On the Uniquely Human Element of Library Research in the Future

I have no idea what is going to come next. Although I have worked with string-search algorithms and data-mining techniques for twenty-five years, I don’t believe in the digital utopia for five minutes. I don’t think that magical tools are going to enable college seniors suddenly to do library research that will eclipse the work of distinguished scholars of twenty years ago. I don’t think faceted metacrawlers are anything more than training wheels for the intellectual under-fives.

Some research will become possible that didn’t used to be, and some research will become easier, but most of it won’t change much. As is usual in history, the new generation will declare victory and do so successfully; whatever mixture of research tools and practices it uses will be defined ipso facto as quality scholarship. But it will in fact take many decades for real definitions of quality to emerge in the new environment. Perhaps in fifty years scholars will look back at the first generation of post-internet scholarship and cringe, as indeed I cringe when I look forward to it.

From Andrew Abbott’s Windsor Lecture delivered at the University of Illinois entitled, “Library Research and Its Infrastructure in the Twentieth Century.

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