Sunday, April 10, 2005

Does a book exist if nobody reads it?

A recent conversation with a graduate student.
Student: I couldn't find the paper online.
Me: So walk over to the library and get the paper there.
Student: But you can't take those books out and I don't want to spend hours at the library reading the paper.
Me: So make a copy and take it home.
Student: The library has copy machines?
Here is where I tell the story that when I was a graduate student and wanted a paper I walked five miles barefoot in blizzard conditions (actually two flights of stairs) to the library, or would send a stamped self-addressed envelope to an author. Not that we should go back to those times but don't ignore papers just because you can't find them online.

The next generation gets even worse. From a discussion in an undergrad class.

Student: I searched really hard for this topic and didn't find much. Are you sure it even exists outside of class?
Me: Really, I'm sure the math library [right down the hall] has several books on the topic.
Student: Oh, I just used Google.
Are we really getting to the point that if something isn't on the internet (or even on the internet but Google doesn't find it) then it doesn't exist?


  1. Can I ask what the topic was in the second conversation? If there are several books in the math library, I find it hard to believe that nothing on google would reference it.

  2. It's unfortunate that people don't realize that the library is there for a reason. It's so useful. I'm still just an undergrad and I still do a lot of things the old-fashioned way.

  3. One of the other things I miss about going to the library is the ability to browse volumes of a journal immediately close to the one of direct interest. You can get a sense of the context for a paper this way, what was a hot topic at the time the paper was published, and where the field went. Sometimes you come across hidden gems, too. I remember stumbling across a paper describing SHRDLU and thinking "wow, you mean we can make a computer reason like this?" The ECCC and other preprint archives give a little of this feeling, but it's not the same thing. Another fun tidbit was reading papers on linear programming from the 80s that described the ellipsoid method as "The Soviet Algorithm."

    Still, last time I went to the library was to pick up a paper of Karp from the early 80s cited in Mitzenmacher's thesis. For whatever reason, the things I've been doing recently have sent me to the library less often.
    -David Molnar

  4. The students you mentioned and their "generation" give me hope that some day soon every published document will be available online, through DVDs and other media that are inexpensive and highly available everywhere --- from the technology hotbeds of the world to the parts that are still struggling to meet basic needs in food, health, and sanitation.

  5. Are we really getting to the point that if something isn't on the internet (or even on the internet but Google doesn't find it) then it doesn't exist?

    No. We're already there and have been for quite some time. When I was in highschool (1996), I attended a seminar series in a summer program titled "Computers Suck". No, the lecturer was not a luddite; rather he was an English professor who's main thesis of the series was that computers have hindered traditional research skills since the first thing that students do when "reasearching" a topic is to hop onto Google (or yahoo, altavista at the time) and accept the first few pages that come up as gospel.

    The guy made a pretty good case. He went further in saying that simple tools like spell checkers/grammar checkers were ultimately counter-productive since students became far too reliant on the tools and were unable to spell/construct correct grammar on their own.

    In my experience, the problems are far worse than you mention. Students don't bother to proof read their work even once (as is evidenced by correct spellings, but incorrect word choices--they let Word do it for them). Undergrads aren't even aware of the existence of journals; they don't seem to know where to even start most of the time.

    The CS program at my university has at least recognized this problem and has started to encourage a conference-style research paper in all upper-level undergrad courses. Sadly, they haven't really addressed the root of the problem. Perhaps a basic Research 101 course that would cover how one performs research as well as technical writing skills (and usage of LaTeX and other tools) is a good idea.

  6. There are so many interesting issues raised by this post and comments.

    I am not surprised by these conversations that Lance reports, but like many other posters, I do find it sad. I am (just) old enough that I spent hours in the library finding relevant books and papers, and I certainly learned a lot by taking the time to browse and taking advantage of the serendipitous placement of books on the shelves.

    Google can offer something of an electronic equivalent -- using Google scholar I often find interesting links when looking things up via key words. And I also think the idea of having papers available to everyone all the time is certainly a good thing. We have gained a great deal from the last decade of technology, almost certainly more than we have lost.

    The problem with the current generation is not their use of technology -- its their reliance on it, their absolute faith in it, and often their inability to use it appropriately. The spelling/grammar checker is a great example. The "if I can't find it in one keyword search it's not important" attitude is another.

    Researchers do need appropriate training to learn to use the tools available properly. I'd love to see a class on this, designed specifically for math/CS or general science research needs. I'd actually like to take it.

  7. Lance, this post was the funniest thing I've read in a long time. I've fallen into this trap a few times myself. However, as someone who studies complexity theory just as a hobby and doesn't have access to a research library, I really depend on the internet for tracking down articles. The ACM has done a very good job of getting older articles scanned and online, but most other societies/publishers are lagging behind. It can be very frustrating and time consuming trying to obtain this kind of material via inter-library loan from your local public library. I'm looking forward to the day when ALL scientific research is available online.

  8. Let this be a lesson to all researchers, too: You'll be cited much more frequently if your work is available on the internet. (I go further and provide the Bibtex reference too, for a simple copy and paste.)

    Probably the students don't know the art of searching for something. I had a friend in a math trivia challenge come to me because he gave up on trying to find the answer to "how many regular n-gons are there where the angles are whole numbers?" The whole time he was searching for "whole number" and couldn't find anything. I told him to search for "integral" because that sounds more like what a mathematician would say. Indeed, the answer was in the top five results when that was used.

