Where were you when the world went online?

…using the phone is returning to ancient times…
My first memorable encounter with online services is from my time as a university student when I attended a course in using the American Dialog databases. Oh, the joy of finding references which were a perfect match to my search – and to be able to read abstracts in addition to the bibliographic information! After one of the lectures I was the last one to leave the class and it wasn’t until I got home that I started to doubt if I had logged out.What if the phone line to US was on and I had amounted an astronomical bill for the Institute of Library Science! At the time I didn’t have a phone, let alone a mobile, and even if I had there wouldn’t have been anybody to call. In 1987 nobody was available 24/7. The databases, of course, had a time-out function and I probably hadn’t even forgotten to log out anyway. Still, after the incidence I was extra careful and very conscious of the costs.

My next vivid online memory is from 1994 when I started planning my master’s thesis while working at Joensuu City Library in North Karelia. As the subject of my thesis was public library use of the Internet in Finland, my professor Pertti Vakkari advised me to contact the American researcher Charles McClure. McClure had for some time been studying public library Internet use in the USA. I had just got my first e-mail address at work but hadn’t been able to use it much as few colleagues had e-mail accounts at the time. Being able to contact someone abroad felt so exiting that I quickly formulated a message to McClure. I said hello from my professor and kindly asked if he could help me. I didn’t hesitate for a moment when sending the mail even though I was a mere undergraduate whereas McClure was an esteemed academic on the other side of the globe. He quickly answered my mail and promised to send his reports by post. It was only when the thick envelope arrived that I realised how important a person I had contacted. One of the reports was actually an inscribed copy ‘to Al’, meaning of course the then vice-president Al Gore who had commissioned the report in question. If I’d had to contact McClure by phone I would hardly have done it at all. E-mail was a many-splendoured thing!

Ten years ago it would have been impossible to imagine librarians chatting online with their users when answering reference questions. It would have seemed just as unlikely that a lot of people would pay their bills over the Internet or that you could chat online with somebody 350 km away using a microphone and a web camera. 15 years ago, requests for interlibrary loans were telefaxed to the bigger libraries while today you can access union catalogues anywhere to check availability. The public had two choices when approaching the library: to come to the library in person or to use the phone. Some users may have sent letters or even faxed the library from work, but that was highly unusual.

Now that the biggest hype has died down, we have a more realistic attitude towards new technologies. To offer Ask A Librarian chat is an invaluable addition to library services, and databases and catalogues are often accessible around the clock (and users would like an answer or the material on the spot, thank you very much). Still, some of the problems we face are very similar regardless of technologies. Lately – mainly due to shortage of personnel – librarians have been discussing who should be served first: the user who comes to the library in person or the virtual user. There is evidently not much new under the sun: In the old days you had to make up your mind whether to answer the phone or to concentrate on the queue in front of you.

In the late 1980s when training at a small public library I already knew of online databases, but at the reference desk I still had to rely on my own general knowledge and things I had learned at university as the library was not yet automated, and I often worked alone at the desk in the evenings. Today, even if you don’t have the benefit of knowledgeable colleagues, you can still reach hundreds of library professionals by way of discussion lists and forums and get help with a difficult question in hours, sometimes in minutes. That is, in my humble opinion, the biggest difference from older technologies such as the phone and the fax, and one of the greatest benefits of online services: They make cooperation and sharing of knowledge and resources possible not only locally but regionally, nationally and even globally.

Translated by Turun Täyskäännös OY

Freelance Library Specialist