|In the last thirty years computers have changed the lives of
academics so much that it is difficult to remember back to a time when they were not
influential. To illustrate the point, I went back to my appointment books and a personal
journal I kept as a graduate student in 1973 and tried to reconstruct how I did the
research for my dissertation on family conflict. I was able to find descriptions of some
of the dates and places of my work in Boston libraries, and much of the original material
that I collected and read to form the literature chapter. What I discovered made clear to
me how much things have changed.
Beginning in September of 1973 I spent approximately eight months working several days a week in three different libraries in Boston (Boston University, Harvard and Boston College) searching indexes such as the Social Sciences and Humanities Index for journal articles on the subject of my research. Typically the articles were to be found in journals in storage in closed stacks, so I had to give a reference staff member a citation for the article and wait for it to be brought to me. Then I had to read it in the library and, if I thought it might be useful for my work, either take detailed notes or copy the article on a machine in the library. (I carried a special bag of change for the purpose.) In many cases the journal article had to be ordered through inter-library loan from a remote library, and my wait was sometimes measured in weeks. The end result of all this was a collection of three boxes of notes and copies of articles.
Now, things have changed so much that twenty-seven years later I was able to essentially reproduce my earlier literature search in less than an afternoon. I never had to leave the desk in my office and, in fact, I was able to find many more citations than I had originally. For anyone who has conducted a literature search using computerized sources, there is no magic in this. There is a wide range of library collections available at Bridgewater, and many more from the great research universities in the world through a variety of computer connections. For those who have not had reason to do such a literature search, I can easily illustrate the process. I took a few moments from writing this article to connect to Maxwell Librarys electronic databases and conducted a search using something called Academic Search Elite which describes itself as An index, with abstracts, to 3000+ publications, many of which are in the social sciences. Over 1000 of the periodicals covered here are available in full text. I typed in the search words family conflict and within a few seconds found that a search of the journals included in this particular index contained 158 articles related to the subject of family conflict. Many of these could be read on screen and printed in on my office printer or on a faster, remote printer. Similar sorts of searches using other indexes that covered other journals could have been conducted as easily and almost as quickly. And electronic searches are not limited to journals. Recently, Maxwell Library obtained access to NetLibrary, a shared collection of approximately 7400 electronic books.
Obviously our jobs as teachers and researchers are changed greatly by such technology. But other jobs are changed even more. Consider the work of librarians, especially those who work in the area of reference. There are still paper resources to deal with and buildings to house them. We read books and journals in the old fashioned ways, especially if we are, in fact, old fashioned. (I still prefer paper journals to electronic for some purposes. For example I like to skim the last few years of some of the journals in my field to get a sense of what is generally going on beyond my relatively narrow areas of interest.) But most of the work of reference librarians is in the electronic area. In Maxwell Library, for example, Sarah Nesbeitt is one of a number of reference librarians who support the electronic reference needs of the college community. Her job did not exist twenty years ago because the technology did not exist. Here is what her job looks like today.
Sarah Nesbeitts job is roughly divided in halves between her responsibilities to users of the library, and to the operation of the librarys automated systems. Lets begin with the user-oriented part of her job. When a student, faculty member or staff member needs to find some library resource he or she may go to a reference librarian for help. The range of questions is a broad as the range of forms in which our information is available today. For example, a library patron typically wants information on a particular topic, and the information may be found in any of a variety of forms, including books, journals, films, videos, government documents, audio tapes, databases, web sites or other electronic publications. Before electronic search technologies existed, a good reference librarian could answer patron questions with a knowledge of the holdings of their own library, or by use of guides to the holdings of other libraries with which they formed consortiums (usually regional) for the sharing of materials. This is still very much true - its just that the ways of searching these other libraries databases is easier now. Before, too, librarians, particularly in academic libraries, spent a lot of time showing patrons how to do searches, but the catalog medium was different then. But now a reference librarian spends a good deal of time showing patrons how to search the materials in their own library, and the seemingly infinite number of other libraries and information resources for answers to their research questions. Many of the sources of information are not in physical library buildings, but in virtual libraries or library collections that maintain information in electronic form alone. Sarahs knowledge of the techniques for finding these sources must keep up with both the newly available materials that are coming on line every day, but also with those that were in traditional printed form, but are now being republished in electronic form. Classic texts (both fiction and non-fiction) and old journals are daily translated into electronic form and made available to on-line searches. I learned my academic search skills thirty years ago and used them happily until a few years ago. I had no reason to complain about days spent in the stacks until I asked a reference librarian (not Sarah, actually, but Cynthia Svoboda, who also does this work in Maxwell Library) for help in finding some arcane bit of information. Expecting to be directed to an on-line version of my old search indexes, I was surprised to see Cynthia conduct the equivalent of a weeks worth of search in a few minutes work at a library computer terminal. Sarah and the other reference librarians spend a great deal of time helping patrons conduct such searches for their specific needs.
Needless to say, no college library can afford to hire enough reference librarians to answer all the reference questions that students and teachers can ask of them. So another large part of Sarahs job is to teach patrons how to do such searches themselves. For students learning these skills is a required part of their curriculum and a natural extension of the computer world in which they were raised. But for older teachers like me, learning computer skills is neither easy nor natural. Part of Sarahs job is to help people like me to gain the search skills so we dont have to ask for reference help for each of our unique searches for classes and for research. Eventually, we should actually be able to teach these skills in our own classes. As part of this process publishes printed and electronic guides to inform library users of new resources as they become available. She and the other reference librarians also assist faculty with class-related assignments by teaching library instruction sessions for students.
The other half of Sarahs time is devoted to the information
system itself. The physical computers, the software that runs them, and the information
services and databases to which the library subscribes must be installed and maintained.
New products must be evaluated and integrated into the system, and the system must also be
evaluated in terms of its efficacy for users. These are primary responsibilities that
Sarah Nesbeitt deals with daily. None of them existed even twenty years ago. She designed
the Librarys web site and maintains it, working from decisions made by a web
committee she chaired. Anyone who calls up the college web site can get into the library
web site and, depending on their location (on-campus or off campus) use a range of the
library resources and search capabilities. For example, Webster, the electronic catalog of
the holdings of the Maxwell Library, went online in June of 1999. Sarah later designed the
interface and many of the graphics that made it a Bridgewater site. The paper card catalog
is ancient history already. Also on the library web page are links for other library
resources and services. These include: