May 6, 2002
On Managing LA&M Fall 2002

Act or Re-act? : Leadership and the Internet
John Lubans 

The Internet and the library are linked, connected for better or for worse. For an increasing number of our public the Internet is the preferred “go-to” information source. It’s as if the library and the Internet are on parallel tracks, sharing the same power source, but, the latter’s track is widening while ours is narrowing.

Are library leaders acting on or are they re-acting to this situation?

A colleague recently told me: “It seems like all we do (at her library) is re-act to whatever comes our way.” My colleague yearns for action by her leaders.

Leaders are presumed to have a vision for their enterprise. Actions are to flow from that vision.  The best leaders are blessed with an inner compass, a sense of true north, which guides them through uncertainty.  I have met a few visionary leaders who demonstrate this capacity. When confronted with a situation needing resolution, they do not delay. Convinced, they act. A few might be accused of foolhardy haste, but at least they are taking action not standing on the sidelines like spectators. They step into the fray without waiting to be asked, without seeking permission, or being prodded. If their efforts stumble and fail, they and their organizations learn and are better for the experience.

We all may not be visionary in our leadership, but most of us have the capacity to read trends and to act on our best judgement, to act in behalf of a shared vision. Early in my career I was involved in the national user education movement. A few of us were convinced the time was right to press forward on user education in all types of libraries. The idea was not new – what we brought to it was action at the national level. We launched a multitude of programs, exhibitions, conferences and writings. We met resistance from colleagues, young and old, but instead of diminishing us, the establishment’s reluctance helped define what we were doing.  And, for a multitude of reasons, many people joined our effort – our initiative released a pent up demand for action, triggering a response in thousands of librarians for improving and devising their own user education efforts.

It was good that we were exceedingly naïve in the dynamics of institutional change.  Not knowing any better, our horizons were wide and cloudless. Some things were accomplished simply because we did not know it was impossible or that we had to ask permission.

I recall being chastised by the senior leaders of the academic libraries section of the New York Library Association. I’d published, without their permission, a user education conference proceedings. They forgave me (sort of) once all 1000 copies sold making a profit for the section, after paying off conference costs. Fortunately for me, my boss said he’d cover the cost if my betters did not.

We acted, not re-acted. We made mistakes. We learned. We made a difference. Today’s well-regarded information literacy effort owes a great deal to the work of this original tiny band of user education leaders.

I appreciate what my colleague is missing by her library’s lack of action. She’s losing out on the joy of having a mission, of setting after purposeful goals. I’m reminded of a joyful summer spent building a tree house. My friends and I had no plan to speak of but we had time and desire to build something high up in that tree – the joy was in the doing. I am not sure what we built, but we sure had a great time, from sunrise onward until our mothers summoned us home for supper. We did not need alarm clocks to go to the tree house job.

My column for spring, 2000 was about the Internet’s muscling in on the library’s turf and eroding what had been our near monopoly in retailing information to our community. After all, we had the one copy of what was wanted. The Internet’s ubiquity has changed that forever. If I had to put a date to it, 1992 was the year of last hurrahs for many reference departments. In one academic library 72,000 questions were answered that year, a peak performance. In 2001, that number had slipped to 29,700.

The observed decline spurred me to study the most likely cause: the Internet. During the late 1990s I asked young adults, college freshmen, and graduate students to tell me about how their use of the Internet.

Many users were helping themselves to information through the Internet.  And, to our credit, library-provided databases helped users help themselves.

Two years after my last study, I’d become curious again.  Contributing to my desire to check-in were the dotcom smash up, the failure of several search engines, the e-commercialization of the Web, and the Brigadoon-like disappearance of the first information e-village: Contentville. Would I find the trends in my surveys continuing or slowing down?

In January 2002 I surveyed college-bound high school students in Bexley, Ohio about their use of the Internet for schoolwork. By the time you read this, most of these students will be freshmen in colleges and universities.

What they told me showed no lessening of Internet dependence. Of most concern is the finding that many of these students don’t use libraries as a place for or as a portal to information. That may change for these seniors once on campus, but what about those who don’t go to college? 

The Internet is the preferred information source. Almost half use the Internet 80% of the time over traditional print resources. Another third use the Internet more than 50% of the time.


Because the Internet allows them to access information from any location. Seventy-six per cent of the students found this beneficial.

Because the Internet allows less dependence on libraries. Yes, 71% of the students see this as a benefit.
Students, like the rest of us, value anything that saves steps.
The librarian’s challenge is to integrate the library’s many good services in a way that facilitates the student’s finding and using information from outside.

Because the Internet gives access to information otherwise unavailable. This was a benefit for sixty-three percent of the students. The tyranny of time and distance appears vanquished. 

Because electronic information can be re-used and manipulated easily. For 61% this was a benefit. I did not ask about plagiarism so cannot say if the “benefit” is a bald acceptance of plagiarism or simply a pragmatic understanding of the benefits of word processing. I prefer to think the latter. News reports suggest that plagiarism is far more of a problem for mature, pre-Internet scholars, than for these students.

If you are dismayed by the students’ perceptions of Internet benefits, take heart. Opportunity abounds for libraries. Internet use is not trouble free. Students still experience problems in using the Internet and we are the best profession and in the best position to help them.

Users need help in assessing the quality of information. For 46%, the quality of Internet information can be problematic; for a third more it is “slightly problematic.”

