Libraries and the internet

In these times of economic woe the public library is under threat. Currently there are 450 public libraries and mobile services facing closure in the UK. This has stirred writers, poets and readers into organising ‘read in’ protests to try and halt the cuts. Central government rationalise that declining numbers of users, cheap online books and the strength of the Internet as a source of public information means that many libraries are becoming obsolete. But how well does the public library stand up against the Internet as a place for learning, especially for open learning art and design students?

Buying a publication at the Exhibition Bookshop. Britain Can Make It Exhibition, 1946. Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

Research is a central activity to any art and design education; research as a detailed study of a subject, in which you set out to discover new information or to reach a new understanding of a specific area. To undertake this research you need to have questions that you want answering and you need somewhere to go to ask them.

Both the library and the Internet allow you to search for specific information; through the ubiquitous Google search (or more specialised book, image or scholar searches) or library catalogues. The internet will return with a breadth of material from which you will have to sort out what is relevant or of good quality, while the library will tend to give you fewer but more focused results. Having said that, the Internet does give you everything it possibly can on a given subject and with it access to a greater variety of forms of information through images, text, video and audio resources as well as information from international sources. The Internet is full of interesting stuff, far more than can be fitted into your local library, but the rub is that you have to wade through mountains of information to reach the answer to your research question.

The library relies on authors and librarians to decide in advance what to put into their books and onto their bookshelves, good for quality but not very inclusive. Wikipedia was developed as ‘the free Encyclopedia that anyone can edit’ and provides a format that encourages the construction of knowledge through multiple authors.

As social spaces and learning environments it’s hard to replace the physicality of a hushed library filled with readers and librarians focused on the same activity. The Internet does offer equivalent social spaces through social media, forums and networks, but unlike the occasional distraction of somebody talking in the library, the Internet is alive with visuals, links and activities to pull your attention away. Not all distance learning students have a library close at hand and not everyone has the Internet, which is why library’s free Internet access is so important. Libraries prioritise focus and depth of learning while the Internet offers breadth and variety; libraries can be quiet, the Internet can be loud.

Globally libraries, archives and research centres have been digitialising their material and making them accessible to a wider public. There’s a wealth of information that would have been much harder to access if not for the Internet. I don’t have to become a member of the British Library or take the train to London to get close to their manuscript collection or sought permission to view the archives now presented through VADS and Bridgeman Art Library. The wealth and quality of what’s online increases as more and more institutions open up their archives, however you need funding to make this happen. Are cuts in library funding going to have an adverse effect on what is offered on the Internet?

As a practitioner who has a broad range of interests I have always advocated a kind of research that broadens my understanding by finding gaps in my knowledge. I do this by taking random books from a bookshelf and reading them. Sooner or later links will be made between these new ideas and the research questions in mind. It’s a kind of browsing approach in which all knowledge is potentially valuable. Libraries are brilliant for this, you simply find a section you’ve never really explored and you spend some time delving into the books. By comparison it’s harder to jump into the internet at an unknown point because all searches are determined by keywords and links tend to step from one website to another along lines of common interest. Blogs often provide this randomness for the idle browser, for example the excellent BibliOdyssey blog that presents visual gems from the world’s digitalised libraries. Ironically I found BibliOdyssey via a book of their blog posts in a public library.

Making a comparison between the Internet and public libraries is perhaps a little unfair; the kinds of answers we get back from asking our research questions differs depending on where we ask them. The public library and the Internet both offer us something as learners. I think we need both of them.

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9 comments for “Libraries and the internet

  1. Mary
    2 March 2011 at 11:40 am

    Although you say we need both libraries and the internet your article seems to be more in favour of the internet. For a considerable number of people the internet means the library. For this reason and the fact that I believe books are a better source of information – as they can be perused or studied more easily – when we can get hold of them, we need the libraries. Certainly the internet is more immediate and a lot broader than what is available on the local library shelves but a lot does depend on individual skills when it comes to the internet

  2. Amanda
    2 March 2011 at 2:45 pm

    I agree that the internet is a great tool particularly for the distance learner, but nothing beats going to the library and spending time reading books in depth and finding related books on a subject field. Sitting in a library focuses the mind and removes all distractions. We would be the poorer without them.

  3. Christian Lloyd
    2 March 2011 at 9:00 pm

    In my mind the ideal art and design library is a combination of a physical space in which to focus and having access to the diversity that the internet has to offer.

    The other point that’s worth making is the book as a tool for containing information has developed over centuries, while the digital page is in its infancy. I find it hard to relate to the same information online when I know there’s a book version I could access – books are much easier to read.

    I’m lucky enough to live near a number of specialist art and design libraries, but I know that not the case for everyone.

  4. DF
    3 March 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I found it difficult to access this article but it has been interesting

  5. Neil MacG
    3 March 2011 at 4:02 pm

    At the heart of Christian’s article is one of the most important aspects of research that he doesn’t explictly mention – finding the right question.

    Over the years that I have worked in IT, my colleagues ask why I am able to find the answers to problems that they have been unable to do so even though they have the same access to resources (primarily the internet) as I. I explain that the art is in finding and framing the right question. This is in my view the biggest challenge of using the internet as a research resource.

    So how do you ask he right questions? There’s no easy answer. You need to start somewhere, so I started with Google and asked: “how do you ask the right questions”. This was the top result: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2006/02/asking-the-right-questions/ and although the resultant article was clearly inclined towards behavioral issues, it may have answered part of my own interest in why some people have difficulty in asking the right questions in their research.

    So back to the Library – I can see how using it to provide a random seed for the questing mind, but I’m not sure that this of it’s own is a justification for usage. I think of much more importance is the media format. Sometimes even in my IT world I still find that paper media is much better and quicker to scan especially when I need multiple resources to be within my vision and assist me to resolve IT process and design issues. The trouble is that I only need that for a small proportion of my work and if that is reflective of society in general, I can well understand why public organisations may want to down-size in the current economic climate.

    I’d prefer that these useful resources stay, and certainly support the option to have greater voluntary support if it keeps them available. However I’m not sure if it is always wrong to close institutions, just because they were once very valuable.

  6. anned
    3 March 2011 at 4:59 pm

    “So how do you ask he right questions?”
    I think this is the biggest problem with distance learning, you just don’t know what it is that you don’t know, which means its almost impossible to know what question to ask or even whether there is a question you should be asking:)

  7. Charis Weller
    3 March 2011 at 5:36 pm

    I think the internet and libraries are a bit like tea and coffee. While some people much prefer one to the other many more enjoy each at different times. Neither tea and coffee nor libraries and the internet should not be considered as mutually exclusive and they don’t do the same thing, although there are obvious overlaps. My local library always has lots of people working on computers and yesterday a class of learners and helpers filled the upstairs section with quiet, purposeful discussion. We need both libraries and the internet.

  8. Elizabeth Jeffries
    3 March 2011 at 9:34 pm

    I too agree that we need both libraries and the internet. Many times I read a book and I appreciate the perspective of the author. I want to be able to scour the library for such perspectives and choose from different ones. I want to study a subject in depth in a cohesive, coherent way. Other times of course I just want to look at a particular aspect of a subject and for that the internet works very well.

  9. A Dawson
    4 March 2011 at 3:13 pm

    As the comments show above, the issue is not ‘one’ or ‘the other’. As an overseas student with sadly no access to a library with books in English, I strongly support the view that both libraries and the internet are important complementary sources of information. The issue is how to save British libraries. British tax payers have a right to and enjoy free Museums and if I was paying taxes in the UK I would make it clear to those seeking or wanting to remain in power where my vote would go.

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