The Librarian and the Internet

Recently, I’ve been looking into what I would need to do to become a Librarian. Now, this may seem a little strange to you but Librarians are increasingly involved with Internet-related information, technology, and applications, so who knows…

The roles of libraries and the Internet in providing information in the 21st century are firmly intertwined. It behooves any librarian working today to understand not only how to find things on the World Wide Web but to have a basic understanding of how it works.

Librarians will be called on to become information architects, to be able to create websites with clearly stated goals, that are aesthetically pleasing and filled with relevant content and functionality. The information architect should be, “someone who can think like an outsider and be sensitive to the needs of the site’s users and at the same time is enough of an insider to understand the site’s sponsoring organization, its mission, goals, content, audience, and inner workings.”

As more and more libraries set up comprehensive Web sites, there becomes an increasing demand for librarians who have an understanding of HTML, as well as other types of Internet programming skills such as javascript, SQL, CGI, ASP, and Cold Fusion.

Librarians should know the principles of setting up an effective information resource. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen gives a simple list of ten heuristics that make Web interfaces much more effective for the user. A library website should be easy to navigate, with clearly defined labels and room for change and growth. No longer is this the realm of grey-dressed nondescript persons that seem to be grieving about something at all times (not like me; I seem to be in that mood mainly around Christmas and New Year).

As the Internet becomes more interactive, there is a push toward making databases accessible online; the best example of this is the library card catalog. Other interactive options include e-mail and bulletin board service, and moving from CD-ROMs to online subscriptions. The question is, who will maintain the technology necessary to support these activities in a way as Steve Jobs has taught us?

More and more libraries are seeing the need to hire a systems librarian. A library Web site is not merely establishing a presence on the Internet. It can be a virtual addition to the existing library structure, reaching out to patrons around the clock and providing valuable information resources. Will your library be equipped to do this? Well, I was on the way to self-employment again but maybe I have to reconsider my future professional life.

Additionally, a library’s Web site is an important source of information about the library. The library’s Internet policies, special programming, and new materials can all be made viewable at any time from the Web site. Web pages geared toward young readers promote the library as an exciting resource for the Internet, as well as the books held within its physical structure.

The Internet is slowly moving towards becoming a global online card catalog of infinite proportions. This is the evolution news of our new online economy. In other words, someday a user may search the Internet and successfully find appropriate resources to match that search, much as a patron does when they use a card catalog in a library. The reality today is that a simple search might turn up 20,000 documents–and 19,650 of them are unrelated, while only about 20 supply the information needed–a thoroughly frustrating process. Through the use of metadata, it is hoped that Web pages will be much more specifically defined, thereby making searches more specific.

Metadata is, literally, data about data. A card in a card catalog contains metadata about a specific book or resource. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each Web page on the Internet had a “card” that could be searched? The good news is that some headway is being made in this direction after it had been procrastinated for some years. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative seeks to describe Web resources. A simple set of tags, the Dublin Core can be easily inserted into any HTML document. The tags include information about the author, subject, and keywords as well as twelve other elements.

Another move toward metadata is XML-extensible markup language. Rising from the same roots as HTML, XML seeks to make intelligent Web pages that include information about the resource right in the coding. Thus, a more intelligent search for Web material can be conducted. For instance, a teacher could specify that they are searching for lesson plans on Shakespeare and narrow down their search for valuable information considerably, because they would not get the thousands of pages out there that are about Shakespeare, but not necessarily lesson plans. The World Wide Web Consortium and XMLU both are excellent resources for more information about this complex but exciting new markup language.

With the advent of meta tags and improved search engine mechanisms, the Internet quest for appropriate materials to fill specific information needs should slowly become less cumbersome. Until then, librarians have the opportunity to serve as guides for users and patrons who are overwhelmed by the vast quantity of websites out there. Libraries, too, should be designing their own websites that serve as portals to interesting sites that have been reviewed and annotated by professional librarians. Librarians will continue to play an important role as leaders and information professionals in the Information Age, well into the 21st century.