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ARE SCIENCE LIBRARIES GOING TO VANISH?

 

What did everyone do before computers, television, and libraries?   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
What did everyone do before computers, television, and libraries?                           (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Libraries are undergoing many large changes due to the rise of digital technology, the ready availability of the internet and of multimedia recordings, and, the changes in modern society.  As the main repositories for information, large libraries have been instrumental for scientific research, other areas of scholarship, and education; they are changing along with the neighborhood libraries in cities and the small libraries in schools.  This essay examines how these changes in science libraries affect research scientists.

Science libraries. 

Science books now are being published both in traditional printed versions and in digital formats.  For science journals, most now are published both in printed form and as digital editions; a number of new professional journals covering scientific research are only digital.  Media play an increasingly important role for science education, research reports, and presentations at science meetings; all of these now are mostly in digital form.  Instead of a book of printed abstracts, scientists attending annual science meetings frequently now receive a portable digitized recording.  Many libraries, including both local public libraries and large scholarly libraries at universities, now contain many digital volumes and digitized materials in their collection. 

This extensive shift into digitized formats means that students and scientists now can: (1) access almost everything traditionally found in libraries without a physical visit; (2) interlibrary loans are increasingly unnecessary; (3) searching for information on personal computers, as compared to spending several days or weeks camped out within a library, seems quick, efficient, and comprehensive; and, (4) even course textbooks now are being sold for use on the personal computers of students.  I believe that many of these changes are good for science and society, but some also have unrecognized side effects (e.g., if anything is stated to be “fully known”, then there is no point to studying it further!). 

What do research scientists need books and libraries for? 

Common uses of library materials by research scientists include: (1) reading or viewing new books, new or old issues of science journals, new documents related to science, new or old science textbooks, and, new media, and, (2) searching for answers to certain questions, historic materials, published opinions and pronoucements about science, deposited research data, or, presentations at science meetings.  Although almost all of these retrievals now can be accompished via the internet, some care is needed to ensure that such searches truly are extensive, complete, highly detailed, and include all related topics. 

Most scientists and almost all students now rarely or never visit a library!  Scientists doing research in universities, industries, hospitals, and technology institutes find the internet much easier to use from their office or residence.  Internet search engines quickly display numerous websites in response to any search on a browser.  Absolutely everything that a scientist could need soon will be readily available on the internet.  Except for very special science libraries containing collections of rare and ancient materials, science libraries now are underutilized and increasingly seem unnecessary; since maintaining traditional libraries necessitates spending quite a lot of money every year, it is easy to predict that they will be converted into much less costly fully digitized libraries. 

Why are internet searches about science often incomplete or superficial? 

Internet search engines operate mechanically, unlike the human mind.  Although searching on the internet is quite rapid, the information retrieved often can be limited in scope, one-sided or biased, and, includes only limited and highly-selected details.  There are accounts that some internet materials have been truncated or express quite tilted views.  If any data, materials, statements, or divergent opinions are not displayed, then the results of an internet search are incomplete; many persons using an internet search engine usually are not aware of those limitations.  Living scientists are much better able than search engines to interrelate separate items and topics, judge relevancy, create a sequence of connected operations, and, proceed logically into new directions. 

To state this in a different way, searching with search engines is not the same as doing research.  In the good old days, searching in a library to find needed materials resembled going on a treasure hunt; different hunters even could find different treasures!  Many youngsters and college students today believe that a classroom assignment to “do research” about something means to use a search engine on the internet.  That mistaken viewpoint undoubtedly reflects the general lack of understanding about what is research and what scientists and other scholars do (see:  “What Do University Scientists really Do in Their Daily Work?” ).  For scientists, the internet is a very useful tool for research, but is best seen as only part of a longer and more complex mental activity. 

Looking at the future of books and libraries. 

Things are changing in libraries so quickly that it is now possible to visualize what will happen to them in the near future.  The number of science libraries will decrease dramatically as most materials on science are moved into “The Cloud”.  Library functions then will be taken over by special national or regional websites providing access to very large databases of digitized materials.  These truly gigantic collections will be designated as digital megalibraries, and are based upon a super-database that combines several other huge databases. 

In answer to emotional outcries that old and antique printed books are still good and useful, a worldwide effort will be undertaken to create digitized versions of the entirety of all previously published volumes.  Practical problems with the numerous different languages in our world will be remedied by new software programs that rapidly translate anything published or audio-recorded into whatever language is needed.  When all of these predicted developments happen, scientists and everyone else will have access to everything on their personal computer! 

For research scientists, these changes mostly will be good, although the information available might at first seem overwhelming.  New strategies for dealing with this glut of retrieved information will be invented and developed.  This galaxy of total information also will stimulate new commercial software that objectively lists new and old publications that are important for any science topic or research question.  Reviewers of manuscripts, grant applications, educational materials, and books then will use related special new software to ensure that authoring scientists have dealt with all the necessary information.  Research reports will then need to provide a special listing of “non-cited references” in order to keep the actual article readable and its length reasonable. 

Concluding remarks. 

Are science libraries going to vanish?  No, but they will be completely transformed into digitized operations.  The new digital libraries will continue to be vital for science and research.  

Having spent many years looking at dusty old volumes in university libraries and then finding that the one for my particular interest was missing, I believe that the forthcoming availability of absolutely everything in digital form will be welcomed by all scientists and other scholars.  Nevertheless, at a strictly emotional level, a discolored old book with a wonderful smell to it can never be equated to its digitized counterpart! 

 

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