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A Librarian's
Cri de Coeur

By Brian Simpson
 
Since the arrival of the World Wide Web, things in Library Land just haven't been the same. To defend their relevancy in the face of the Web's awesome information arsenal and to tout their own research services, library staff members have engaged in a little guerrilla marketing. Partly a librarian's cri de coeur in the Internet Age and partly a swipe at the Web's relentless encroachment on library turf, this memo was drafted in August 2001 by Andrea Bartelstein, an instructional services coordinator and resource services librarian at Hopkins' Milton S. Eisenhower Library. She and her colleagues frequently discuss how they can compete with the Web and pry freshmen and other so-called "novice researchers" away from it long enough to explain to them: 1) Everything is not available on the Web 2) If it is, it may not be reliable, and 3) Hopkins librarians have databases, resources, skills, and tricks that can't be "googled." As Elizabeth Kirk, head of the library's Entrepreneurial Library Program, describes the memo's message: "It's not just that we're still relevant. It's [that] we kick ass!"


To be exact: Hopkins undergrads in 2002-2003 are paying $37,819 in tuition, room, board, and estimated personal expenses. A false research trail from AltaVista or Yahoo soaking up a few hours of time can be an expensive detour as well as a waste of the library's formidable resources (most of which are not available for free on the Web): 2.5 million volumes, 17,000 journal subscriptions, 4,200 full-text electronic journals, more than 500,000 full-text electronic books, etc. Hopkins librarians are justified in their concern that students are turning to search engines rather than professional researchers: A Pew Internet and American Life Project survey found in September 2002 that 73 percent of college students say they use the Internet more than the library for information searching. Hullo, Yahoo.


To give an example of the library's continuing quest to preserve student mental health, Bartelstein recalls a novice undergraduate daunted by an upcoming 25-page research paper about the evolution of advertising for a certain product. Unable to find information she needed and unsure where to start, the student was about to give up until Bartelstein showed her the library's full-text search of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Within minutes the young woman was pulling up facsimiles of display ads for the product from the 1930s. The student went from stressed-out and overwhelmed to engaged and having fun, says Bartelstein, noting, "Those are the moments we live for!"


The library is still very much a physical place, not just an online portal to exclusive information resources. While library reference queries have been declining nationally, MSE Library staff-user interactions were up 9 percent in 2001-2002 to 37,000 (though many were of the basic "Where's the restroom?" variety), reports Virginia Massey-Burzio, head of MSE's Resource Services. Recent renovations at the MSE have been wildly successful: Building use has increased by more than 50 percent, she reports. "It was thought that a lot of people wouldn't use the library anymore, but that has not been the case," says Massey-Burzio. "It feels like the hub of the university." She pauses and then confesses in librarian sotto voce: "You always fantasize that's the way it ought to be."


Actually, 10,327 search results aren't all that bad. Students googling Lenin for a research paper will have 592,000 hits to wade through. And the numbers just get more absurd -- Einstein: 2.8 million, sex: 234 million. The effect is an eye-scorching and brain-numbing number of screens. Massey-Burzio feels the young scholars' pain: "Usually the first thing they say is, 'I spent hours looking for X on the Internet and I can't find anything.' You'd like to head them off at the pass." Her point: Students can write better papers by instead spending 20 minutes with one of MSE's 14 resource services librarians who have an intimate knowledge of the library's many databases, journals, and other collections. Part of the reason students aren't queued up outside the librarians' office: Focus groups have revealed Hopkins students to be independent, confident of their research skills, and reluctant to ask questions for fear of looking stupid.


As Kirk points out, using information on genetics from a hate group's Web site will not earn rave reviews for your biology paper. Librarians have found that freshmen and sophomores are most likely to rely on the Internet for research and to be more trusting than upperclassmen when it comes to the integrity of the information they find there. Concerned about the naiveté of inexperienced researchers, Kirk penned "Evaluating Information Found on the Internet" to help undergrads become more critical about what they find on the Web. The paper explains how to sift Web sites for signs of bias or propaganda, and ways to learn more about search engines, which may determine the top search results for a given topic by who pays the most. "It's every man for himself out there [on the Web], and it never has been at the library," says Kirk.


"What I'm trying to say is that we are not here as librarians being fuddy-duddies and saying the Web is just bad," says Bartelstein. "I use it all the time. It's less about format than it is about content and suitability for one's purposes." Want to know about changes in French peasant life after the Franco-Prussian War? AltaVista is not going to do it for you, says Kirk. But if you want information on concert seating at Madison Square Garden, she advises you to go google.


A parting shot at Google and its ilk. Like other marketing slogans, this motto is meant to distinguish the client from its competitors. "A library is a place of inquiry, not a big warehouse of random bits of information," says Bartelstein. "What we're trying to do is give [students] a broader universe of what's available."

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