Emily over at Library Revolution brings up a point that relates, tangentially, to something I mentioned recently in regards to Michael Gorman and his fear of a user-contributed world:
My husband and I recently took our son to the Bronx zoo, where we were in for a treat â€“ se got to see an Okapi up close and personal. Apparently, even in the zoo it is rare to see an Okapi up close â€“ they usually hide in the back of the exhibit. But that day the Okapi was interested in being social and was right there up by the glass.
After talking to one of the zoo guides about this interesting and unique creature and the fact that it is unusual to get such a good look, I was curious. So when I got home I took a few minutes to look up the Okapi online. I just wanted to get a little bit information, so I ended up on Wikipedia, of course. There I learned a few facts about its habitat and behavior, including the interesting fact that they like to eat the burnt wood left over from a lighting strike.
And that was enough for me. It’s all I wanted or needed to know.
So when I have conversations with librarians concerned that people are using the internet to get fast, basic information instead of coming in to the library for “real” research, I have a hard time thinking that is always a bad thing.
Don’t get me wrong. Students need to use good, reliable sources for their research, and a quick Wikipedia reference just isn’t going to cut it. Medical questions, financial questions, and other really important topics should be handled carefully and researched in much more depth. There are plenty of times when there is just no replacement for good, solid library research with the help of an information professional.
But this wasn’t one of them. And there are lots of instances when basic information gained quickly is more than sufficient. I didn’t need (or want) to delve into great tomes of zoological knowledge to learn detailed Okapi facts. I didn’t need to access scientific journals via complex databases or double check the citations and cross references for multiple sources.
This is an important development that often gets overlooked, not just by librarians but by most people in general when discussing the web: people know how to use it to find basic facts and figures that they otherwise wouldn’t. They may not be expert searchers but– and this is the real kicker– they don’t have to be. 9 times out of 10, people use the Internet to find out some basic info on Okapi, or the name of that actor, the one who plays the Lead Tenor in ‘Springtime for Hitler” in the Producers. He looks really familiar, but what’s his name? It’s easy to find out– grab the laptop, jump on line and go to IMDB. (He’s John Barrowman, better known as Captain Jack Harkness from Doctor Who).
Ten years ago, this answer would have been a lot harder to find out. Sure, you could wait for the credits to roll and pause the VCR, squint and go, “John Barrowman? Well great, I know his name, but what else has he been in?” You would have then had to have gone to the library, asked for a movie guide and hoped they had an up to date one, which they probably didn’t. Now, a few clicks of the mouse and you’re informed. Maybe it’s trivial information but you now know something you didn’t before and more than that, you know where to find information like that, again. Most information needs are like this, which is the dirty secret reference librarians don’t tell you. I do five hours a week on the reference desk and most of my questions are: Can I borrow your stapler? Where are the periodicals? and Why doesn’t my login info work on this computer? Every once in a while though, you get a meaty little research question. I had one recently that made my pulse jump because it was actually interesting: Are their any manifestos about Earthworks and nature installations? A student was writing a paper on Earth Art, like the Spiral Jetty or the Gates and wanted to know if there was any document that laid out the reasons and theories that motivate artists to create these works. She was interested in the history of them as well but wasn’t sure where to draw the line. Did Earth Works go back only to the Sixties or should she include ancient works like the Nazca Lines or Stonehenge? This is the sort of question that involves doing complex searching on databases and looking for books on the topic, a job that requires searching skills. Finding out about John Barrowman’s acting career? Not so much. Knowing the difference between the two types of information is important but recognizing that most people these days can find the easy stuff on their own — that’s huge.