Thursday, January 17, 2008

Neither are fish the best authority on water.

(Subject line a paraphrase from Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark, a book I highly recommend.)

While we were away at Midwinter, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) revealed what librarians already know: the "Google generation", that is, people who grew up using the Web, is a myth. That's the conclusion of a new report, "Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future" (available as a PDF download from the JISC website; at 35 pages, it's not a super-quick read but is downright brief compared to many reports I've seen) that highlights one of the downsides of convenient information retrieval: a kind of blindness to less convenient but more worthwhile information, coupled with a lack of application of critical evaluation.

It makes sense, if you think about it. The television is one of the most ubiquitous information-based media out there, but channel-surfing doesn't make you an expert on current events. Neither does only watching one channel, or only getting your news from the TV. Plenty of people have cell phones now, but having a phone doesn't make you an expert on the art of conversation. Far from it, if some of the phone conversations I've overheard recently are any indication. (You may not care that you're chatting in an airport bathroom, but does whoever you're talking to really want to listen to the inevitable ambient sounds?)

But I digress.

Like I said in this article last year, when retrieval gets easier, other things become harder. Google (increasingly a convenient shorthand for Internet search engines) is the great decontextualizer, and that's a problem: it conveys and reinforces the notion that if it can't find it, it doesn't exist—even though it's impossible to know for sure how much of the Web Google indexes. The size of a search engine's index isn't the best measure of its quality (perhaps not a measure of its quality at all), but it can lead a person to wonder what they might be missing.

The thing is, students don't wonder what they're missing, because the Internet gives them so much. And, increasingly, so much of it is good quality—or at least good enough. Part of our job as librarians, and also part of faculty's jobs as teachers, is to demonstrate why "good enough" isn't good enough: to show students the benefit of researching comprehensively, using more than one resource, and developing their evaluative skills so they can see the gaps in what Google finds.

For some people, at least, the bloom is off: usage of Google Scholar is down 32% for 2007! The question is, how much are people (including, of course, students) using plain ol' Google for their research needs?

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