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How Special Librarians really use the Internet

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How Special Librarians really use the Internet

Date:         Wed, 1 Apr 1992 11:02:22 CST
From:         Public-Access Computer Systems Forum <[email protected]>
Subject:      Special Librarians and the Internet
To:           Ernest Perez <[email protected]>

From: "Sharyn Ladner, Business Librarian, University of Miami Richter Library"
 <[email protected]>
Subject: Special Librarians & the Internet

Last Summer we asked special librarians to participate in a
study of Internet use.  We are posting this report of our
findings and implications for the library of the future on
the nine listservs and forums where we posted our original
request for participation (PACS-L, LIBREF-L, BUSLIB-L,
apologize in advance for this duplication but feel it's
important for our respondents to see what we found out.

We invite comments and encourage discussion of our findings
and interpretation.




            Sharyn J. Ladner, Business Librarian
          University of Miami (FL) Richter Library
                ([email protected])
                   ([email protected])


           Hope N. Tillman, Director of Libraries
                       Babson College
                   ([email protected])

In the Summer of 1991 we asked special librarians with
access to BITNET and Internet to tell us how they use these
networks and what value they receive from this use.  We hope
that our findings will serve as a basis for future research
in the use of electronic communications technology by
information professionals within the modern organization,
including the effects of these technologies on the role and
position of the information professional within the


While there has been a veritable explosion of articles in
recent years on libraries and the Internet, there is a
singular lack of published research on how the Internet is
actually used by librarians.  Articles on the Internet
typically discuss policy issues, describe network services
and guides, or discuss user support and promotion.  Most
address in some way the idea that Internet (or BITNET, or
NREN) connectivity is the key to the library of the future,
but none examine actual use other than as case studies or
histories.  This research, then, departs from the current
body of Internet literature by addressing these questions:
How is the Internet actually being used by practicing
librarians today?  Are the network services and efficiencies
touted in the literature being used like their designers

Special librarians are a unique group to study because they
have a knowledge base in more than one discipline.  Special
librarians are, for the most part, not only information
professionals holding advanced degrees in library or
information science, they are also specialists in one or
more subject areas, often with postgraduate training in
science, business or law.  In addition, many special
librarians in science or technology fields work closely with
researchers who have been using Internet precursors such as
ARPANET, NSFNET and MILNET for years.  Special librarians,
whether managers of industrial libraries or academic subject
specialists, are more often in public services positions,
and they may use the Internet differently from technical
services or systems librarians.  The lack of research on
special librarians' use of interactive communications
technology leads us to ask the following questions:  Do
special librarians differ from other types of librarians in
their use of the Internet?  How do they interact with their
users who may already be using these inter-connected
networks for their own research activities?  How does their
use of the Internet compare to their use of internal e-mail
systems within their own organizations?

In this report, we have limited our discussion to Internet
use and training and implications of this use for the
library of the future.  For the sake of brevity, we have
included only a cursory description of our methodology.


Participants were solicited through "Call for Participation"
announcements posted on nine computer conferences in July,
1991, and through a similar announcement in the August issue
of the _SpeciaList_, the monthly newsletter of the Special
Libraries Association.  We sent a five-page electronic
questionnaire to the 113 librarians who responded to this
initial announcement; the 54 special librarians who
responded to this second survey are the focus of our study.
Our respondents were self-selected; we made no attempt at
probability sampling because our purpose was to find out the
ways in which special librarians use the Internet, not their
extent of use.

On the "Call for Participation" announcement we included a
brief questionnaire which potential respondents were asked
to return, either electronically, via fax or regular mail.
Here we asked respondents to list the computer conferences
to which they subscribed; the length of time they had been
using either BITNET or the Internet; and to "Briefly
describe (in a paragraph or less) your use (and/or your
patrons' use) of BITNET or the Internet."  On the five-page
questionnaire we asked a series of structured questions to
find out how and for what purposes our respondents used
BITNET or Internet, so that we could flesh out the
information we had already received through the preliminary
survey.  We asked them, for example, to rank five functions
or capabilities available on BITNET or Internet by extent of
use and to describe how they used these functions.  We
also included a series of questions about training and costs
involved in accessing these systems.

