This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 1 1999. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE and the author(s). See for additional copyright information.

Are Our Academic Libraries Ready for the Internet Generation?
by Charles Smith and Chris Phillips

A trend is emerging in Internet access by K-12 teachers, students, and college freshmen that forecasts coming challenges for college and university librarians, computer administrators, and faculty. Because these students increasingly utilize the Internet to do research on their own initiative, as they enter higher education their library use is changing in ways that require new strategies to integrate traditional resources with Internet research. Many solutions to present and future challenges will be implemented by computer administrators in consultation with professions traditionally associated with the academic library.

Before the Internet’s arrival, students were routinely sent off to the library by teachers and professors with little afterthought. In preparation for their research, students were given an orientation tour of the library during the first week of the semester, one that included a short class on how to use the online catalog. Afterwards, they were largely on their own for the rest of their collegiate careers. If they encountered a problem, they could consult with a reference librarian or their professor. In those days, what was there to worry about? The farthest a wayward student might go in his or her search for information was the inter-library loan office, or a static computer database. As an information resource the academic library was a finite one that contained authoritative items for academic study.

Today, students on the collegiate and secondary school levels are conducting a significant portion of their Internet research on their own initiative. Anyone who taught in the pre-Internet classroom knows that this development, in itself, marks a sea-change in student behavior. In those days most students faced the prospect of going to the library with trepidation. Not only are students now eager to undertake Internet research, by virtue of search engines and hypertext links they often perform a good portion of it without assistance. As recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Librarian John Lubans, Jr., of Duke University conducted two surveys of incoming college freshmen and 7th-10th-grade students. One finding was that the latter group was more "savvy" in its Internet use than the incoming group of college freshmen. Moreover, the members of the younger group were growing "more self-reliant" in their ability to find resources on the Internet, with the percentage of its sources that they used in tandem with traditional ones significantly greater. As a result the 7th–10th graders were less likely to ask the assistance of reference librarians. Another study conducted at Duke since the academic year 1991/92 has traced a steady decline in reference desk questions. The primary cause behind this continuing drop in 1997/98 was students’ Internet use, based on its "genuine and timely ease of finding and using worthwhile sources."1

The attractiveness of easy access to information via a quick search without specialized knowledge of reference materials, indexes, or the materials that constitute the inner pathways of the academic library should not be surprising. While a book in the stacks is easily located via an online catalog search, many collections have to be accessed through special indexes (on microfilm, for example) that one must learn how to locate and access. A good example of how the Internet and personal computer have made the research library more accessible is a journal index. Before this technology was available one had to master the multi-volume reference guide to a particular discipline in order to find the appropriate journal article. Now a simple keyword search on CD-ROMs or Internet sites is often sufficient. We forget that before recent technological advances the academic library was an intimidating place for most undergraduates. Then, reference librarians and professors could count on frustrated students asking questions about what to look for, or how to find it. Today that is no longer the case, and several factors predict increasing student independence.

The vast resources being invested by both state and federal governments to provide Internet training to primary and secondary level students ensure that incoming classes of freshmen will be increasingly computer literate. According to the Benton Foundation, local school districts are making a $4 billion annual investment to provide Internet access, and in fiscal 1998 the Federal Communications Commission added $1.5 billion to achieve that goal.2 Based on Department of Education statistics the sum of this investment appears to be having a dramatic effect. The number of U.S. public schools that enjoyed Internet access rose from 35 percent in 1994 to 78 percent in 1997. And 87 percent of schools surveyed in 1996 that were not yet wired planned to be Internet-capable by the year 2000. By the millennium, well over 90 percent of public schools will have Internet access, though with only one or two connections per school. But progress is being made in this area as well. Schools with at least five Internet connections rose from 25 percent in 1996 to 43 percent in 1997.3

