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As usual, Henry Petroski provides serious food for thought, this time in his article expressing concern about the passage of the print library. As one who has long enjoyed the pleasures of unexpected discoveries while wandering the stacks of a great – or even a minor – library, I share his concern. It is not clear to me, however, that this will significantly change the nature of scholarship or of engineering problem solving.

The printed word is, after all, “mere” data. It is of little value until it is discovered by a potential user and converted into useful information through translation and interpretation supported by the user’s knowledge and prior experience. The question, then, is whether this discovery process is enriched or enfeebled by the transition from print libraries to the vast files that are accessible through the Internet. I lean toward the position that electronic data are probably easier and faster to obtain than those in print. Further, I am convinced that the joy of discovery that we once experienced in the library stacks can also be found at a computer terminal.

There is no question that this puts a new burden on engineering educators. Most of our current faculty members were educated in the days of the print library, where the process of acquiring data is somewhat different from that used sitting at a computer terminal. Fortunately, the majority have found the Internet to be of value in their own scholarship and research and have developed the necessary techniques for using it. Their challenge now – expertly aided by library professionals – is to systematize and generalize these techniques and help their students to learn them.

The greater challenge to our engineering faculty remains the same – helping our students learn how to convert the data to information through translation and interpretation and then use it to create useful knowledge. The last step, involving contextualization, integration, generalization, synthesis and, ultimately, evaluation, is clearly the most difficult of all. It is, however, the essence of scholarship and research and, ultimately, the process of engineering design.

In support of all this, a notebook computer does indeed fulfill the same purpose as the bound notebooks we used as students and in our engineering careers. But it also serves as a card file, a slide rule, a ten-place log table, and a drawing table in addition to replacing the library card catalog and, as led to this discussion in the first place, the library stacks. What it does not do is supplant the need for intellectual discipline and critical thinking. These still must be attained by the student through a solid education facilitated by a dedicated faculty.

So, yes, in a way I regret that libraries are changing and shrinking in area. They hold fond memories – I used to rendezvous in the library with that pretty freshman girl who has now been my wife for 51 years. But with the resource crunch that every campus is experiencing, I recognize that libraries have to change. While that means they must give up some space, I’m sure they will continue to be a critical resource for engineers and the rest of the campus community, aided now by the increasingly ubiquitous computer.

Lyle D. Feisel
Dean Emeritus,
Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science
State University of New York at Binghamton,
former president of ASEE

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