Reflections on How the Internet Has Evolved During the Past Twenty Years

90s students at the Gottsman Library, Columbia Teacher's College
90s students at the Gottesman Library, Columbia Teacher’s College

I have always had a strong liking for libraries, though it is difficult to pinpoint why this is the case.  Perhaps it all began while I was a child at Lenox elementary school while I was living in Saint Louis Park Minnesota.  Or, maybe it began while I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota (I always liked quiet, unassuming and serene open spaces).  Indeed, the Walter Library at the university is in fact considered one of the most beautiful academic libraries in the United States.  And of course, as an undergraduate, I would spend an endless amount of time studying for class; and if I was not studying, I would take a break by browsing the stacks, sometimes losing myself for hours on end, pursuing my recreational interest in Ancient Greek Philosophy.

University of Michigan Walter
University of Minnesota Walter Library

Taking time off after graduating from the University of Minnesota and exploring my new found place of residence in New York City, while also taking university courses in philosophy and literature at The New School For Social Research, after about six years I found myself seriously reflecting upon what sort of career I should pursue in the future. I knew early in my undergraduate studies that becoming a tenured academic in philosophy was almost analogous to becoming a rockstar (or so said a professor I had who graduated from Berkeley, a well ranked program, and who obtained his PhD when the job market was fairly good: 1970), so I came to the realization that that career path was untenable for me. However, I still had a passion for literature and philosophy, and so I eventually set my goal on becoming a librarian, for I loved being surrounded by books, quiet places, as well as helping other people find the books they desire. I guess it was also partly a result of having in-laws who were both college professors, and who knew the value and significance of libraries, and the roles they may play in peoples’ lives. After mulling it over for some time in my head as to whether I wanted to become a librarian, I finally decided this would indeed be a good career choice to pursue. And so, I enrolled first at the library science program at Queens College CUNY, though I eventually transferred to Rutgers University to finish my MLS degree.

While I was a graduate student at Rutgers during the year of 1995, you may rightly wonder what role the internet played in my graduate studies. If you had thought the internet was a generally fledgling technology during the mid-1990s, you are partly correct.  As I have stated, it was during this time I was mainly attracted to books, and not so much to the more technical and/or electronic aspects of librarianship (perhaps this is the reason I am a reference librarian today, and not a cataloger, systems librarian, or web creator) as many of my classmates were at the time. Nevertheless, the internet was omnipresent even then, and we graduate students knew this presence would only grow in the ensuing years.

These aforementioned remarks lead me to the kernel of my reflections of this essay.  Before I get to this kernel, however, let me provide a very, very short historical context for the role the internet has played in libraries, with a focus on its role from the mid-1990s onward, since this is the time when I entered the career of librarianship. Merely to provide an additional historical context: beginning in the 1970s, access to the internet was mostly for database searching in what we might think as being archaic electronic systems today, since they were not web based; these systems included: OCLC, RLIN and DIALOG.  It was also during this time that database searching was mainly restricted to reference and inter-library loan services. But with the growth of the internet and its associated technologies, the capacity for searching for information dramatically increased.

If you think searching databases today is difficult, imagine needing to type commands into a text-based system like Dialog!
If you think searching databases today is difficult, imagine needing to type commands into a text-based system like Dialog! (View the full training manual)

In fact, there has been an exponential growth of internet-based resources during the past twenty years. I suspect many of my colleagues take the following as obvious: the library functions and roles concerning internet use and the digitization of libraries and their resources continue to evolve—dare I say on a daily basis! Moreover, internet use and its related telecommunications technologies is becoming an increasingly prevalent aspect of all types of libraries (public, private and academic) and their respective users’ lives, not to mention the role the internet now plays in our private lives too. This certainly was not the case twenty years ago.

We librarians who have been in the field for the past twenty years realize the use of the internet and other web-based resources has dramatically changed the traditional library functions in myriad ways.  During the mid-1990s, the internet had only been widely accessible for about five years; in fact, the first web browser, Netscape Navigator, had only come out in October 1994, and the plug-in Flash, in 1996. To provide a context of the download speed of the internet at this time: I remember that it would take a couple of minutes for this browser to download a single webpage I was a graduate student at Rutgers, and the university had the most current Apple computers and associated internet technologies on the market at the time. Also during this time, the internet was used mainly for communications (e-mail), database searching, and bibliographic access.

This guide to the brand new Windows '95, featuring Jennifer Aniston & Matthew Perry, will give you a feel for technology 20 years ago (and probably a few laughs)
This guide to the brand new Windows ’95, featuring Jennifer Aniston & Matthew Perry, will give you a feel for technology 20 years ago (and probably a few laughs)

What I believe perhaps has had the most dramatic impact on libraries in the past ten years is twofold: first, the technology for (live) streaming video, which is ubiquitously ever so present in technology applications like YouTube, Vimeo and other related video technologies (first integrated into the internet 2005); and secondly, the rise of social media like Facebook, Skype, Tumblr, Instagram and etc. which is often integrated into different parts of library web pages.  Hence, the library has become a much more social experience as well.

As everyone in the library profession may rightly agree: today, the internet is grandly ubiquitous and heterogeneous—and it is still changing the traditional functions of the library, librarian professionals, and users alike. Use of the internet has increasingly transformed and/or augmented all aspects of the information transfer process. And as a result, the role of the librarian quickly evolves with it—finding ever-increasing and creative ways to help people find the information they need or want. But even if the internet continues to push the very limits of librarianship and us with it, it still competes with a well-trusted technology that has been around for a very long time indeed: the book.

Contributed by: Mark Balto, Assistant Librarian, Midtown

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