One of the consequences of these outlays is that the Internet and its resources are becoming part of the everyday process of primary and secondary education. For example, a study conducted by Quality Education Data in February 1998 found that teachers’ and students’ leading use of the Internet on the K-12 level was for research.4 The discovery made by Lubans’ study that 7th–10th graders had a higher level of confidence in their Internet research skills than incoming freshmen is partly explained by increasing Internet use and training on the K-12 level. Based on Lubans’ belief that incoming freshman classes would be increasingly proficient in this regard, he thought this constituted a trend that should be "an early warning for college and university librarians who will be providing research help for these students in a few years."5 In other words, neither reference librarians nor faculty can assume students will seek out their help as in years past. If conducting a significant portion of research without such help becomes the norm, the role of the reference librarian and the academic library must evolve. In this environment the appropriate response is to integrate training in research techniques into students’ online experience.

Responding to the challenges

How can such a program be undertaken? The coming Internet generation will require the input of librarians, faculty, and fellow students in an ongoing project that seems best realized through enhanced university online catalogs and Internet server software. Students in the Duke study suggested the addition of hypertext links in appropriate places in the library’s online catalog to cross-reference information between the library and the Internet.6 Of course, the opposite operation would allow students who use a college or university Internet server (either directly or from an off-campus location) to have advisory windows alert them to appropriate sources within the library itself when they perform an online search. Even if this type of service listed only a handful of references, it would still remind students that other pertinent sources of information exist. And through such advisories in both directions, between Internet and the academic library, computer administrators can craft a partnership between those mediums. Because every academic library’s collection is unique, a one-of-a-kind programming solution would be necessary for each university.

Another suggestion made by the Duke students to assist them in online research was, "all books in full text format should be available on the Web."7 However, such a digitization initiative is lagging far behind Internet training and access for K-12 students. To conceptualize the existing shortfall, consider the fact that the largest online collection--Michael Hart’s Gutenberg Project--contains 10,000 digitized books, while approximately the same number of students at the University of Chicago enjoy over 13 million individual items in their library system. Furthermore, the largest ongoing digitization project sponsored by the U.S. government has been undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration to provide 200,000 archival holdings on its Web site.8 But Congress has appropriated only $4.5 million for the NARA project, a figure that pales in comparison to the approximately $5.5 billion annual investment in Internet access on the K-12 level. Even if this imbalance was rectified in the near future, as it certainly should be, it will take considerable time to digitize enough print materials to provide exclusive support for even a segment of college and university level studies. Meanwhile, as the partnership between academic libraries and the Internet evolves, an ever more Internet-capable stream of students will be using the academic library in the coming decade. Both practical and pedagogical problems will face its administrators as a result.

An example of the practical problems of this transitional period is illustrated by the recent controversy surrounding the opening of San Francisco’s new Main Library. According to the coverage of the new library’s opening by the San Francisco Chronicle, confusion reigned from almost the very outset. Because the library featured over 300 computer terminals and multiple new meeting rooms, staff was shifted from traditional duties like cataloging and re-shelving books to assist with patron access to its new facilities. Other patrons soon complained that they could not find books in the library’s stacks; a backlog of unshelved books was the culprit. As the library tried to perform old and new functions, deficits increased to the point that the system had to cut staff and curtail all new book purchases. In hindsight, this disorganization and the budgetary crisis that it produced derived from trying to have the same staff and operating budget support two very different information mediums. Despite the library’s attempt to integrate them both under one roof, it soon became clear that one librarian could not catalog a book and assist a patron at a computer terminal at the same time. Although book and byte both convey information, they require very different staff administrations in their use and maintenance.9

The pedagogical challenge for library management, computer administrators, and faculty is to encourage students to critically evaluate the authority of the sources they use, whatever the information medium. Yet another finding of the Lubans’ study of 7th–10th grade students was that their Internet research was reasonably well informed in regard to its integrity as a source of information. That group judged the authority of Web sites to be related to "page ownership," "links," and "e-mail link."10 While this approach demonstrates an impressive amount of discrimination, it should serve as a starting point for the formulation of a systematic method of judging Internet source reliability--not only because of pedagogical concerns, but because of a requirement of the recently enacted Digital Millennium Copyright Act. It mandates that colleges and universities inform students on the proper use of Internet sources so that they do not violate the rights of copyright holders.11 Because this legislation will be defined by future court decisions as the Internet evolves, a new program of student orientation for the use of the academic library is requisite. It can no longer be consigned to the beginning of a semester for a week or two, but must be conducted throughout the year. Furthermore, its content must be under constant review to remain current.

