|By Henry Petroski
INTERNET HAS BECOME THE RESEARCH
TOOL OF CHOICE FOR TODAY’S
STUDENTS, WHO HAVE ALL BUT ABANDONED
soon as classes finished last spring
semester, my university’s
library removed its old card catalog.
The cards, which had not been added
to for a decade, were sent to the
dump, and the cabinets went to salvage.
Once the symbolic and literal key
to a library’s collection,
the card file has increasingly come
to be seen as a dinosaur. The contents
of the drawers have been digitized,
and the catalog seems to stand–unused–as
a monument to obsolescence.
This was all more or less expected
as computers grew capable of searching
increasingly larger digital databases
with increasingly greater speed.
Now, it is possible to locate a
book on one of the terminals just
inside the library’s entrance
in less time than it takes to walk
over to the card catalog and find
the proper drawer. Indeed, one no
longer needs even to travel to a
library itself to access its catalog.
What might not have been so readily
anticipated about computerized library
catalogs, however, was that they
themselves would soon become irrelevant
to a large segment of the Internet
generation. The instinctive reaction
of too many students is not to look
up a book, or even a magazine article
to find information, but to go directly
to the World Wide Web.
Unless they are specifically constrained
against doing so, students assigned
to write a research paper will begin
and end their research on the Internet.
They will treat the results as if
they constituted all the information
one could ever want.
Left to their own devices—meaning
their laptop computers, wireless
connections, cut-and-paste word
processors and color printers—today’s
students will compile and print
bibliographies that consist of nothing
but “www” addresses.
The traditional bibliographic components
of author, title, publisher, and
date can be as absent from the paper
as they are (or seem to be) from
so many Web sites.
It may be that students simply
have become physically and intellectually
lazy, not able or willing to walk
to the library or question the total
absence of bibliographies appended
to their sources. Or it may be that,
increasingly, students are being
taught from the earliest grades—on
computers donated or deeply discounted
to their well-meaning school districts—that
the Internet is the information
source of choice.
Once, when trying to get into our
main library, I was blocked by a
campus tour group clustered around
the entrance. The student guide
was explaining that this was the
university’s famous library
but that she had never needed to
go into it. She bragged that she
could access via her computer all
the research materials she needed
from anywhere on campus.
Google’s project to digitize
the contents of great academic libraries
may improve the intellectual lives
of such students in spite of themselves.
However, until all books in a library
are readable and searchable on the
Internet, a whole generation of
students may spend four years at
an institution of higher learning
thinking the accumulated knowledge
and wisdom of the world can be viewed
on their laptops.
In the meantime, faculty members
assigning research papers can help
their students discover real libraries
and the wealth of resources they
contain. Part of the assignment
can be simply to compile and use
a bibliography based on more than
just Internet sources.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar
S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke
University. His most recent book
is Pushing the Limits: New Adventures