Computer technology is an invaluable supplement for research, but it becomes inefficient when it is used as a substitute for the hands-on investigation of the stacks. In any large, old library, there are unknown quantities of printed materials that cannot be found in electronic catalogs. Some of them were missed during the shift from cards to databases; others were never cataloged at all.
Sometimes librarians think a book that hasn’t been checked out in decades is seldom used. But many books are consulted in the stacks without being borrowed; if those books are not there, they will have to be obtained by more labor-intensive and costly methods. Most of my discoveries as a researcher come from the efficiency of being able to spend 10 seconds glancing at the contents of nearby books instead of having to make an elaborate and time-consuming plan to track down tangential leads. —Thomas H. Benton —Stacks’ Appeal (Chronicle)
Well, of course, if you’re lucky enough to have access to the Harvard Stacks, the internet can’t duplicate all the resources available to you. But for the rest of us, the internet is pretty convenient. Still, Benton’s worries are well-phrased:
Many entering students come from nearly book-free homes. Many have not read a single book all the way through; they are instead trained to surf and skim. Teachers increasingly find it difficult to get students to consult printed materials, and yet we are making those materials even harder to obtain. Online journal articles are suitable for searching and extraction, but how conducive is a computer for reading a novel?
Of course, fretting about ye goode olde dayes won’t help our students, who can’t help it that they were born into a digital generation.