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Are Libraries Relevant In The Internet Age?


Julie Gammack


Information of any kind is now available 24 hours a day on every imaginable topic,all accessible through the Internet. This calls into question the need for staffing and maintaining the book-lined shelves of a library. Yes,the Internet is loaded with information,analysis, and opinion. And it is because of this that the universal answer from a variety of those associated with Cornell in the past and present is: Libraries and librarians have never been more relevant.

When asked if libraries are relevant today, Cornell politics professor Craig Allin answered with the patience that may be the mark of a 30-year career in which it is important to believe there is no such thing as a dumb question:“ Of course.” Not only are they relevant,says Allin, it is incumbent upon academic institutions to be on the forefront of a new movement called “ information literacy.” Allin believes Cole Library to be on the cutting edge of this new thing called information literacy (defined as the attainment of the skills, knowledge, and disposition that enable one to locate,evaluate,use,and communicate information effectively).

An early user of the Internet, Allin has developed a skeptical yet appreciative perspective on what the Internet can be. Students can work on current policy research in real time rather than waiting two years for government documents to be published and delivered to the library. In 1995 David Wadsworth ’ 96 was able to study an environmental issue in Utah as it happened. He monitored the Congressional documents, the Utah newspapers,and the views of opposing lobbying organizations online. “ This would have been impossible without the Internet,” says Allin.“ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I first discovered THOMAS [a government repository named after Thomas Jefferson:]. Citizens can be more informed than ever before.”

Anyone with an e-mail account has no doubt received messages from friends and acquaintances with edited photographs, urban legends, and plain old hoaxes, passed along unwittingly as fact. Magnify that misinformation by what can be found on the World Wide Web and cyberland becomes a cyberswamp of cybergunk.

It takes a minimum investment to build a slick-looking Web site, making self-publishing easier than it has ever been. Special interest groups,
companies, or individuals can put forth biased information, packaged in such a way as to disguise the source of the content. The Internet has ushered in self-appointed experts on everything from Chia Pets to Socrates, and communities of people linked through their computers can exchange views and information freely. It can foster grassroots democracy at its best while fostering terror and fear at its worst.

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