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PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SEPTEMBER  2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 1
refractions
Discarding the Library
By Henry Petroski

THE INTERNET HAS BECOME THE RESEARCH TOOL OF CHOICE FOR TODAY’S STUDENTS, WHO HAVE ALL BUT ABANDONED BOOKS.

Henry Petroski - Photo By Leonora HamilAs 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 in Engineering.

 

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