Marysville Library Blog

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Google and information literacy

When most people think of the internet and finding information these days, they automatically think of Google. It has even entered our everyday language as a verb! Even we here in the library, with masses of information at our fingertips, both in book format and in our special databases, use Google all the time. Wonderful as a tool as Google is, though, it doesn’t do our thinking for us. We as “consumers” of the information we find on Google must remember that anyone that can pay a small fee to a server company can put information on the web, whether what they put on the web is true or not. And just because a website comes up on the first page of Google results, doesn’t make it true.

Of course, if all you want to do is buy a doodad from your favorite on-line store, you don’t have to worry so much about whether what you find is true as the company presumably wants to keep your business in the future. But what if you want to find out about something that is somewhat controversial? Then you can’t just rely on the top Google results, you have to dig deeper.

So what should we as seekers of information do to see if what we’re finding is trustworthy?

The main question to ask is, “Who wrote this?” Every site has a point of view, and you should know where it’s coming from. If the URL ends in a “.gov” or “.edu” you know the site was sponsored by a government entity or educational institution rather than a private group, company or organization. Such sites still have a point of view, but they are more likely to try to be unbiased.

Sometimes who wrote or sponsored a site is difficult to figure out. One website that comes up on the first page of Google results that appears to be a legitimate source about Martin Luther King, Jr. ends up, if you dig, to be sponsored by the white supremacist group “KKK”. That probably isn’t a good source for your child’s school report! One way to judge the trustworthiness of a site is to see if the information agrees with what you find on other sites or other sources of information, like books. This is especially true if the source you compare it to is one that you already trust!

It’s like each website is a person; you have to judge for yourself whether to believe what it tells you or not. Just like there are good people in the world, you’ll also find good information on website using Google. But there are other sites and people that you want to stay away from because they are one-sided or liars.

Do you have other ways of judging the trustworthiness of a site? Have you never considered this?


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Google versus Sno-Isle databases

The Sno-Isle library system spends a large percentage of its collection budget on on-line databases. So what are they, and what makes these databases worth the money (your tax dollars at work!) we spend on them? Can’t you just Google what you want and get all the information you need? Well, funnily enough, I used Google to find a definition of “Database”:
“A collection of related electronic records in a standardized format, searchable in a variety of ways, such as title, author, subject, and keyword. Common examples of databases are the library catalog and citation indexes.” (University of Colorado)

You can use Google to search the Internet. But it isn’t organized, and the sites it searches aren’t related and aren’t in a standard format. No one chooses what Google will find and Google doesn’t offer different ways of searching. Everything it finds is all jumbled together, both the good and legitimate sites, and the fake and misleading sites. You can find good information, but you’re on your own to be aware of who is putting up the site and judge whether they are reliable or not. And by the way, Google doesn’t search the entire web, either-it will give you just sites it has indexed through it automatic web-crawlers. Most of the information in databases is proprietary and can’t be Googled.

One of the most useful kinds of database is the index. You go in to ProQuest or EBSCO (the 2 biggest indexes we offer), and you can find articles by major newspapers and magazines, as well as articles by trade publications and academic journals. In the old days, you would have to search through huge print indexes, then find the articles in miles of dusty stacks, and then sometimes find that the article you found wasn’t useful to you after all. The articles you find using these new on-line indexes are exactly the same as the hard copies found the old way, they’re just a whole lot easier to find. We also have more specialized indexes such as the Psychology and Behavioral Sciences database that finds the latest research in that field. And NONE of the articles you find through these on-line indexes (databases) are findable through Google.

Another kind of database that we have is like an encyclopedia, or a collection of encyclopedias. One example is the “Biography Resource Center” database. It finds articles from many different encyclopedias all at once when you search for a particular person you’re interested in. They also find good websites, academic journal articles, and popular news articles as well, all gathered into one search. Unlike Google, the Biography Resource Center makes sure that everything it gives you is about that person, not just any random site that happens to contain that name. Similar databases cover literature, history, science and countries.

We have lots of other databases as well, such as genealogical databases, automotive repair, and the “Learning Express” site that has guides and practice tests for tests such as the GRE, SAT, and other certification tests. None of this information is freely available on the web.

Check us out! I mentioned a couple of my favorite databases, what are yours?