With the proliferation of sources on the Web, there is an increasing concern that too much of its content is not authoritative as measured by the standards of the academic library. Yet, a review of federal government Web sites demonstrates the massive amount of legitimate data that is finding its way onto the Internet. Criticisms of the Web in this respect also overlook the fact that the academic library was not built overnight. It took considerable time to formulate the necessary cataloging techniques (Thomas Jefferson being the most famous contributor), and centuries to accumulate the collections of our most outstanding academic libraries. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has explained, when "ideas are detached from the media used to transmit them, they are also cut off from the historical circumstances that shape them, and it becomes difficult to perceive the changing context within which they must be viewed."12 Although we tend to see the academic library as a ready-made information resource, it was not. Therefore, one should not criticize the Internet for its lack of processes that catalog and legitimize its sources. This is the task that lies before us.

Need to collaborate

No single university profession will be able to accomplish this imposing undertaking exclusively. The expertise of librarians is cataloging and locating information; that of the academic faculty is in authoring and analyzing sources on an authoritative basis; students’ increasing Internet use has made them a powerful resource in gathering site data. The means to join all of these divergent groups is the creativity of computer professionals in devising new network features that can link academic libraries with the Internet and with one another to facilitate source retrieval within statutory guidelines. Cumulatively, all of these groups must lend assistance to one another in devising new strategies to locate, analyze, and collect sources of information, because there is no longer one building that identifies them. Previously, one did not have to think too hard about how to categorize or analyze a source’s authority. Academicians and librarians had already performed these tasks by analyzing and cataloging appropriate material. Today that model of information gathering has been transcended, and as we begin to realize the extent of its demise a new paradigm will find its beginning in collaboration across disciplines, professions, and age groups.


1 Kelly McCollum, "High-School Students Use Web Intelligently for Research, Study Finds," Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 December 1998, A25; and John Lubans, Jr., et al., "Key Findings on Internet Use Among Students,"

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2 Christopher Conte, et al., "The Learning Connection: Schools in the Information Age,"; and Mike Mills, "FCC Pares School Internet Program: Funding for Program Cut Nearly in Half," Washington Post, 13 June 1998, D1-2.

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3 "Internet Access in Public Schools," Issue Brief, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, March 1998,

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4 Pamela Mendels, "Study Shows Students Internet Use Primarily for Research," New York Times on the Web, 28 April 1998,; and "Quality Education Data,"

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5 McCollum, A25.

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6 Lubans et al.

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7 Ibid.

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8 NARA’s Electronic Access Project,

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9 Dan Levy, "S. F. Library to Halt Book Buying: Nearly $3 Million Deficit Puts Kibosh on Stack Additions," San Francisco Chronicle, 28 November 1996, A25; Edward Epstein, "Strapped S.F. Library’s Plan to Slash Staff by 10 Percent: Part-timers’ Hours Also Could Be Cut," San Francisco Chronicle, 8 January 1997, A11; and Edward Epstein, "Book-Hunting Tough at New S.F. Library: 62 Percent Couldn’t Find Titles They Wanted," San Francisco Chronicle, 13 January 1997, A1.

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10 Lubans et al.

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11 Pub. L. 105-304, Title II, Online Copyright Infringement Liability Limitation Act, §512 (e) (C).

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12 Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 1: 24-5.

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Charles Smith ( recently received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago. Chris Phillips ( is Director of Administrative Computing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. the table of contents