In my earlier column, I suggested several things that users wanted from us. Essentially, for us to build on our expertise in sorting good information from information chaff and presenting the good stuff in easily found and used ways.

Users want help with online navigation. For many, it is easy to become distracted or lost while searching online. For 42% of the students this is problematic; for another 37%, “slightly problematic”.

While publishers and librarians can bring centuries of experience to these navigation issues, our help will need to be on the users terms.  That means our cataloging codes is not the preferred navigation scheme. We will need to revise or make invisible our hierarchical view of information. The user wants one-stop shopping because they know it is possible. That’s what they get when using popular search engines, ones that index 3 billions web pages but do not require anyone to understand their information hierarchy.

And, users want help when online searches retrieve too much information. For 36% this is problematic. For another 46%, slightly problematic)

More positive words for libraries: According to these students we are not headed to a paperless world, toward bookless libraries. 

While 37% agree that e-resources diminish use of print, 71%, believe that e-resources supplement rather than replace print.

And, 44% believe that e-resources that refer to both electronic and print resources actually increase use of print.

The students confirmed the third and latest Internet “Killer App”: search engines. Eighty three percent of the students use search engines often.  Included in that percentage are 49% who use search engines “very frequently.”

Some now use search engines more than they use e-mail.

A bad sign for library web pages, 46% of these students rarely use library provided Web information sources (including the library’s catalog). Only 27% occasionally use this library service.  Admittedly, once these students are in college, their use of library web pages may escalate. For those that do not go to college, it will be important for public libraries to steer them towards good resources. This 46%, who rarely or infrequently use library provided access, are our new nonusers.

Internet use will not drop for these students in the future: 71% expect their use will increase.

For a quarter, Internet use will stay the same.

Our ready, willing and able competition:

Yahoo and Google are, for these students, the two most used search engines. Yahoo has been at the top of most student lists for several years now, while Google is a recent ascendant. While there’s no telling if Google or Yahoo will prevail as the search engine of choice, it is fairly certain that some agency like them will offer indexing services.

The impact has already been profound.  Google has made the URL  vestigial.

And, Google’s popularity has design implication for any search engine or library interface. Since Yahoo and Google collaborate, what and how they do to search is the standard. Anything less frustrates users.

If Google doesn’t succumb to revenue and ethical problems or become risk averse, they may get to where they want to be: the “World’s Information Desk”. Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, said in November 2000 “In five years I hope (search engines) will be able to return answers, not just documents.” According to him, “…Google will be your interface to all the world’s knowledge – not just web pages.”,3605,401419,00.html

Is Mr. Brin the new Halsey William Wilson, the founder of the HW Wilson indexing power? Probably not. Google’s main motivation is profit from captured eyeballs. At the same time, Google has excellent corporate values to keep us coming back. Those values banned pop up ads and produced their highly useful News and Resources. But, they know their fate if cash flow dries up.

The World’s Information Desk will not be free. Of course, there is no free information just like there is no free lunch for economists. The library’s advantage is that our budget structures exist, they are for the most part incremental and do not need to be created from scratch – we can appear to be charging nothing or very little for our information services.  That is not the case for an Internet company. Once the venture capital runs out there are two sources: advertising or subscriptions.

But, how much of an advantage will this be if Google were to include an expertly staffed information desk, with access to e-journals and other e-texts for the price of, say, a cable connection?

Anxieties aside, it is still worth looking at Google for its design and search strategy - the “I feel lucky button” is brilliant. Their beta tests of new services (see “Google Answers”) suggest they are acting, testing, and steadily changing. We could be doing likewise, acting, changing and fine tuning what we do in anticipation of what our users need.

What if we were to produce search results, cross-indexed, by redundancy of use rather than by format or date or title?  In other words, array the results by their frequency of use or “popularity”. The more a book is used, the higher its ranking in the search results. If I want the e-version of the National Geographic magazine, I will find it in the first 2 or 3 “hits” when I use the name in the search box. Right now, before I enter the term National Geographic, most libraries ask me to decide where I want to look: separate e-databases, the library catalog, e-journals or e-books.

Our intermediary role is changing, yet the core task remains - connecting users to the information they need when they need it. The librarians who acted and developed statewide networks of electronic resources exemplify leadership at its best. It is leadership’s job to assert and invigorate this enduring vision – to act.

Author’s Note: John Lubans (E-mail: conducts team building workshops for library managers. His first study of Internet use by freshmen students was written up in the New York Times on the Web April 1, 1998.


See my web site for previous net use studies:

Fifty-four students completed the questionnaires out of a class total of 69 in the AP Biology classes at Bexley High School. The response rate was 78%.

Forty-one of the students used the full five-point scale while 13 used only the ratings of 1, 3, and 5. This tally is of the 41 responses.  The tally of all 54 students differs from that for the 41, by a greater certainty of answers.

I am grateful to Mr. Scott Logsdon and Dr. Anne Hyland of Bexley High School for their marvelous support throughout this study.

My finding of the Internet as preferred information resource is supported by “The American Freshman: National Norms for fall 2001” study discussed in the February 1, 2002 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Three quarters of the 281,000 students surveyed, frequently “Used the Internet for research or homework”.

Sergey Brin interview by Victor Keegan, The Guardian. Searching Questions. November 23, 2000.,3605,401419,00.html

accessed May 29, 2002