Whenever I read an announcement of a new distance learning offering, such as that made by Michael Saylor a few weeks ago, I struggle with competing feelings of excitement and frustration. On the one hand, I am pleased to see new opportunities for higher education for people who are unable to take advantage of traditional colleges and courses. On the other hand, I am disappointed that philanthropists such as Mr. Saylor believe they can offer a first-class educational experience without also providing access to a first-class library.
At some point in a student's educational experience (especially in a "Harvard-quality curriculum" such as Mr. Saylor proposes) she will need to do research in a library, and the local public library will simply not meet her needs. If she is fortunate enough to live near a major academic library should she expect to receive free services and unlimited access to its collections? Should the reference librarians take time to help her while other on-campus students wait in line? Should computing facilities, study rooms or training laboratories be open to her?
I do not have answers to such questions, but I see no evidence that Mr. Saylor has even thought about them. This is a critical oversight. Perhaps he believes that an adequate virtual library already exists, that his students need do little more than search the World Wide Web to find their research materials. There are at least three reasons why this is a false assumption.
Regardless of what promises we hear to the contrary from homework-helper sites and glitzy television ads, the world wide web simply does not afford the resources a student needs to do college-level research. Even though the web exceeds a billion pages it cannot compensate for things that are unavailable in electronic format. The few thousand full-text e-books that now exist in cyberspace total only a tiny fraction of the millions housed in the libraries of every major university in America. And even though some significant individual resources, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, can be found on the web, they cannot match the breadth and depth of the reference collection in even a modest college library.
Enormous resources of contemporary journal literature, especially indexes to scholarly articles, are not openly available on the web. Older research journals also are scarce. Some excellent efforts are underway to create large bodies of older articles, such as JSTOR and Project Muse, but these are still small, expensive, and not open to the general public. It will be years before any substantial amount of pre-1980 journal literature is easily accessible on the web.
The major reason for this is also the second reason why Mr. Saylor and others must be cautious to speak of "free" college education: resources cost money. Irrespective of the cries that "information wants to be free" is the reality that people who do research, write papers, edit and publish journals, compile market reports, report legal decisions, build indexes to journal literature, and perform countless similar tasks, must still eat and pay rent.
Companies that create such online resources charge libraries hefty fees to maintain subscriptions to them. The more students and faculty who have access, both in the library and from remote locations, the greater the cost. It is not unusual for these fees to run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Even Mr. Saylor's millions would be inadequate to provide these databases to the whole world at no cost.
Perhaps the major flaw in the image of a virtual university-sans-library is that it ignores the incalculable value of the librarians, the men and women who offer both expert advice on finding materials on whatever topic a student is studying, as well as a listening ear and reassurance when the research process bogs down or fails. They do much more than simply provide answers. They also are accomplished teachers who can help students become information literate: to learn how to locate appropriate resources, evaluate what they find, and manage the huge amounts of data that research generates. Such learning requires hands-on practice under the guidance of a skilled professional. E-mail reference services struggle to provide even the basics of such instruction, and no dot.com advice site or online tutorial yet comes close to adequately teaching the research process.
A central problem is that web search engines cannot deal with ideas. They are good at finding words (at least in the 50% or so of the public/free web that they collectively index) but they are still in their infancy in their ability to disambiguate users' requests. For example, a search for "bond" information could retrieve references to glue, to the stock market, to bail bondsmen, and even to 007. "Jaguar" is an animal, a car, and a football team. Search engines are only beginning to grapple with such distinctions.
A student needs easy and convenient access to a flesh-and-blood librarian. After retrieving hundreds (or even thousands) of e-references from the web, who will help him separate the wheat from the chaff, to learn to discern what is worth keeping? Librarians, "information specialists," are the most qualified persons to teach such skills.
An institution of higher education can be no better than its library, whether both are physical or online. I am confident that someday we will find ways to improve the depth and quality of web resources and will develop more effective tools to find materials in cyberspace. I'm less confident that we will ever create adequate surrogate librarians -- even Star Trek's Data of the 24th century is unique. However, one thing is clear: we will never find solutions to the problems of the virtual library unless we first ask the necessary questions. Let's not ignore them in the next online education proposal.
Martin Raish is chair of the Department of Library Instruction and Information Literacy at Brigham Young University.