internet on the other hand, is what one may call an "accidental resource" an unplanned and ungoverned grab-bag of computers which, while being of some benefit, cannot replace the role or match the efficiency of a municipal library.

Parkin continues by saying that the role of libraries is outdated, no longer catering to the Victorian aspiration of "self-improvement" which began them. In this, Parkin is mistaken: the role of the library has remained a constant; people go there to learn albeit in a more informal environment than a school or academy. Moreover, while their essential role (to confer a public and a private benefit) has remained unchanged, their other role which is to make information available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, has expanded. This is a library's democratic function: shut down a library and you make an attack on democracy.

Can the Internet confer the benefits outlined above? The answer is no, and here's why.

Libraries and librarians co-operate with one-another nationwide and globally. They develop collection strengths; the Turnbull specialises in collecting New Zealand material as well as Miltonia, medical libraries gather medical texts, Nelson's Cawthron Institute specialised in entomology and so on. Moreover, libraries share these resources in a planned and methodical way, particularly through library-interloan. The Internet on the other hand is a clumsy assortment of computers which are merely an adjunct to the books, magazines, CD-ROMs, pamphlets, posters, talking books, paintings, conference rooms, large-print texts, and so on which a library provides. Moreover, the Internet is not interested in assuming any of the wider responsibilities presently carried out by the National Library or any of its satellites. Until the Internet can or will perform this role, Parkin et al should hold fire.

Moreover, Parkin has been slow to admit that libraries have been quick to adopt the Internet, but in a controlled, thoughtful manner. The Alexander Turnbull Library is currently scanning its collection of photographic images onto a major database as part of its "Timeframes" project and making the information available via the Internet. But what the Turnbull is not doing is making the mistake of thinking that the Internet is the library.

There are four other problems in replacing a public library service with the Internet.

The first difficulty is that the Internet provides the illusion but not the substance of knowledge. Parkin claims for instance that with the Internet one can browse the illuminated manuscripts of the British Library Reading Room which would otherwise be inaccessible. What nonsense! Any bibliographer will tell you that in order to understand a manuscript you have to see and hold the original. Humans need to use their tactile senses. For books, one needs to feel the parchment, literally smell the vellum, touch the page with cotton-gloved hands in order to calculate the "bite" (that is, depth) of the type on the page and to evaluate the density of the weave of the paper.

The second problem is that a library is where the community comes together in an "information commons." When everyone remains hidden in their homes surfing the Internet then this coming together for a shared purpose or ideal is lost. Television damaged communities in the same way starting in the mid-fifties when a sense of community spirit was lost thanks to a flickering blue screen as membership in community groups such as the Boy Scouts and service organisations plummeted. Now, television is trying in its contrived way to restore this sense of lost community by providing programmes such as Friends and Coronation Street which it hopes will make us feel better but the damage has been done. Will the Internet, in destroying the public library system, fail to replace that resource too?

The third problem is economic. It is cheaper to lend out one copy of a novel or a car manual 500 times than it is to download from the same Internet source (particularly when there are illustrations) the same number of times. Besides, what will Parkin say about middle-aged women wanting to read saucy on-line novels? Will there be some kind of stopper built into the system so that no-one can download a Mills and Boon novel? Whose library/Internet connection is it anyway? The council's or the rate-payers? Privatisation, which is Parkin's real agenda, is seldom as efficient a system as it is touted to be.

Fourthly, assuming their public library is dismantled and Wellingtonians become adept at surfing the Internet for information, what will the Wellington city council have contributed to the country's greater good? Parkin is mistaken if he thinks the council can get away with letting every other city buy books and databases while Wellington behaves akin to some parasitic mite which draws on knowledge from afar but refuses to contribute to the system by buying-in databases and books which other cities can tap into.

Finally, Parkin et al should be aware of the following cautionary tale which arrived courtesy of the New Scientist (14 December 1996):

Hans Lauche of the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy near Gottingen needed a recipe for a ceramic material essential for the spectrometer he was building for the Cassini probe soon due to explore Saturn. Lauche needed a compound that would expand and contract, even when bonded to glass. However, modern Western ceramics are designed not to expand or contract, being built of aluminium or beryllium. Lauche needed knowledge of how to build the components from old materials such as magnesium silicate which can contract or expand, but there was nothing in the scientific literature in the West.

So, he had to explore books from the former East Germany where the older methods and materials were still used. But even here he hit a dead end; with unification in 1990, libraries in the East had assumed they would be getting more up to date books from the West and so had thrown theirs out, particularly as they also wished to underline their break with scientific socialism.

Then, Lauche heard of Pastor Martin Weskott a Lutheran priest in Katlenburg who had saved 700,000 old books (many retrieved from rubbish dumps and from beside the road). The pastor had stored the books in the stables of an old monastery, which is where Lauche found the scientific texts which gave him the answers he needed to make the spectrometer at temperatures of only 1,400oC using dirty brown coal instead of the 2,000oC required by modern techniques. Lauche's instrument is now ready for its journey to Saturn, thanks to pastor Weskott's pile of mouldy and out-dated books.

Surely it doesn't take the Internet to find a moral in that story!

Mike Hamblyn is currently a library manager in Dunedin.

Mike Hamblyn is currently a library manager in Dunedin.