To determine the importance and value of BITNET or Internet
to their work and for special librarians in general, we
asked a series of unstructured open-ended questions at the
end of the survey form.  We asked respondents to describe,
based on their experience, "the major advantage or
opportunity for special librarians in using
BITNET/Internet"; "the major disadvantage or barrier for
special librarians in using BITNET/Internet"; their "most
interesting or memorable experience on BITNET or Internet";
and finally, we asked them for "any other comments [they'd]
like to make about the use of BITNET or Internet by special

Sixty-five percent of our respondents are academic
librarians and 59% are in libraries with a subject emphasis
in science or technology.  Other subjects represented are
law, medicine, maps and business.  All five respondents
from for-profit corporations are in the computer industry.
Our participants represent a wide range of administrative
levels:  46% are in management (library directors, assistant
directors or branch or department heads) and 55% are subject
specialists.  They work in libraries ranging in size from
the single person library to larger academic libraries with
several hundred employees.  Librarians from the most
technologically advanced institutions to smaller colleges
and universities outside the urban, technological mainstream
are represented in our study.  Although 93% of our
respondents are located in the United States, we also have
participants from Canada, Argentina and The Netherlands.


Respondents' median experience level on the Internet (or
BITNET) is 24 months:  16 respondents have used these
networks for 12 months or less; 19 reported 13 to 36 months
experience; and an additional 19 have accessed the Internet
for more than three years.  Respondents' use of Internet or
BITNET is heavier than their use of e-mail within their own
organization:  59% spend between two and five hours each
week in Internet-related activity, whereas only 33% spend
this amount of time on their internal e-mail systems (z =
2.81, p < .01).  Seven respondents have never used electronic
mail within their parent organization.

We asked survey respondents whether the library/department
or the parent organization paid for access to the Internet,
and how this compared to the expense for internal e-mail.
Most respondents had the cost of both internal and external
e-mail paid for by their parent organizations.  Slightly
more libraries had to pay for access to internal e-mail from
their departmental budgets than for Internet access, but
this difference was not significant.  Approximately 20% of
the respondents did not know who paid for either internal or
external e-mail.

As might be expected, the longer someone has searched the
Internet, the more they were responsible for their own
instruction. We asked respondents to check as many of the
types of training they had received as applicable. 65% of
the respondents taught themselves. 59% learned informally
from a colleague. Formal training from a single one-hour
class to more structured learning was available to 39%. The
fact that none of them learned in library school could
easily be a function of when the respondents attended
library school, but we did not ask that question. Two other
categories were cited by several respondents: learning by
asking questions on the Internet itself and use of
documentation provided by the local computer center
operation. Descriptive responses showed some respondents
learning with a minimum of hand holding; these did not see
the need for instruction offered by their local computer

In answer to our question of what training should be
provided for new users and who should provide the training,
respondents identified very specific knowledge that should
be imparted in the training. The need for coverage of both
theory and basic training techniques were frequently
mentioned. Training should cover both history and philosophy
of the Internet along with what it is, what's out there, and
how it works. Useful training sessions would include
training in FTP, telnet, mail, Netnews, addressing
algorithms, proper etiquette, security rules to safeguard
computers/data, how to connect to the Internet, how to keep
up with Internet developments and changing resources, how to
manage the flow of information, and how this differs from
the other (for pay) online services. A second area of
training addressed librarians' needs: how the Net can be
helpful to librarians, its potential for libraries, how to
identify information nodes to locate and access forums and
publishers of relevance to one's interests, how to make the
best use of increased connectivity to streamline library
procedures, and how to persuade important vendors to provide
e-mail access or EDI.

