I've been interested in computers for most of my life, have been an active participant in BBSs and on the Internet for the past four years, and have watched the idle imaginings of science fiction writers turn slowly into something approaching a reality as our real-life technologies began to catch up with those that they postulated in their stories. I've been fascinated with these ideas, not only throughout my own education as I pursued a Philosophy degree but also on a personal level. Our methods of education, our culture and lifestyles, are changing before our eyes, and I'm excited to be a part of that historical event.
Recently, I've had reason to put some of my thoughts onto the screen as I responded to a question posted by someone on the Internet. It gave me reason to express some of the analogies that I can see between the written text of libraries and library services and the new electronic age of "virtual" information. It also helped to clarify why I think that the Internet, and other forms of distance-less and time-less communication, are going to play such an important role in our future. I'd like to reiterate some of these thoughts here, primarily as they impact on the issue of education.
It's my position that our academic system is obliged to provide students with free access to the Internet in just the same way as they are obliged to provide students with free library access - within the structure of a paid tuition fee at any rate. About a century and a half ago there was no such thing as free library access. Libraries were all privatised, in the hands of a few. If you wanted access to this material you had to make special arrangements with the library owners, and even, upon occasion, have to pay to be able to use the books that were stored there. Universities at that time were probably asking themselves the very same sorts of questions of libraries that they are now asking themselves of the Internet: Is there any reason that we should fund this student's request to use the information found at this particular source? Today, library access is free and easily available; students can, for instance, request inter-University library loans of material that would otherwise require them to travel inconvenient distances to view.
The cost of accessing information on the Internet is free once the initial fee for the service is paid. Similarly, the cost of maintaining library services is free once the "rent" has been paid, the book bought for the library, etc. In fact, there is more upkeep required in order to run a library than there is to gain access to the Internet. Since most graduate and undergraduate institutions already have computers and Internet access it's simply a question of how much of that they should make available to their students. While hesitations over budgetary concerns do come into play to some extent, the real issue has more to do with policy, planning, and the perspective of each institution towards its education priorities.
In all respects I see the Internet as quite analogous to the library. Moreover, electronic information is completely up to date, involves hardly any "copying" expenses, is capable of delivering needed academic information far more quickly than any library (you need never wait for a book to be returned by someone else nor do you have to spend days tracking it down in an out of city or out of country library), and offers search and filter algorithms immensely superior to those of paper copy. Several initiatives to translate existing hardcopy texts into electronic form, such as the Gutenberg project, are already well underway. I've heard of students who, instead of buying their course material at local bookstores, have saved considerable amounts of money, sometimes hundreds of dollars, by instead accessing it through a few simple keystrokes on a computer. All in all, the electronic information offered by the Internet is far superior to that of the library in potential if not, often, in actual fact. If the purpose of offering free library resources is to maximise the library's potential as a pedagogic tool then surely there is no logical reason why the Internet should be denied the same treatment.
That said, some might say that while electronic information is certainly a useful tool that is, nonetheless, only an added "bonus" of our age. Yet, I look back once again on the history of the library and wonder about this. Would the removal of all currently accepted library privileges hurt a student? I don't think there's any question that this would be the case. A tremendous amount of course work depends on the information provided by that access. Would it be possible for a student to get a good education without library access? Of course - but it would be far more difficult and the level of education would drop. The reason that we see a loss of library access as detrimental is because we live in a culture that has grown accustomed to widespread access and its benefits. One and a half centuries ago the extensive library system we have now would have been seen only as a help to the student, it's lack certainly not a hindrance.
I'm convinced that a half century from now our culture will be just as deeply rooted in an electronic age as it is now in a physically textual one. Can a student perform well without Internet access? As with the above, I would also say yes. But, again, it would be more difficult and the level of education would be that much lower than if it were available.
People who never met or knew each other, who never had a steady influx of idea from other in their field from all parts of the world, are now suddenly becoming connected. Just look at the number of scientific breakthroughs that we've had already because of the free and easy exchange of information that it has made possible. As an educational tool, and an instrument of cultural change, the Internet, and its associated electronic partners, can neither be overlooked nor treated as any less important than those other means of communication and information already available to, an in use by, us today.