Jo Kibbee

Central Public Services, Libraries
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Urbana, IL 61801, USA

The widespread availability and use of the World Wide Web and Web browsers (such as Netscape) have enabled librarians to take advantage of the capacity of the Internet to serve as a virtual reference desk, providing access to countless information resources worldwide. The notion of a virtual reference collection, available at the click of a mouse, is undeniably seductive, particularly for libraries with limited physical collections. Upon closer examination, however, using the Web to provide accurate and effective information service is a complicated proposition. Technical considerations aside, attempts at gaining intellectual control and achieving precision recall over an ever expanding universe of text, image, and sound, can quickly prove daunting. Not only does utilization of the Web presuppose appropriate hardware, software, and searching skills, but Web sites are notoriously unreliable and frequently lack authority. Nonetheless, the Web has the potential to provide information far beyond that which is available in the library's collection, and librarians can ill afford to ignore its capabilities.

This paper provides a framework for effective utilization of the Web in providing reference and information services, and supplementing the library's collection and services. Following a brief discussion of the principles and practice of reference librarianship, and values and limitations inherent in traditional publishing media, the delivery of information in the context of cyberspace is considered. Issues under consideration include authority, content, bibliographic control, access, availability, currency, and cost. The comparative advantages and disadvantages of Web-based electronic vs. print resources are highlighted, with an emphasis on their relationship to the library's mission. An overview of currently available Web-based library and bibliographic resources is provided, including online library catalogs, periodical indexes and electronic journals, full text and interactive reference tools, and electronic texts. Strategies for identifying relevant Web sites are proposed, including use of Web indexes and filter projects, virtual reference desks, and electronic and print reviews. And finally, methods and tools for the evaluation and management of useful Web sites are proposed, and future directions are considered. Combining theoretical principles of librarianship with practical applications of information technology, this session will engage participants in a discussion of how and when Web-based resources can be used in the context of traditional library services.


As the World Wide Web becomes an increasingly popular platform for the delivery of digitized information, librarians face the challenge of finding and using information that's accurate and reliable. Browsers such as Netscape and Microsoft Explorer have demystified the Internet, and make its contents accessible to users who have a minimum of technical expertise. Consequently, the notion of the Internet as a virtual library, available at the click of a mouse, is becoming increasingly attractive, particularly to libraries with limited resources and small collections. Upon closer examination, however, using the web to access accurate and reliable information is a complicated proposition. Technical considerations aside, attempts at gaining intellectual control and achieving precision recall over an ever expanding universe of text, image, and sound, can quickly prove daunting. Not only does effective utilization of the web presuppose appropriate hardware, software, and searching skills, but web sites are notoriously undependable and frequently lack the authority that we associate with published works. Moreover, just because something is on the web doesn't mean you can find it! Nonetheless, librarians ignore web-based information at their own peril, for it has the potential to expand and enrich the library's physical collection and information services

Use of the web to replace, supplement, or complement the library's print collection presents fundamental dilemmas and opportunities. This paper provides a framework for effective utilization of the web to provide information and resources that supplement the library's collection. Beginning with a brief discussion of the traditional values that characterize libraries, the focus turns to the delivery of information in the context of cyberspace. A summary of the advantages and disadvantages of using web-based resources is followed by strategies for finding information on the web. The paper concludes with a discussion of the balancing act that librarians must perform in order to best integrate the web into existing resources.


The World Wide Web is not, and cannot be, a library. The issue is not physical space, or shelves of books and journals, but a set of principles on which libraries ideally operate. At their best, libraries select resources which have some assurance of quality, organize them for easy access, and provide professional research support, instruction, and assistance to users. A good library is not a passive repository of texts or documents, but an actively selected collection of the best materials available and affordable which support the educational, research, or recreational mission of the individual library. To help ensure the authority and reliability of library materials, librarians can depend upon reputable publishers, review media, and selective bibliographies to make acquisitions decisions. Moreover, libraries organize their materials so that users can find the books, articles, or reports they need. From the development of the Anglo American Cataloging Rules and the MARC record, to the Dewey Decimal and Ranganathan Colon Classification systems, to online catalog systems, libraries have established mechanisms to describe and organize library materials, and make them assessable to users. Finally, libraries provide value-added services in the form of professional personnel who not only select and organize the materials, but who assist users in finding the material or information they need, as well as teaching them to find information on their own. These library standards, as we shall see, have not yet migrated into cyberspace, and referring at this point to the World Wide Web as a "virtual library" does an injustice to the institution of libraries.

