Some professors already provide Web reading lists that correspond to the traditional lists of paper material. The average Columbia course, for example, has 3,000 pages of paper reading (with an occasional additional audiotape in language courses). The lack of quality on the Web means that faculty must provide guidance to undergraduates about what to read there.
More important, it will be necessary for faculty to teach the skill of looking purely at the text of a document and making a judgment as to its credibility. Much of our ability to evaluate a paper document is based on the credibility of the publisher. On the Web, students will have to judge by principles like those of paleography. What do we know, if anything, about the source? Is there a motive for deception? How does the wording of the document read-credibly or excessively emotionally? Do facts that we can check elsewhere agree with those other sources?
The library will also gain a new role. Universities should provide a training service for how to search the Web, and the library is the logical place to provide that training. This logic is partly because librarians are trained in search systems, which are rarely studied formally by any other groups. In addition, librarians will need to keep the old information sources until most students are converted, which will take a while.
The art of learning to retrieve information may also bring students together. I once asked a Columbia librarian whether the advent of computers and networks in the dormitory rooms was creating a generation of introverted nerds lacking social skills. She replied that the reverse was true. In the days of card catalogs, students were rarely seen together; each person searched the cards alone. Now, she said, she frequently sees groups of two or three students at the OPAC terminals,
one explaining to the others how to do something. Oh, I said, so you're improving the students' social skills by providing poor human interface software. Not intentionally, she replied. Even with good software, however, there is still a place for students helping each other find information, and universities can try to encourage this interaction.
Much has been written about the information rich versus the information poor and the fear that once information will need to be obtained via machines that cost several thousand dollars, poor people will be placed at a still greater disadvantage in society than they are today. In the university context, money may not be the key issue, since many university libraries provide computers for general use. However, some people face nonfinancial barriers to the use of electronic systems. These barriers may include limited eyesight or hearing (which of course also affect the use of conventional libraries). More important, perhaps, is the difficulty that some users may have with some kinds of interface design. These difficulties range from relatively straightforward issues such as color blindness to complex perceptual issues involving different kinds of interfaces and their demands on different individuals. So far, we do not know whether some users will have trouble with whatever becomes the standard information interface; in fact, we do not know whether some university students in the past had particular difficulties learning card catalogs.
The library may also be a good place to teach aspects of collaboration and sharing that will grow out of researching references, as hyperlinking replaces traditional citation. Students are going to use the Web to cooperate in writing papers as well as in finding information for them. The ease of including (or pointing to) the work of others is likely to greatly expand the extent to which student work becomes collaborative. Learning how to do collaborative work effectively and fairly is an important skill that students can acquire. In particular, the desire to make attractive multimedia works, which may need expertise in writing, drawing, and perhaps even composing music, will drive us to encourage cooperative work.
Students could also be encouraged to help organize all the information on the local Web site. Why should a student create a Web page that prefers local resources? Perhaps because the student receives some kind of academic credit for doing so. University Web sites, to remain useful, will require constant maintenance and updating. Who is going to do that? Realistically, students.