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Repackaging information

With the digitisation of so many publications on the Internet, experts and librarians explain why good old print versions of books are likely to remain relevant and so too institutions like libraries.

TABLET, paper, tablet. It sounds ironic, but that is what the “evolution of print” or more accurately the ‘evolution of data storage’ looks like with the rise of the tablet computer.

Man’s endeavour to jot down his thoughts and accomplishments started out as scribbles on cave walls and at some point stone tablets were put to use which eventually gave way to paper with its humble papyrus beginnings.

Convenience being the leading factor in the evolution, paper today finds itself being replaced by electronic means of data storage.

Simple aesthetics: UPNM students and staff utilising the facilities available at the university’s General Tun Ibrahim library.

But as the electronic media flourishes, libraries find themselves in the midst of an upheaval.

Since its release to the public, the Internet has become the “alpha male” in the database pack, with navigation made easy by constantly evolving search engines such as Google.

According to Internet World Statistics, more than two billion people, as of 2011, use the services of the Internet which is a third of the world’s population.

In 2002 Google started digitising books in American libraries under theGoogle Book Project. It allows readers to read snippets of copyright material and view full copies of public domain books.

The project gave us a glimpse of what the future might hold for libraries and publishing.

This future is already embraced by students and youth of this generation, most growing up with devices such as smart phones within easy reach.

Unbelievable: Foreign visitors clearly impressed as they take a closer look at old Islamic texts at an exhibition at the National Library.

According to Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UniRazak) Bachelor in Computer Securities student Tengku Ridzwan Shah Tengku Muhamad Adnan, had it not been for demanding lecturers, he would not consider visiting a library.

“I would not go to a library for research purposes if it were not for a handful of lecturers who insisted that I source my citations from academic journals,” he says.

The Internet has always been the first choice to look for information not libraries, a sentiment shared by his peers and working adult friends as well, he adds. “Quite frankly whenever I need information on a matter, be it for work, studies or personal enlightenment, I turn to the Internet andGoogle first.

“The joke goes that looking for a piece of information on Google is as good as asking God himself!” quips Tengku Ridzwan.

Library vs The Internet

Even with the sheer number of articles on the Internet, many argue that libraries are here to stay.“The process of digitising information is underway but the health risk and discomfort of staring at a screen shouldn’t be dismissed..

Roving Rooms: Portable partitions allow students to fully utilise the space in a library for convenience when working on projects and research.

“Reading short articles online might not cause a headache, but reading a book on a bright screen is unhealthy,” says UniRazak, University Management and Technology deputy dean (Student Affairs and Quality) Assoc Prof Dr Sidney Kan.

Dr Kan explains that even though he allows his students to utilise the Internet for assignments he still encourages them to use the library as well.

He adds that the type of assignment given to the students should determine whether or not students can source and cite directly from the Internet.

“It would be unfair to disallow students use of the Internet for an assignment that requires one to come up with ideas or creative content.

Apart from being a great source of inspiration for ideas and concepts, the Internet also serves the purpose of complementing research with additional avenues to investigate, he says.

High-Tech: Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus’ Library features some of the most up to date discussion rooms and computer labs.

But Dr Kan dismisses the idea that the library will lose its significance in the life of students or society at large.

“Although that would depend on how technology continues to evolve and the thoroughness of the digitisation of books and other material.

“If technology offers a solution to the health risks of staring at a screen over long periods and the digitisation process is smooth, then libraries may not be as popular” he says.

Deputy Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Maglin Dennis D’Cruz explains that the risks of relying solely on electronic methods to store books are too big.

“I believe the library will always have a place in society as it is the most rudimentary means of storing and managing books (i.e. information). Furthermore libraries also serve the purpose of preserving heritage and culture.

(Mi)Literary Traditions: UPNM’s chief librarian Mohammed Dzulkarnain (centre) explaining how to use the library’s IT services.

“The dangers of relying solely on electronic means of storing data for the precious information contained in libraries is risky, what happens if the Internet collapses or if our satellite systems fail?” asks D’Cruz.

The Internet may or may not collapse some day, but a more direct and pressing threat to information on the Internet presents itself in the form of legislation.

Dr Kan explains that the recently postponed Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa) that was proposed to the United States (US) House Judiciary Committee, is a clear threat to freedom of speech and information on the Internet.

“Threats like Sopa which seeks to regulate file sharing on the Internet could cause the reliability of information there to come into question.

“Imagine if the bill was passed and the US government could shut down websites as they liked, that is definitely a threat to information which would lead to scarcity and bias,” he adds.

Victoria University Canada Law Faculty systems administrator Rich McCue concluded in his blog entry titled ‘Google vs the Library — Goliath vs David?’ that for now the verdict of the battle is a draw.

McCue drew attention to the vast number of articles on the Internet and compared them to the small number of articles contained in the World Book Encyclopaedia.

But he goes on to defend the library by saying that looking for facts and reference material maybe more convenient online, but looking for books on the other hand, especially older titles, is easier done from a well-stocked library.

Librarians speak up

Mohammed Dzulkarnain Abdul Karim, Chief Librarian of the General Tun Ibrahim Library of Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia (UPNM) says that while Google is able to sift through millions of articles in seconds, it still cannot compensate for the human touch.

“Search engines like Google latch on to key words and familiar sentence configurations but cannot grasp concepts and predefined ideas.

“Whereas with a librarian at hand, you have someone who can go through the details of your research or ideas and identify the type of reading material required,” says Mohammed Dzulkarnain.

