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November 12, 2001
Has Automation Changed
The Research Library?
From The Chronicle of Higher Education

A glance at the October issue of The New Criterion: How the computer has changed research libraries. The automation of the research library "has furnished an irresistible pretext for sweeping change, often for its own sake," writes Eric Ormsby, a poet and former director of libraries at McGill University.

He describes the decline of the Dewey Decimal System, which required a general understanding of "a certain taxonomy of knowledge." Once automation made it feasible for people to use keywords to search for information, "the entire edifice of subject classification and taxonomy began to totter," he writes.

The logic of the old way of articulating knowledge has been discarded in favor of "random access." Librarians, having emphasized "information" for two decades now, have made discovering a simple fact an end in itself, he argues. "A facility in surfing the Internet is no substitute for the struggle to understand," he writes.

He is especially disturbed that many bibliographers, catalogers, and curators have been "hounded out of their positions" in recent years. With the computer came the "bottom-line purveyors of the MBA worldview, and universities -- and their libraries -- have not been the same since."

Still, Mr. Ormsby will not root for the triumph of the printed page over the computer monitor. "For the survival of culture, we need all the help we can get, whether in words baked on ancient tablets, set in cold type, or amid the pixels of the scanner and the computer screen."

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