While a few respondents questioned the need for any
instruction, most respondents assigned responsibility for
training to multiple bases: parent organizations (by both
libraries and computer centers), professional associations
and library schools. Instructional tools cited were print
documentation, video, and demo disks. There was a recurrent
theme of the need for easy-to-use packaged information.


We organized responses to the open-ended question, "Briefly
describe your use of BITNET or the Internet," into six
umbrella categories:  work-related communication and
electronic mail, computer conferences and electronic
journals, remote database searching, file transfer and data
exchange, research and publication, and personal
communication and leisure activities.  Table 1 shows the
percent of use by category:

                           Table 1


     Use*                                         Percent

     Work-related communication, e-mail              93%

     Electronic forums, BBS, listservs               61%

     Searching remote databases (telnet)             39%

     File transfer (FTP), data exchange              37%

     Research and publication                        22%

     Personal communication, leisure activities      11%
     *Multiple responses possible; percents do not total

Except for file transfer activities, there are no
differences in use of these Internet functions by type of
library (academic vs. other types), subject emphasis (sci-
tech vs. other subjects), or experience level (length of
time on the Internet).

Electronic mail and computer forums:

The findings displayed in Table 1 are striking and
unequivocal:  the principal use of the Internet by the
special librarians in our study is for electronic mail.  The
most common reason our respondents use the Internet is to
communicate with colleagues and friends, and the value of
this activity was stressed over and over again.  Many
respondents reported that access to the Internet reduces
geographical distance and feelings of isolation from
colleagues and instills a sense of collegiality and
connectedness with other library professionals.  Others
mentioned the speed of communication -- saving time,
reducing telephone tag, eliminating phone calls.  Other
reasons for use of e-mail on the Internet mentioned by
respondents include getting quick copyright permission,
providing and receiving electronic reference and technical
assistance, requesting and providing ILLs, requesting
library materials, missing issues, duplicate exchanges,
identifying document sources, submitting applications for
employment, and facilitating professional association
business and committee work.

Special librarians are active participants in computer
discussion groups.  They do not limit themselves to library-
related lists but monitor and join relevant sci-tech and
business discussions as well:  our 54 respondents belong to
68 different computer discussion groups.  Respondents
mentioned the following benefits: (1) a focussed forum for
topics of interest to a specific audience; (2) an excellent
and swift communications vehicle where questions can be
raised and answers provided to all the participants, rumors
can be defused, and reasons for actions can be explained
once and transmitted easily to the entire audience; and (3)
reduced telecommunication costs because it costs the same to
send a message to one person as to send it to a large group.

Remote database searching:

Thirty-nine percent of our respondents reported that they
access remote computer systems on the Internet.  Of these,
80% mentioned that they search other library catalogs.  They
search OPACs for a variety of traditional task-related
reasons:  to check availability status or identify ownership
before requesting an interlibrary loan, for collection
development and acquisitions work, and for reference.
Others mentioned that they search remote catalogs
evaluatively, to test other search interfaces or to see what
other libraries are doing with their automated systems.

Several respondents made reference to specific library
systems with expanded search capabilities beyond access to
the library's OPAC, such as the University of California's
MELVYL and the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries CARL
system.  Others mentioned that they use the Internet to
access non-library bibliographic services such as RLIN,
OCLC's EPIC, Medline, and Dialog.

Substantially fewer special librarians search non-
bibliographic databases on the Internet compared to library
catalogs and other bibliographic systems.  Astronomy
librarians are more involved in their use of the Internet
for non-bibliographic information than librarians in other
disciplines, which is no doubt due to the vital role that
the Internet plays in the astronomy research community.

File transfer and data exchange:

Thirty-seven percent of our respondents use the Internet to
transfer files, about the same proportion that log into
remote databases.  Unlike electronic mail and remote
database searching, there are differences in the use of file
transfer utilities by network experience level:  50% of the
experienced users (defined as respondents who have used
BITNET or Internet for more than two years) send or retrieve
files over the Internet, compared to only 25% of their less
experienced colleagues (z = -1.96, p = .05).  More sci-tech
librarians also use file transfer utilities than do special
librarians in other disciplines, but these differences are
not significant (z = 1.32).