Contrasted to the ideal of a library, chaos and unpredictability reign on the World Wide Web. On the web, anyone can be an author or publisher, so the notion of quality, authority or expertise is not guaranteed. Finding the information one needs is a challenge, and there's no guarantee that it will still be there tomorrow. On the other hand, the web enables a librarian from the middle of the United States to explore the wonders of the Kruger National Park and listen to songs of school children in Cape Town, without leaving her desk. At its best, the web overcomes the limitations of time and space to put information that transcends the printed page onto desktop of the user. The following section highlights the pitfalls and potential of the web, underscoring the dilemma that librarians face as we come to grips with this revolutionary medium for disseminating information.


Despite the warm reception that the web has generally received, a critical look reveals sobering realities which are summarized below.

3.1. Authority

Because the Internet is a distributed environment, with no overall authority, no editorial review is required for inclusion. In practical terms, this means that no standards exist for content or format, and anyone can be an author or publisher. At the least, this can result in typographical and grammatical errors, misspellings, and poor layout and design. At worst, opinion can pose as fact, and information can be misleading or erroneous. Moreover, since no requirements exist for identifying authorship, dates of publication or revision, or source of the information (such as footnotes or bibliography), evaluation of the site's authority and accuracy is difficult. The integrity of the data is further compromised by the possibility that data has been altered, whether intentionally or because of the way the information is stored and transmitted. Consequently, the real possibility exists for inaccurate or false data to be received or used by unwary users, and multiple, different or contradictory versions of information may be simultaneously available, further adding to the user's dilemma (Mathieu and Woodard, 1996).

3.2. Content/Scope

Though an enormous amount of data is transmitted daily across the web, the ratio of diamonds to dregs can be appallingly low. Much of what is available on the web is of little or no value, except perhaps to the individual who produced it, and the sheer quantity of sites makes the search for quality that much more difficult. Moreover, as an unregulated media, the web is rife with commercialism and garishness. Screens are frequently so cluttered with ads and promotional hype that they become difficult to use. In terms of balance, judging from the larger web site lists such as Yahoo (, the web is clearly tilted towards recreational and commercial uses. Business and technology are more heavily represented than are the humanities, and information is more likely to be current than historical. And finally, with its origins in the U.S., the language and "culture" of the web are heavily weighted towards English and North America. Anatoly Voronow, director of the Russian Internet provider Glasnet, denounces the dominance of English as "the ultimate act of intellectual colonialism." He says, "The product comes from America so we either must adapt to English or stop using it...If you are talking about a technology that is supposed to open the world to hundreds of millions of people you are joking. This just makes the world into new sorts of haves and have nots." (Specter, 1996). In time, the web may come to reflect a more diverse and global culture, but that will be driven more by market forces than by humanitarian principles.

3.3. Stability

Turning to the question of reliability, in a technical sense, we find a highly unstable environment where sites can come and go with alarming ease. Web sites are notorious for changing location and leave no "forwarding address," or disappearing altogether. Consequently, individuals or libraries who have come to rely upon a site as a primary source of information are stymied. With heavy traffic, servers become overloaded and access is delayed or denied. At best, this volatility causes inconvenience and frustration, at worst, it could have serious consequences for researchers who suddenly find that data is no longer available. As one librarian observes, "A library may come to depend on access to a certain resource or database on the web, but will have no control over whether that item continues to be offered. As such, using the web as a resource can be a risky proposition. (Healey, 1995).

3.4. Intellectual Access and Bibliographic Control

As discussed earlier, an important contribution of the field of librarianship is a set of principles and practices for organizing published materials so that the information they contain may be found. One of the most persuasive arguments against describing the web as a "virtual library" is the lack of bibliographic control and the consequent difficulty of retrieving relevant information. Though classified lists of sites and search engines are attempting to organize the web, and initiatives such as OCLC's InterCat are applying MARC cataloging standards to Internet sites (OCLC, 1995), the current state of bibliographic and intellectual access is rudimentary. Browsing and serendipity play greater roles in locating relevant information than do traditional bibliographic searching techniques.

3.5. Cost

Finally, we come to the bottom line: cost. Though most of the information on the web is widely touted as being "free," in effect, costs are significant and likely to increase as more networked information becomes proprietary. Though many of us can connect to the web without charge through our institutions, significant funds have already been committed to building and maintaining the infrastructure and purchasing the necessary hardware and software. With increasingly sophisticated applications (e.g., Java), hardware must constantly be upgraded, and costs associated with printing the information can also be considerable. Moreover, though much valuable information is mounted on the web through the work of generous and talented individuals and through institutions such as libraries and museums which are committed to resource sharing, commercial enterprises such as database developers and publishers increasingly market their products through the web--generally at a cost higher than the print counterpart. As value is added to databases and intellectual property is protected, fewer sites will remain "free."

In summary, the issue of reliability lies at the heart of concerns over the web. Dubious content, questionable integrity, inaccessible servers, unmaintained sites, difficulty in finding relevant information, and unpredictable costs all conspire to discourage reliance upon using the web as one uses a library.


With the preceding litany of problems with using the web, one might wonder whether the frustration and expense of such a resource can be justified. Looking now at the potential of the web with its superior timeliness and currency, interactivity, multimedia and hypertext capabilities, flexibility, and wealth of information, librarians can ill afford to ignore this resource.

4.1. Timeliness

One of the web's strongest assets is its ability to provide current and timely information. Sites with business data (currency exchange rates, stock market data), geo-political information, weather, and current news exploit the webs potential to provide information with an immediacy than is impossible in print. Examples of these sites include the Weather Net (, which provides access to current conditions, forecasts, satellite images, and other weather-related information, and current news sites (such as which provide newswire services, world headline news, and links to online daily newspapers. The volatility of this data and the time lag between gathering, publishing, and making it available on the library's shelves strongly mitigates against disseminating it in traditional print media.

4.2. Interactivity

The web's interactive capabilities provide functions not possible through standard print sources. An increasing number of sites have interactive features where calculations such as unit conversion (, local times around the world (, and distance calculations ( are performed automatically. Moreover, interactivity with librarians is increasingly possible, as numerous library reference departments now provide the opportunity for users to ask reference questions via the library's web site. One of the principle innovators of this service in the U.S., is the Internet Public Library (, which provides an interactive information service at it's "Ask a Reference Question" page. Guidelines are provided and users submit question on online form or initiate an interactive reference session.

4.3. Multimedia and Hypertext Capabilities

In the traditional library, print is the primary means by which information is acquired and disseminated. Separate media centers may provide audio and video recordings, but largely there is little integration of these media with the print collection. Web sites, like the new generation of CD-ROMs, provide for true integration of text, sound, and image, including video, for example, the web hosts dictionaries which include audio pronunciation guides, and sites which integrate music and dance clips into the text. Moreover, with its dynamic system of links, the web is able to draw related materials and information together far more seamlessly and effectively than is possible in print. As Stuart Weibel observes, "The opportunity to weave a publication into the context of related scholarship (by embedding explicit links to related articles) will enhance the usefulness of the literature to the scholar." (Weibel, 1995).

4.4. Availability

Unlike traditional library collections, which must be used in a specific place and time, the web offers greater flexibility regarding where and when its information can be accessed. While achieving this capability requires powerful and properly configured hardware, necessary software, and ability to connect to the network, the consequent availability in the classroom, lab, office, or home, offers unprecedented accessibility. Despite the instability of web sites and unpredictable access to servers, the web offers the advantage of simultaneous use by multiple users. Since library materials can only be used by one person at a time, and are subject to being lost or mutilated, web access to a heavily used resource can help ensure its availability to users.

4.5. Library-Related Resources

Perhaps the most powerful feature of the web, however, is the wealth of information it contains, much of which is not available in even the largest library collections. If the intrepid librarian succeeds in wading through the morass of advertising, popular culture, and hype that accompanies using the web, he or she finds that useful sites actually do exist. Foremost among these are the home pages of libraries, universities and research centers, and professional organizations, which frequently contain value added resources. For instance, the U.S. Library of Congress site ( includes historical photographs and audio recordings, specialized databases such as the Vietnam War Era POW/MIA Database, and exhibits, in addition to providing access (via telnet) to their online catalog.

Though commercial databases such as the full text of Encyclopedia Britannica are available through the web, their use is restricted to subscribers. Nevertheless, librarians can access a considerable amount of unrestricted (i.e., free) information, such as national and commercial telephone directories, dictionaries, almanacs, etc. Numerous libraries have organized links to these electronic reference sources (see In some cases, however, quality may be sacrificed for convenience as the some of these resources are not as authoritative or dependable as their print counterparts.

