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Libraries and the Web

Although we've been making some distinctions between the Web and the library, the two aren't distinctly different things. It's important to understand that there is a middle-ground—the idea of the library on the Web. That is to say, many libraries have Web sites which organize information and provide access to collections of quality resources.

One great thing about using the library on the Web is that the information has been evaluated and organized. Sometimes the library has digitized part of their own collections for people around the world to use. Keep in mind that although there is an increasing amount of information in this digital library, some information can only be found in print resources.

Another aspect of this library is how easy it is for you to access. Library Web sites often have information about library hours, policies, and contact information if you need assistance. If you are a student at a university, you can use the library online 24 hours a day, seven days a week from any Internet-connected computer.

Libraries vs the Web

Library resources go through a review process

Librarians select books, magazines, journals, databases, and other media sources. This selection process allows the library to collect sources considered reliable, historically relevant, and valuable.

Library resources are free for your use

Libraries purchase subscriptions to journals, databases, and other resources so they are available for your research. These subscriptions are not cheap but the information is valuable, relevant, and reliable.

Library resources are organized

Items in libraries are organized so you can easily find all the sources on a topic. For example, when you search for a book in the library catalog you will get a call number. The call number will direct you to a specific shelf in the library. The other books and bound journals near the same call number should cover a similar topic.

Library resources are meant to be kept permanently

One of the primary functions of a library is to be an organized storehouse of in-depth information published throughout time. Current and historical information can be found in the library giving the student an picture of how information on a topic developed.

Library resources come with personal assistance

Unlike the Internet which is primarily do-it-yourself, libraries have staff who are trained to assist you in sorting through all these information sources. They can help you learn to use new tools and can answer any questions you have. Some libraries even provide help through their websites. The Virginia Tech Libraries have a reference desk located on the second floor and in each of our branch libraries. We also have an IM chat service and a texting service for help. When all else fails, you can pick up a phone and call us or knock on a librarian's door for help.

Quality over quantity

Libraries have large collections of information on a variety of topics which have been carefully selected and organized. The key idea when using the library is that you are getting QUALITY over QUANTITY. Print or electronic library resources are the best sources to use when starting your research. You can efficiently find quality information from a variety of credible resources in the library.

Although many people first go to the web for information, it is not always the best place for what you need. It's pretty darn difficult to make definitive statements about something as diverse as the web. But here we go.

Most information on the web does not go through a review process

Anyone can publish on the web without passing the content through an editor. Pages might be written by an expert on the topic, a journalist, a disgruntled consumer or a sixth grader.

Some information on the web is not free

Many web pages are free to view (and actually many of the best ones are), but some commercial sites will charge a fee to access all or part of their information.

Information on the web is searchable but not organized

There are too many web pages for any single directory service or search engine to organize and index. Information can be found by using a search engines such as Google or Bing.

Most information on the web is not comprehensive

The millions of web pages out there make up an eclectic hodgepodge of information and opinion. Rarely will you be able to use a search engine on the web to collect information about your topic from different decades, different viewpoints, and different types of sources.

Most information on the web is not permanent

Some well-maintained sites are updated with very current information, but other sites may become quickly dated or disappear altogether without much notice.

The information you find on the web is as varied as the people who put it there

Groups that publish information on the web include:

  • Libraries - That's right, libraries are major producers and purchasers of quality information on the web. The Library of Congress puts copies of important historical photographs and documents on their site called "The American Memory Project."
  • Universities - Universities put entire classes online as well as provide space for their faculty and students to produce web pages. Much of the information you need to enroll and register for classes can be found on the web.
  • Government agencies - In order to make information available to more people, federal, state and local governments are publishing many documents on the web. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) puts copies of tax forms on the web.
  • Companies - Many companies publish financial documents and press releases on their sites. The web is also a major marketing tool for many companies to provide information about their products. Nike produces a popular site full of sports information.
  • Organizations - Organizations have agendas and opinions that they want you to know about. The American Lung Association educates about the dangers of smoking on its web page.
  • People in foreign countries - The web has global representation. With a computer and a phone connection, anyone can publish on the web.

Quantity over quality

The web can be a good research source for:

  • sampling public opinion of people on the Internet
  • gathering a wide range of ideas
  • locating information on topics not found in mainstream publications
  • learning more about companies and organizations
  • reading information from the government
  • finding quick facts
  • catching up with current news

The key idea when using the web is that you get QUANTITY over QUALITY. The web is a good tool for finding information, but it is usually not the best place to begin academic research.

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