Like remote databases, respondents for the most part
consider file transfer functions secondary to their use of
electronic mail.  They often discuss file transfer with
remote login, indicating that there may be a conceptual
blurring of these two Internet functions.  Special
librarians on the Internet use FTP to obtain files resident
on remote systems; others request files through BITNET
listservs.  For example, several reported that they download
computer-related information from remote servers, such as
the WAIS application from Thinking Machines, listserv-
specific reports such as PACS-L Review articles, computer
science technical reports, and shareware.  Many retrieve
Internet guides such as the Barron and St. George
directories, Kovacs' directory of computer forums, and
Strangelove's directory of E-journals.  Several retrieve
regulatory reports and government documents, technical
reports, or receive alert services from Dialog, SRI
documents, and newsletters.

Special librarians also send files on the Internet backbone.
Examples include search results to remote users,
acquisitions lists, and Project Gutenberg files.  Astronomy
librarians, again, are particularly active in file transfer

Research and publication on the Internet:

Twenty-two percent of our respondents described uses of the
Internet related to research and publication.  Our
respondents use the Internet in two ways:  as researchers
collaborating with colleagues at other institutions and
connecting with journal editors and book publishers, and as
editors of newsletters or journals who are themselves
responsible for communicating with contributors.  Their
experiences demonstrate how the Internet enhances the
dissemination of information to members of the library
science community, by providing access to people through
electronic mail and access to electronic information through
file transfer and remote login.

The value of communication:

We asked study participants to describe, based on their own
experience, the "major advantage or opportunity" for special
librarians in using the Internet.  All 50 respondents who
replied to this question mentioned some aspect of electronic
communication in their responses.  In other words, these
special librarians who themselves are active Internet users
consider electronic mail to be the major reason why special
librarians should use the Internet, because it provides a
convenient, timely, nondisruptive, and inexpensive mechanism
for communication with their colleagues throughout the

Over and over respondents mentioned the same things:  "Truly
breaks down the walls (physical, psychological, economic) to
communication," "Contact with other special librarians in
your area without having to travel...," "Ease of
communication when you want it," "...communication of ideas
and discussions will take place via e-mail that will never
see the light elsewhere...," "To communicate with colleagues
on topics of mutual interest," "...a way of sharing in
real-time, information & experience...," "The ability to
share information with colleagues throughout the world in a
timely fashion," "Instantaneous world-wide communication
with colleagues for information-gathering and idea-sharing,"
"...forming a greater library community based on interest
rather than on geography...," "...forging new and unique
work relationships with colleagues ... geographically close
or far...," "...rapid communication with colleagues who can
provide a wealth of experience...," "The ability to
communicate with others in similar situations...," "To
interact all over US and world -- time differences are
eliminated and your colleague is always 'home',"
"...communication and sharing with colleagues on both
specific problems/questions and general issues...."


The use of the Internet for communication by the special
librarians in our study parallels what happened with early
users of ARPANET.  ARPANET was established by the Department
of Defense as a way for computer scientists and other
researchers with defense contracts to share expensive
resources.  Electronic mail was added as an afterthought,
and was considered by some of the DOD systems people to be
unnecessary -- peripheral to the research functions for
which the network was designed.  Contrary to expectations,
however, electronic mail became the most popular feature of
the network because it provided a way for researchers to
talk to each other -- to exchange ideas and discuss
problems.  Like the computer scientists and other early
users of ARPANET, the librarians in our study also use the
Internet to talk to each other and to their patrons --
fielding inquiries, finding answers, identifying resources,
solving problems, i.e., they use the Internet primarily for
communicating, not for building or even accessing

In one respect, librarians who use the Internet are no
different from any other user group -- they use it to
communicate with each other as well as to obtain "hard data"
(i.e., tap into resources).  But librarians can do something
else as well as a result of their training and knowledge of
information processes and information organization -- they
can go beyond using the Internet as a resource and use their
skills to help make it less chaotic.