    So, searching requires some knowledge. Sometimes you first need to search for some of the keywords first to find alternate terms. For example, searching for "cell splitting" isn't going to help you when the page you are looking for calls it "cell division."

  9. Regarding research classes: some university libraries offer a "Research 101." These are half-day seminars that show you how to look up items in the library, give an overview of the relevant indices, tell you which libraries have which materials, and so on. I found out about the INSPEC database from one such class, which has proved useful time and time again. If you or your students are at a university with such a class, it is worth checking out. (For example, Harvard and Berkeley both have such classes). If you are not at a university, but near one, you may be able to attend such a class anyway.

    I also agree that it will be a great thing when all papers are scanned in online, particularly for people not affiliated with a university. Still, I think CS is ahead of the curve on this one. If you venture outside of our field, coverage becomes spotty at best. Also, because you don't know the publications, browsing becomes more important. For example, I had to learn something about transportation (e.g., road planning) a while back - I could not get much traction online. Eventually I went to the library and things started going much more quickly.

    -David Molnar

  10. As regards learning "look-up skills" and LaTeX, since a program like this does not exist for undergraduates in all schools, it's worth noting that some NSF REUs in math (not naming any names...) have taken as a major goal the training of participants in these elementary skills.

    Since these REU programs are supposed to be a unique opportunity for meritorious students (particularly those who, for whatever reason, didn't get into a top-tier institution out of high school) to get a taste of real research, this is both a shame and a big waste of federal $.

  11. SUNY at Buffalo CS Department offers a course of the kind alluded to by some posters; I believe it includes basic LaTeX, speaking skills, refereeing skills, etc. I believe it was developed by complexity theorist Alan Selman. Here is the official course description:

    501 Required for all new Graduate students: This course gives necessary information about graduate studies in CSE for incoming students. Registration and attendance are required for all new students. Topics include: academic integrity, the nature of research, good teaching and TA skills, resources available for research, departmental computer systems, relevant departmental, University, and U.S. regulations and forms,and planning an academic program.

  12. In response to some of the comments that drew an analogy between researching strictly via computers and the use of spell-checkers and other programs to improve diction as the sole means to improve readability of documents:

    Technology leads to inevitable and irreversible changes in how society and science evolve. The smart thing to do is to learn to work with it, not against it. Within a few decades, the print library as we know will (and should) cease to exist, much like "paper and pencil" arithmetic is rarely, if ever, used in countries like the U.S. For an interesting perspective on this issue, see

    this article by Tony Ralston.

  13. In my institution the paper library in some sense has ceased to exist, as most journal subscriptions there are now electronic only.

    On the other hand, with regards to textbooks (as opposed to research papers), I believe that the traditional library will remain with us for a long time.

  14. Libraries and the internet are both technologies; one old, the other new. To say that you want either to be used well for some purpose is just to set standards (implicit in the notion of doing something well). It is up to teachers of courses, advisors of grad students, program committees of conferences and editors of journals to define and uphold those standards. For example, if teachers fail students at some college when they submit poorly written or researched papers, then that behavior will stop at that college. Sorry, I don't see the significant difference between libraries and the internet, at least in this regard.

  15. common guys... you sound like the priests defending the benefits of handwriting and how guttenberg was killing culture....

    I challenge any of you to write a one page summary of a random topic using only the library and a pen in less time than I write three using google. And sorry guys, quality would not be your exclusive, thats what the priests said...

  16. Did you ever see the movie "Green Card," in which Gerard Depardieu explains that he was really a nobody back in France, but in New York, his French accent is like a super power, like he's Superman from Krypton, and just by his foreign nature he has an advantage. Women are drawn to him magically and people take him seriously as a chef.

    That's how I feel. I'm Library Man. I can just go get a book from the library, post some tidbit of information I learn from it online, and like magic, I am (for most people) the world's only source of that information, I'm the expert, because nobody put that information on the internet before.

    Of course, I do a lot of correlations and creation of new analysis that was never done online or off. It's not just transcription. But in some ways I almost enjoy the ignorance of the younger generation that has no concept of books and libraries. It makes it rather easy to seem brilliant by comparison.

  17. As a first year student in university, I now know about the tools I can use to do adequate research, and I think that most students do too, but the real 'trap' that we fall into is that most students are too lazy not to google thier topics. Search engines such as google are great for finding relevant results quickly, which is what universities are demanding of students now, but the problem is that of reliability. Too many websites provide illigitamate information. That's what we need to work on, as opposed to getting everyone back to using brick-and-mortar libraries.

    And with respect to students just being "lazy", first of all that's not a good excuse for not having relevant sources of information for school projects. Secondly, their not just being lazy, bc most students worked hard to get accepted into university, but it's hard for our generation to not make use of this technology that your (older) generations have created ofr us because your generation/the industries of your generation have made it so that our whole life reolves around this technology and a fast-pased world. This opens another whole discussion on letting these technologies get into our lives/choices we choose to make..but the reality right now is that if you at least dont ahve a cell phone and an email account, life at school and at work is very unproductive. "My generation" was born into this world yet i feel that "my generation" is constantly being blamed for many of the outcomes. I love technology and I love making use of it, and the problem isnt that we have all this technology now, but the problem is that many of the institutions and systems are not keeping up..including schools!