He says that librarians have to go through both functional and generic training in order to properly serve visitors to the library.

“A librarian not only has to know how to catalogue and classify information, he should also know how to deal with visitors’ queries. With the advent of new technologies and the Internet, the job scope for a librarian has changed and it has adopted many IT functions,” he says.

Annur Thahirah Abdul Hadi, a librarian at Taylor’s University says that this is true. A librarian’s job scope now covers IT functions such as helping students use the library’s online book catalogue and other IT services.

“We are also educators these days. We teach students how to conduct research and properly use the materials at the library, such as how to use a book’s bibliography.

“We also serve the function of liaison to other libraries and publications to help source for material that can’t be found in our collections. It’s an extension of our traditional roles,” she says.

Annur Thahirah says the core roles of librarians will stay for as long as there is a need for sourcing and having information catalogued, which is something even Google needs.

Statistics provided by the National Library reveal that the number of visitors to libraries across Malaysia declined between 2009 and 2010. So too did the number of books borrowed, but library membership on the other hand, has increased.

National Library director Datuk Raslin Abu Bakar says figures and statistics do not do justice to the actual perception people have towards libraries.

“You can’t say that libraries are losing their appeal based on figures alone.

“The key roles of the library remain very much the same and it is relied upon by society. In rural areas, it not only provides access to books and reading material, it also provides access to the Internet,” he adds.

The library’s deputy director Mohd Afirol Mat Ariffin says libraries constantly evolve to fit the changing needs of society and more importanlty the library also houses rare collections of reading material.

“Not many of the texts from the Southeast Asian region written some 500 years ago and before, have been digitised, so we have an archive for such materials. We also have a collection of controversial books that can only be borrowed upon written permission,” he says. He also says that the national library has an online portal, u-Pustaka, that serves as a catalogue allowing users to search for titles and borrow books online.

“Users can borrow books from the library online and with the help of Pos Malaysia and a postage fee, the book will be delivered to your doorstep,” says Mohd Afirol.

Students’ views

Even though undergraduates from certain courses do not feel the need to stop by the library to conduct their research, those pursuing their masters and other postgraduate programmes tend to rely heavily on libraries as a source of information for their dissertations and thesis.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) Master in Communication (Screen Studies) student Lim Wai Kit says that soon after he decides upon a research topic he immediately scours the library for books related to the topic.

“The books in the library are limited and there is always a sort of ‘gold rush’ for certain material when everyone’s topic seems to coincide or overlap with each other.

The library is essential to research, but that doesn’t mean it always delivers what you need, adds Wai Kit.

Wai Kit explains that in most of his dissertations 70% of the data comes from library materials while 30% are from the Internet.

He adds he would rather have books digitised but believes it could be unfair to the original authors of the publications and journals since digitising books could infringe upon copyrights.

For now, he has to rely on libraries until they can sort out the matter.

Tengku Ridzwan and Wai Kit both say that ever since they had been taught how to use their respective library’s online book catalogue, they have not sought the help of librarians.

“I usually have a list of publications I want, and all I have to do is key in the relevant title into the library’s catalogue,” says Tengku Ridzwan.

“There is no way to go around the digitisation of books which is inevitable. So it would be foolish to go against the tide. As an author I intend to have e-versions of my books because its what people want,” says local author Datuk Chamil Wariya who has written more than 30 politically-oriented books.

The Malaysia Press Institute CEO says even audio book versions of print copies are necessary for authors these days.

“You have to cater to the needs of the ‘readers’. People approach a book differently these days, it’s not just flipping pages anymore.

“But I believe that good old-fashioned print copies haven’t lost their allure, flipping through pages is still a joy for many. I don’t see the format losing its shelf life anytime soon,” he says.

The notion is shared by D’Cruz who adds that holding an actual book in his hands is still the way he prefers to read.

“For some it’s even the smell of a book that makes the difference,” says D’Cruz.

But Chamil explains that the new generation of readers may prefer swiping their fingers over a screen.

“Since they have grown up with devices like the smart phones and tablet personal computers, they may prefer that format for their reading,” he adds.

The one thing that everyone agrees upon is the fact that the library is an ideal space for intellectual gatherings and discussions.

For the uninformed, modern libraries are in fact well equipped to handle many groups of people who come and meet at their premises for different purposes.

“Here at the Taylor’s University Lakeside Campus library we have all kinds of facilities to cater for the different needs of students.

“We have multiple multimedia rooms to cater for the needs of students who need to use specialised computers or software for their projects and we also have a 24-hour study area for their convenience,” says Annur Thahirah.

She adds the library also features other facilities like a theatrette and specialised discussion rooms with audio/video equipment.

Most of these facilities are staples of modern libraries, she says.

“During a visit to the national library, I went to its multimedia centre and was awed by the sheer number of multimedia resources such as CDs (compact discs) and video tapes that it has.

“Our library is currently working on building our multimedia resources as well,” she explains.

Even books now have radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags which allow visitors the convenience of returning the books they borrowed via the electronic book drop and even the bookcases are being fitted with RFID sensors to tell you what books have been borrowed.

“But the one thing that we don’t have enough of is people visiting libraries for leisure and not work. The joy of reading is somehow lost, but that’s where we come in, librarians encourage people to read, somethingGoogle can’t do, not verbally at least,” she adds.





By AMINUDDIN MOHSIN educate@thestar.com.my

Source: The STAR Home Education Sunday February 12, 2012
Tags: ict, library, networking, varsity
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