To understand why the electronic mail function is so
important, it may help to conceptualize the Internet as a
giant parallel processing computer.  People use the Internet
to communicate -- to talk to each other, pose questions and
provide answers.  Information between and among people flows
in parallel, in real time.  But this is not the only use:
there is something else going on here, in that resources are
available too, also in parallel.  Published articles about
the Internet emphasize these resources (library catalogs,
remote databases full of esoteric data) and the physical
strands (optical fibers and satellites) that tie it all
together.  These strands, however, are not just the physical
connections -- these strands are also the human connections,
the communications between individuals and among groups of
people.  People are still the most efficient parallel
processing information filters there are.

The important thing is that you don't have to talk to one
person at a time.  People place requests for information
across a universe of potential responders, instead of
dealing with one responder at a time.  As in computer
processing, this is a vastly more efficient way of
processing information.  Potential responders screen the
requests for information to see if they are applicable to
their interests or their abilities to respond.  Thus people
who normally would not be considered in the loop to solve a
particular problem find themselves in the position of
providing valuable information to each other.  The emerging
global community created by these systems is more democratic
and less hierarchical than conventional systems.

The people who communicate on the Internet provide meaning
and understanding -- they create a synergy that's not
possible with human-machine linkages alone.  It's the human-
human linkages that are important because this technology-
enhanced interaction is what will have the biggest impact
on our organizations of the future.  Because it's people
that ask questions and people that answer questions and
people that discuss issues -- and it's people that develop
files ready to be retrieved from central depositories, and
not just central depositories, but locations that can exist
anywhere -- it doesn't matter if the data you need is
located centrally in the bowels of the National Library of
Medicine or exists on the VAX in Podunk U -- the
interconnectedness of the Internet makes location
irrelevant.  In the same way, it doesn't matter if you are a
special librarian located in a university on the mainland
and need to talk to an astronomer on a mountaintop in Oahu
-- you can do this practically instantaneously via the
Internet.  Further, it doesn't matter if that astronomer is
in the middle of complicated calculations or on a conference
call to The Netherlands, she will get your message at her
convenience, without her thought processes being

Electronic mail on the Internet provides a mechanism for
community.  To create AI navigators, online directories, and
other electronic guides to the network without human
interaction removes community from scholarship.  The
"scholar's workstation" has been proposed as the ideal
toward which we should strive.  But perhaps we ought to
rethink this "ideal":  in an isolated, machine-based network
of information sources, do we run the risk that knowledge
will be created in isolation?  Will scholars toil at their
computer workstations, tapping into vast and varied
databases of information, guided by artificial intelligence
front-end gateways to the next bit (or byte) of data,
thereby eliminating communication with others in their
intellectual pursuit?

The participants in our study tell us something that we may
have forgotten in our infatuation with the new forms of
information made available through the Internet.  And that
is their need for community.  To be sure, our respondents
use the Internet to obtain information not available in any
other format, to access databases and OPACs that provide new
efficiencies in their work, new ways of working.  But their
primary use is for communication.  Special librarians tend
to be isolated in the workplace -- the only one in their
subject specialty (in the case of academe), or the only
librarian in their organization (in the case of a corporate
library).  Time and time again our respondents expressed
this need to talk to someone -- to learn what is going on in
their profession, to bounce ideas off others, to obtain
information from people, not machines.

There are tremendous implications from the Internet
technology in community formation -- the Internet may indeed
provide a way to increase community among scholars,
including librarians.  The danger we face at this juncture
in time, as we attach library resources to the Internet, is
to focus all of our energies on the machine-based resources
at the expense of our human-based resources, i.e.,
ourselves.  Do we really want solely to create an
objective, distant, remote, value-free "knowbot" to direct
users to library-resident, machine-readable resources
residing on the Internet?  We see the need at the same time
to create a human interface -- a community of knowledge
navigators serving to connect people who can interact in
their pursuit of truth.

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