From Amtrak to Artemia Salina

I experienced an interesting information phenomenon this weekend. I would like to share it with you today. It points out the need of integrating computer technology into library services of the future, not simply replacing old technology.

On my way to Charlotte

A friend sent me an email message the other day asking whether or not I would come visit to help him create the prototype of a new application he was working on. I said I would, and since I only own one car, I decided to explore the possibility of taking the train from Raleigh to Charlotte, NC.

Being the technological sort of person I am, I considered using my computer to find out train schedules and fares. But, being the inquisitive librarian, I decided to use the telephone instead. I looked up the telephone number in the white pages and noticed a number of listings for Amtrak. Of the five or so listings, 4 were the same local number and one was an 800 number. I dialed the local number and got a busy signal. After waiting 30 seconds or so, I dialed again and it was still busy. This time I waited a whole minute and got through to an answering machine. The answering machine did not provide the times and fares for service to and from Raleigh and Charlotte. The best I got was a referral to the 800 number. I called the 800 number only to be put on hold while being told that my call was important to them. "Argg!" I had now spent close to 5 minutes trying to find out whether or not I could take the train, and I was beginning to wonder whether or not I could get this information faster using my computer. In fact, even considering the 3 minutes it takes to start up my computer, connect to the Internet, and locate Amtrak online, I figured I could get the information I needed faster than I seemed to be taking me on the telephone.

Sure enough, Amtrak's schedules were as close as www.amtrak.com. Without reading very many directions, I discovered I could get on the train in Raleigh at 7 o'clock in the morning and arrive in Charlotte at 10:45. The return trip would leave Charlotte at 5:45 and arrive in Raleigh at 9:15. The schedule said this was a daily trip but it did not mention cost. I noticed I was able to make reservations online, but didn't feel like going through the process to register. So now I still have to either call back Amtrak to find out the price of tickets or go back online. After this was all said and done my wife said, "Why don't we all drive to Charlotte and come back the same day?" This makes marvelous sense since it would probably be cheaper, more convienent, and for personal reasons satisfy a few family needs.

Are Artemia salina really brine shrimp?

On this same day my wife and daughter started a sea-monkey farm. You know these things. They are advertised in the back of comic books with pictures of fantastic creatures looking like space invaders. These same advertisements hawk hours of endless entertainment while your sea-monkeys perform wondrous feats acrobatic skill. Sure enough, to the amazement of everyone, as soon as we put the package to sea-monkey eggs into the specially treated water the sea-monkeys, no bigger than a pin prick, were swimming merrily ready for training.

The booklet accompanying the sea-monkeys was chuck full of useful information. It described the care and feeding of our sea-monkeys. It described how-to make the sea-monkeys do tricks. It listed dozens of accessories you can purchase for the purposes of enhancing your sea-monkey enjoyment. It also referred the reader to a single text for more information about sea-monkeys as well as the scientific name for sea-monkeys, Artemia salina.

"Artemia salina" seems to be an uncommon phrase making it a good candidate for freetext Internet searching. Consequently, I was off to my computer for information about sea-monkeys. An advanced search against AltaVista for "Artemia salina" produced relatively few hits, 147. Narrowing the search to "title: 'Artemia salina'" and English language documents narrowed the number of hits down to 4. One of those four hits described how to raise Artemia salina in fairly simple terms. It also stressed the need for very salty water. "Ahh, the special treatment was salt!" Browsing the list of 147 hits returned a list of bibliographic citations found in AGRICOLA. All the titles in the list were scientific in nature and beyond the scope of what I wanted to read, but since I had access to AGRICOLA, I decided to give it a try myself. My searches proved fruitless because, again, all the citations I found were too scholarly. Then I decided to search the electronic version of Encyclopedia Britanica and see whether or not I could find something easier to read. This process crashed my computer while trying to load navigation images into my browser forcing me to completely reboot and log back on.

"Maybe my printed version of Encyclopedia Britancia would be faster?", I said to myself. Off I rushed to my personal library to see what I could find. It said, "See brine shrimp." Doing so gave me very little information about my sea-monkeys, but it gave me more of the sort of information I was seeking than AGRICOLA, and in just a couple of minutes. On the other hand, I'm still not sure whether or not sea-monkeys are Artemia salina and Artemia salina are brine shrimp, and therefore sea-monkeys are brine shrimp.

Librarianship

Okay, so what does this have to do with the future of libraries? First, it demonstrates computers are useful for finding some sorts of information and printed resources are better at others. Consequently, the future of libraries will still include the towers of printed resources found in their hallowed halls. At the same time, the future of libraries will have to include the use of computer technology to facilitate some information seeking. The trick will be knowing when to use one tool and when to use the other. More importantly, at least in the foreseeable future, the trick of the trade will be knowing how to combine these resources (printed materials and computer technologies) into a cohesive whole.

Second, it demonstrates the need for knowledge on how to use the tools effectively, not just what tool to use. For example, when you use a back-of-the-book index to locate a term and you see the term listed numerous times, do you analyze the number of times particular page numbers and page ranges occur in the listings? I'm willing to bet you do, and you choose a listed page number that seems to occur frequently as opposed to the first one. If so, then you are doing a bit of internal "relevance ranking" without even thinking about it. Congratulations!

Similarly, after encountering the ever-present "Error 404. File not found." message on the World Wide Web you have learned to remove the right-most directory paths from the URL in the hopes of locating the information you seek. Or maybe you want to locate companies Web page and guess at www.company.com. By this time you have most likely internalized the true effectiveness of electronic copy and paste and would find yourself lost without it. All these things demonstrate your ability to use a computer to the best of its ability.

Integrating these two features into our profession, the flexibilities of computers and the shear momentum of printed materials, represent the future of libraries and librarianship. It is an never-ending task. No one can ever know about all printed materials. New ones are always being created and old ones are always being updated. At the same time, computer technology is evolving so fast and is so diverse no one can ever become an expert without constant retraining. Spend your time learning how to use both tools to their greatest effectiveness and learn how to extend this knowledge to our clientele and you will be doing librarianship a favor.

By the way, I drove to Charlotte and back the same day, and the sea-monkeys are doing just fine but they haven't learned any tricks yet.


Creator: Eric Lease Morgan <eric_morgan@infomotions.com>
Source: This is a pre-edited edited copy for Eric Lease Morgan, "From Amtrak to Artemia Salina" Computers In Libraries. 17(10):22-23, November/December 1997.
Date created: 1997-09-10
Date updated: 2004-13-07
Subject(s): librarianship;
URL: http://infomotions.com/musings/librarianship/