August 13, 2009

Can digital libraries remain relevant in a world brimming with free information?

Two of my life’s professions collided today in Indianapolis at the Blog Indiana 2009 Blogging and Social Media Conference. As a former corporate communications writer turned librarian, I left today’s meetings befuddled and thrilled. The communication realm I left in 2004 to become a librarian has changed so much that it I can’t help but review why I left just when things were getting so exciting.

I’m wondering about that presentation I’ll be making next week. It’s designed for a group of incoming college freshman to introduce them to Indiana’s digital libraries where they can use the internet to access thousands of full-text periodicals, from consumer magazines and newspapers to academic and professional journals. Librarians call these resources “the invisible web.” And they’re not free. Institutions of higher learning, Indiana’s General Assembly and other supporters set aside millions for powerful research tools like INSPIRE.

My presentation will differentiate these sources from the free web by showing the precision and superiority of their search features. I’ll emphasize the credibility of the sources. But these students are media snackers. How many of them will have the metal to research and read full text articles? Can they succeed in college without that skill? And what if that skill is so old school that it doesn’t prepare them for the demands that will be placed on them today?

Of the highly evolved humans that were at this conference, I’ll bet 90 percent know nothing about digital libraries. They haven’t needed them because they live in a world that teems with free information.

When libraries eagerly introduced these digital resources, we imagined that we finally had a tool that competed and perhaps even surpassed the web. That may be true, but we'll have to work hard to prove it now that the bomb of social media has been detonated.

No comments: