Author says librarians can guide us through online anarchy

“Are Libraries Obsolete?” by Mark Y. Herring. McFarland, 2014. $25.

“I am not anti-anything in this book,” the author, a veteran university librarian, announces at the outset. He honors that pledge by tallying up the positive contributions of Internet technology to human knowledge, while at the same time demonstrating the disturbing ways in which digitization (mislabeled as progress) is diminishing our lives.

Across the Web, useless chatter and false information are granted a status equal to information of enduring value. Someone has to look out for vulnerable minds susceptible to electronic mind candy. Thankfully, Mark Herring is doing that.

Here’s a surprising statistic: Right now, libraries account for one-third of all Internet access outside the home. At Herring’s university in South Carolina, the confusing mix of sites leads students to the research desk, “typically frantic” in seeking help. Given the meandering navigation paths, it’s hard for researchers to find online sources if they aren’t dancing in front of the eye.

“Libraries have always been collaborative organizational structures,” Herring writes. They promote knowledge in several media at once. And they have proven adaptable.

The physical book (freed from circuitry) is a tactile and aesthetic delight. You hold it, feel the gentle weight of the pages as you turn, and occupy a certain space as you commune with the past. Even Bill Gates will say unabashedly: “Reading off the screen is still vastly inferior to reading off paper.”

Search engines such as Google prioritize, on the basis of a proprietary ranking method, the pages they deliver to the user; if you pay (or are a Web expert), you can see that your content is high on the list of pages shown. And which sites contain reliable material? Is the most current information put up online always the most reliable? How does one discriminate?

Well, you can ask a librarian.

Herring acknowledges the economic issues: “Libraries cost a lot but generate very little revenue.” They may suffer from theft and vandalism; but that’s small potatoes compared with the Internet, which is subject to hacking threats, caught up periodically in multimillion-dollar lawsuits, pervaded by scam artists, stuck on deadly serious privacy and piracy issues, and troubled by the ubiquitous presence of pornography and hate speech.

Even if the Internet does not crash in a massive cyber-attack, it is not as stable as an all-purpose system has to be.

“Currently,” Herring explains, “we do everything on essentially one super highway with one lane.”

We all know the strain caused by excessive hours in front of the computer. Beyond mere headaches, it appears cardiovascular stress is “amplified by the frustration from using any technology.” Memory studies are proving that the effects of digital media on neurophysiology are real. Web surfing creates new neural pathways, while “weakening or destroying other brain structures.”

That doesn’t sound good.

Nor do the statistics on student learning patterns. Reading online creates bad habits: “We jump from place to place the same way we ‘channel surf’ when we watch TV.”

We accept that technology molds us, but we’re not always aware of the long-term impact. What happens when, collectively speaking, the human power of observation declines? “Rising generations of young people are reading less competently. … They cannot focus on longer, more complicated texts.”

Reading Herring’s book, one comes to appreciate the skills of the research librarian as today’s protector against the unmitigated anarchy the Web invites. “Only a library is currently equipped to handle the fact-from-fiction that this glut of information will require,” the author concludes.

He cites folk singer Joni Mitchell’s plaintive line about paving paradise: “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” He hopes — and shouldn’t we all? — that as a civilization, we will continue to deserve the noble, thousand-year-old institution of the library.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship Professor of History at LSU and the author, most recently, of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died.”