Distance and Distance Research
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Distance and Distance Research
The Need for Internet Proficiency in the Shadow of Shrinking Resources.
Arthur E. Williams, Ph. D.
Division of Arts & Letters
The University of Maine at Machias
9 OBrien Avenue
Machias, Maine 04654
I teach public speaking and theatre courses at a small New England university located in Downeast Maine. We have an enrollment that hovers at about a thousand. When my students are charged with research, they face an immediate challenge: the lack of accessible resources. Funding cuts have limited the size of our library holdings and reduced the amount of updated material. Time and time again, my students are forced to change their research topics because either the information was not available or it was hopelessly out of date. Although we are linked to the rest of the state via an on-line holding catalog, a book can take from five to twenty days to arrive.
Many students and faculty have found their own solutions. One is to travel to the main campus in Orono, a journey which will easily eat up an entire day. A second is to forage local and private libraries for more reliable information. The final option is to use our computer network to voyage electronically to campuses and libraries throughout the world via the Internet. Our local computer network is gradually acquiring the ability to send electronic mail, read news groups, and use Gopher, Telnet, FTP, and the World Wide Web. Both our Macintosh and DOS computers are being upgraded in hardware and software to surf the net with ease.
But having that ability and using it are two quite different things. Only ten percent of our faculty are comfortable with Internet travel, and I fear the number of students is at the same level. Computer usage tends to be relegated to the old troika of word processing, spreadsheets, and data processing. The problem could thus be posed in this way: although we lack immediate resources, we have them available at a distance. Although the tools are available, we arent using them. The challenge for the computer administrator, and indeed, for everyone who needs information, is making these tools easily available for everyone.
Our goal must be to make Internet acquisition of information, whether it be text, sound, pictures, or movies, both easy for the novice and worthwhile for the adept. That last qualification comes from seeing systems such as Gopher servers that offer a relatively small menu of selections. Such systems are user-friendly, but a user comes up against their limitations rather quickly. A higher level of user ability needs to be easily available.
The University Library and Research
As a graduate student at the University of Maryland and then at Ohio State, I took their large libraries for granted. I had two or three research papers due each semester, papers that required extensive surveys of the available literature. In both libraries, each with holdings best expressed in the millions, I could start my work with either generalized or specific bibliographies, take citations and then start tracking down the originals. Other papers and articles would yield still more sources and I would track them down. I was amazed when I found just how many obscure sources were languishing in a musty corner of the Ohio State stacks. Let me give you an example.
Several years ago, I was studying changes in Bertolt Brechts Galileo. This play has been through two major revisions, both carefully documented by the playwright. The biographies and articles I could find pointed to an excellent source which traced Brechts creative process in both words and pictures, something Brecht called a model book. I knew it wasnt in the theatre stacks, because I had come to know those intimately. However, once I knew it existed, I was able to track it down in the German-language oversized section.
This was not a matter of calling for an inter-library loan or traveling out of state or even leaving campus. Once I knew the bibliographic details, I was able to find the text easily. Such ease of use is vital to scholars. It is to be expected on a large campus. It is difficult to attain on a smaller one.
Consider such a research project at the University of Maine at Machias. First of all, our campus holdings on Brecht consist of three general books and an LP. A search of the system collections shows many critical commentaries but no model book for Brechts Galileo.