Getting Directions from Strangers

Article excerpt

One of the odd aspects of being a recovering librarian is that I still exude the air of authority that all reference librarians share. People ask me for help at the hardware store. Fellow dog owners ask me for advice in training dogs (and if you've ever seen my dogs, you'd know how silly that is). Worse yet, people ask me for directions, although I am notoriously bad at finding my way around town.

The last time this happened (and I am afraid I sent the lost driver in the wrong direction), I started thinking about how I evaluate an information source. I look at the behavior of a dog before I ask its human for training advice. When I am evaluating an information source on the Web, I have a checklist I run through: looking up a topic I am familiar with, evaluating the site's sources, seeing how it handles ambiguous terms and typos, etc.

These sorts of checklists are even more important when it comes to the new generation of "answer" sites on the Web. I am reminded of Vice President Cheney's goof during the 2004 election debates, when he referred to FactCheck.com (actually, it's FactCheck.org) as a site that would rebut inaccurate statements by his opponents. According to FactCheck.org itself, Cheney wrongly implied that the site had cleared him of wrongdoing while CEO of Halliburton. Like Snopes.com and other myth-buster sites, I'm impressed at the number of sources cited in FactCheck.org as it addresses misstatements or distortions made in the political arena.

Some of the ask-a-librarian sites are equally reliable, at least to this M.L.S. holder. The Library of Congress rolled out its Ask A Librarian site [www.loc.gov/rr/ask alib/] back in 2002, and a number of public and academic libraries offer similar services. Also I trust Stumpers-L [domin.dom.edu/depts/gslis/stumpers/], a long-time e-mail discussion list in which librarians can post reference questions that have stumped them in the hope that a fellow librarian can provide the answer. The answers offered here almost universally include a citation to the source used and often come with a discussion about other possible sources, interpretations, or meanings.

One of the strengths of any e-mail discussion list is that it tends to be self-correcting, which I know from personal experience. I remember answering a question about the date of an upcoming conference, relying on an outdated Web site. Three other participants quickly posted to correct my mistake and provide the correct in formation. …