Warning: the Web can ensnare you

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Traditional library services will disappear if technology is is allowed to develop uncontrolled, says Diana Powell

he unremitting promotion of the Internet has placed the relationship between books and the Web very much on the agenda. The most popular online shopping site is Amazon - a bookstore. We are told that the Net actively encourages pupils to seek out texts. Thus, we are assured that the library will continue to thrive.

But what of those who work in these institutions? Will the information revolution necessitate a re-appraisal of their role? Or might their function quite simply disappear?

I recently resigned as library assistant in a college. One overwhelming reason was the arrival last September of 15 brand new Internet PCs. The whole nature of the job changed. It bore little resemblance to the post I had applied for with so much enthusiasm three years earlier.

I see public libraries as "street-corner universities" - places where the deprived can find support in their quest for enlightenment from a dedicated and informed staff. When I started the job, I did so in the belief that I would be able to contribute to the learning process of students: the teachers provided the backbone of the knowledge necessary for exams, but we in the library would put the flesh on that bone.

In reality we had long ceased to be a library and had become a "learning resources centre". All the materials had been carefully selected for being subject orientated, complementing a set course or as a reference providing a wide range of useful information.

Then came the Internet. The greatest problem was the booking process because we could not afford personal log-ons. Part-time staff like myself would see themselves as no more thanbooking-clerks for the Internet. Of course, the system didn't always work: students would sit at the wrong mchine or they would overrun their time. Frustration grew, tempers flared and discipline deteriorated badly.

None of this would have mattered had one felt that the Internet was providing something valuable. Its popularity could in no way be denied. But was it extending the range of learning resources available while promoting an atmosphere conducive to the acquisition of knowledge? Or was it quite simply being abused?

Many students were using their search time for communicating with friends - and strangers - throughout the country, even the world. To limit its use, we confined e-mail to lunch-hour. But we could not monitor the computer area - there had been no increase in staff provision - so we had no way of enforcing this rule.

It was also impossible to ensure students were pursuing relevant research rather than simply surfing. You can screen the extreme areas of concern, such as porn, but there remainsplenty of material capable of distracting a student.

Our traditional duties paled into irrelevance. Our enquiry figures diminished. Our book issue declined. We had little time for stock categorisation. Some days I hardly touched a book . I could stand it no longer.

Of course, the Internet is a wonderful resource, but its limitations need to be understood and addressed. Ideally, it requires specialist staff - a cross between a technician and a teacher orsomeone capable of supervising a large group of students. Someone familiar with the vagaries of searching the Net and able to point students in the correct research direction.

In some colleges, they separate the library and learning resources centre. Perhaps this is a solution. Something certainly needs to be done. Otherwise, the role of librarian will disappear. And with it will be lost a wealth of commitment and dedication to the advancement of knowledge.

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