The Internet and Reference Services

Article excerpt

A Real-World Test of Internet Utility

Many libraries now provide Internet access for their patrons and staff or are planning to do so. The push toward Internet access in libraries is proceeding despite the fact that establishing and supporting access is time-consuming, expensive, and fraught with political and policy implications. How useful is the Internet in carrying out the mission of contemporary libraries? Given that library budgets are finite with extreme demands for diversified collections and services, what gains, if any, should library professionals expect from the investment in network connectivity? This study seeks to test the Internet's effectiveness at an important facet of library practice-answering reference questions. Researchers conducted a three-fold test of Internet effectiveness: depth, accuracy, and durability. Using a variety of search tools, they found that the Internet could provide answers to a significant percentage of actual reference questions. There was little significant difference between the accuracy of information obtained through Internet sources and traditional reference sources. The Internet sites showed surprising durability throughout the project.

What was prediction is reality. There is now widespread access to network information. The volume of information being produced and stored on computer networks is massive and increasing. Current choices include multiple formats: complex data sets, high resolution graphics, sounds, video, and animation are available in addition to plentiful text databases and documents. The current availability of billions of records in proprietary databases and public-domain networks is only the beginning.

The Significance of the Study

The watchword for today's Internet is variety. The Internet is a hodgepodge, with constantly changing tools, protocols, standards, and quasi-standards: e-mail, the World Wide Web, Telnet hosts, FTP archives, discussion groups, and gopher sites. Together these tools form the latest attempt at fulfilling a dream, over a half-century old, of being able to obtain information regardless of time, space, or format. [1] While the Internet's intellectual lineage spans the greater part of this century and its technological roots are decades old, library interest in and use of the Internet began only about ten years ago.[2] Scanning library trade, research, and professional journals reveals the first mention of the Internet in 1988.[3] Since then, the Internet, not to mention other network tools, facets, and issues, has accounted for thousands of articles.

Conferences and workshops sponsored by professional associations, regional library cooperatives, graduate programs, and private trainers all seek to give library workers the skills, knowledge, and experience to cope with the Internet. There are a few large projects seeking to build virtual collections accessible on public networks.[4] Some libraries are building community information networks where clients can find a wealth of local information, ranging from community events to social services. In addition to adding content to the Internet, a number of cataloging projects sponsored by libraries and library utilities are seeking to impose order on a disorderly Internet.[5]

A recent American Library Association survey noted that 25 percent of public libraries provide some kind of Internet access to patrons.[6] The 1996 National Survey of Public Libraries and the Internet documented a 113-percent increase in Internet connectivity in public libraries since 1994.[7] The Barron list, which contains instructions for connecting to library catalogs on the Internet, shows more than four hundred library-sponsored Internet sites in North America alone.[8]

Though libraries are instituting Internet access in increasing numbers, there is still a wide disparity in access. While 96 percent of public libraries serving populations of 250,000 to 499,999 and 82 percent serving a population of 1,000,000 or more provide Internet access, only 31. …