With the start of yet another semester on campus, the library assignments begin to roll in again. I have observed a positive trend in my little corner of academia: More instructors are emphasizing the evaluation of Web resources. Perhaps they are listening, at last, to the constant librarian refrain on the importance of critical thinking when it comes to Internet information. Or perhaps they have just run across too many inaccurate sites themselves.
Some assignments require students to include peer-reviewed articles in their bibliography, while others simply specify the inclusion of "print" articles from popular magazines, newspapers, or journals. With so many of our periodicals moving to online subscriptions and away from paper, this creates a certain amount of ambiguity, which probably explains why more recent assignments simply tell the students to find "quality" library sources without specifying online or print.
This emphasis on the traditional print and library-purchased resources as being higher-quality information than Web resources should warm a librarian's heart, but it will backfire if oversold. For many topics, the Web has excellent resources--and dare I say even better--than can be found in our print collection. If users find better information online (however they may define "better"), then information professionals lose credibility when we insist that library and print sources are always superior.
Critical evaluation of information sources is important to the academic process and to any advanced information seeker. Now that the Internet is such an important part of so many information-seeking processes for students, teachers, scholars, professionals, and the general public, it may be time to revisit how we evaluate information on the Net.
One problem in dealing with evaluation of online sources is that an increasing number of library resources are made available via the Web. Aggregator databases, electronic periodicals, and online newspapers may all be fee-based resources, bought by a library but made available to the library's users on the Web. As we buy more online reference books, specialty databases, and Web-based journal packages, the boundary between library resources and the Web continues to blur.
Admittedly, for most librarians the distinction is clear. For our users, the difference may not be so obvious. In several recent reports, researchers compared use of the Internet to the use of libraries by asking people if they prefer to do research in the library or online. Of course, online is the obvious preference. Yet the questions rarely address the library's online resources.
Our users now come to the library "virtually" every time they use one of our databases. If we succeed in making their access seamless, users may not even know when they are in a paid-for, commercial source or on the free Web. Corporate researchers, scholars, and students obtain access to commercial sites based on their IP addresses. Data loaded on an intranet may be indistinguishable to some users from a similar-looking page on the open Web.
PRINT VERSUS WEB
With the wide range of information on the Net, it is easy to see how some teachers give the impression that nothing on the Web can be trusted. Others may insist that a rigorous evaluation must be done for all Web content while everything in a print source can be trusted.
Now I love print resources, but I would never trust everything printed on paper any more than I trust everything online. As a writer and a reader, I have seen far too many ways in which errors creep into otherwise useful books and articles, not to even mention books published solely to advocate a particular fringe viewpoint or promote a certain idea for commercial gain.
Even in reputable print sources, the past few years have seen several examples of more glaring errors. The massive, 60-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published in 2004, was actively criticized in the press for some glaring mistakes in entries. …