Journal literature is of particular interest to scholars, and delivery of current, authoritative articles to a desktop is a researcher's dream. Since this literature is subject to copyright restrictions, however, full text articles are generally available only on a subscription basis, frequently through a vendor such as OCLC's FirstSearch. Though an increasing number of electronic journals published on the net are freely available (see for a classified listing) they may not be subject to the peer review quality-control process. The availability of newspapers is somewhat better, since an increasingly diverse collection of newspapers from around the world is online (see While these are rarely the exact equivalent of the paper copy, they nonetheless provide vital information beyond the library's budget to acquire in print.

In summary, the web's potential for expanding a library's existing resources is considerable. Whether providing timely information such as international news, interactive information services, multimedia, or connections to remote libraries, the dynamic nature of the web offers a rich complement to the static and stable print collection.


The next challenge is to determine whether useful sites exist for meeting specific information needs. Unfortunately, current tools for locating a specific site--analogous to finding a book if you know the title--are not yet up to the task. Precise recall is possible only by knowing the URL (uniform resource locator), the "address" of a site. Otherwise, browsing through topically arranged web directories, such as Yahoo, or submitting keywords to one of the indexes, such as Alta Vista, offer the best possibility for locating information on a topic. Thanks to the dynamic system of links which connect a site to related resources on the web, navigating is easy once you get started--the problem then becomes one of evaluating the quality of the information you've accessed. The following section proposes general strategies for searching and evaluating information on the web.

5.1. Published Directories

The easiest way to get to a specific site is by knowing the URL, which is analogous to the call number. Various publications such as Yahoo Unplugged (1995) or specialized titles such as Deutschsprachige Seiten im Internet (1995) provide a starting point for reaching sites on various topics. Since the sites have been pre-selected and possibly reviewed, they may be among the better resources. Though easy to use, the disadvantage of these printed directories is that they do not stay current and become quickly dated.

5.2. Web-Based Subject Directories

Whether generated by the altruism of energetic individuals or created as an entrepreneurial venture, classified "lists" of sites are a useful mechanism for organizing web resources by general topic. In most cases, a keyword search through the sites in the directory provides an additional search strategy. One pioneering service, the Clearinghouse for Subject-Oriented Internet Resource Guides ( offers over 200 topical guides, each containing dozens or hundreds of links to related resources. Other sites, such as the Internet Public Library ( are smaller, more focused, and highly selective. Though reviews of web sites and other Internet resources are beginning to appear in the literature (Collins, 1996), and critical reasoning skills tell us what to look for in appraising information, applying quick evaluative judgments to web sites is difficult. These classified lists, particularly when carefully chosen, represent the closest equivalent of recommended sites. These lists are far from comprehensive, however, and there is an inverse relationship between the quantity of links generated by one of these directories, and the overall quality of the links. Larger sites, such as Yahoo ( contain thousands of links in hierarchically organized categories, but the quality of the sites varies considerably.

5.3. Search Engines

Unlike the relatively controlled universe of sites contained in the subject directories, web search engines such as Alta Vista ( or Lycos ( scour millions of pages in a search. These search engines provide keyword and Boolean searching capabilities, so that one can find sites relating to a specific subject (e.g., Nelson Mandela). Due to the size of the database and imprecision of the search fields, however, searches frequently result in too many irrelevant hits.

While the Internet is popularly referred to as the Information Highway, a more apt analogy is a labyrinth. A journey through a labyrinth is not linear and multiple options must be attempted before success is met. So too with searching the web. The preceding discussion offers a few starting points, but finally, multiple strategies with multiple tools (classified lists, search engines, following links) yield the best results.


Despite the mystique of "virtual libraries," libraries as we know them -- with bricks and books -- will be with us for years to come. At the same time the technology of the World Wide Web makes the resources of the Internet more accessible than ever before. The question is not the library or the Internet, but the library and the Internet. Ultimately librarians will need to strike a balance between traditional and virtual resources, "playing to the strengths of each format, one supporting the other and complementing the other as needed and appropriate." (LaGuardia, 1995).

The use of the web by libraries poses fundamental dilemmas. Whether used directly by the library's clientele, or by librarians in the course of providing information services to users, librarians must apply the traditional values of our profession to minimize the hazards and maximize the benefits of this powerful resource. To accomplish this, librarians need to gain an understanding of the types of resources on the web that might serve the information needs of their clientele, and know how to find them. As A.P. Thapisa observes, "[The Internet] will bring with it, like the River Nile after a very heavy downpour, essential water (information) that is mixed up with all kinds of debris, cowdung, sticks and all that is unmentionable. The immediate concern therefore is how to scoop out only that which is vital and leave in the rest." (Thapisa, 1996). I hope this paper has given us a start.


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