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Why Do I Go to the Internet Before I Go to the Library?

by Dennis O'Connor   boy in library


I started out a library lover. At one point I thought about becoming a librarian, but settled on teaching instead. (I have a life long addiction to low paying, but deeply satisfying work.)

I earned my way through UC Berkeley as a student library employee. In the late 60’s, microfiche conversion and computerization of library resources was just beginning. My job was to take the call slips, go up into the stacks, pull the books and bring them to the front desk.  When things were slow I could study.

Best of all I could enter the stacks of any library on campus. This gave me better access than the graduate students. I could browse the shelves and find treasures. I could go into the manuscript rooms and touch the history of literature.

I also worked at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Run by Fred and Pat Cody, it was one of the great literary bookstores. I got to read any new book I wanted. I quickly memorized the store layout so I could find anything a customer needed.  I was swimming in print information and knitting together my own eclectic methods of making sense out of all the input.

But what do you do when you don't have the resources at hand?

After graduating, I took a teaching job in a rural community. I lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Great bookstores and university libraries were a hundred miles away on the far side of a 7000 foot pass. I immediately missed the access to books I had in the city.  I joined book clubs. I got to know the county libraries and the small collection at the local community college. I had a vintage set of Encyclopedia Britannica for home reference, walls of books accumulated over the years, and magazine subscriptions.  But I was missing a lot of ideas.  I needed more resources and didn’t have the time to find them.  

When online information access came along it was intoxicating. My need to write and research drove me to learn more about computer technology. I was hooked on the sense of immediate hands on discovery.  In the early 80’s I ran a literary bulletin board for kids. I published poems and stories from young contributors all over the west. I wrote a grant and got my hands on a Bibliographical Retrieval System subscription as part of a high school research project. Now the kids were bringing their queries to me.  Programs like Lynx, Gopher and Archie combined with my 300 baud modem and a 128k Apple //e let me find information in university databases.  I worked on the school's only computer to search BRS and return printed abstracts. These experiences became the foundations for a life long interest in online work.

As information resources, speed and ease of access improved, so did local library resources. The community college got a new campus and a real library. I became friends with the owners of a new local bookstore and they started stocking some of my favorite writers.  The mountain world evolved and I had more balanced opportunities for attaining information.

That’s when I noticed my basic disposition had shifted. I drifted away from books and libraries and found myself almost always online.  I was hooked on the direct access to information and the sense of discovery I was experiencing.

man relaxes and reads his computer

It’s been this way for years now. I go to the Internet first and rarely visit a library.  I can’t even claim the high passes and long commute as barriers any more.  I’ve lived in Southern California now for better than a year, within a few miles of a university library and the city library… and I haven’t set foot in either.

Writing this brief piece has been a wake up call. It’s a Eureka moment!  Even though I know how to bounce around the Librarian’s Internet Index to find ideas, I miss the visual serendipity of discovery you find in bookstores and libraries. I need a real library where I can get away from all the electronic distractions and just sit for awhile reading and thinking.  I want to stand back and take in a bigger picture before I start drilling down into the specifics.

I’m going to change my ways!  I vow to have a library card and to do a tour of the university library before this piece is published!  (All I have to do is hit Google Maps to get the driving directions to the city library!)