Magazine article American Libraries

Research 101

Magazine article American Libraries

Research 101

Article excerpt

When I used to ask students what they thought the best source of information on a particular topic might be, they used to reply hesitantly "videos?" or "newspapers?" Nowadays, they tend to answer, "the computer?" For all they know, words spring onto the screen as Athena did from Zeus's brow. Young people have lost sight of the fact that information, no matter what its format, emanates from a real person's creative efforts, one of which is the creator's choice of expressive medium.

Different forms of written, vocal, and visual information have evolved over the centuries to reflect differences in authors' purposes and intended audiences. The tribal chanter who imparted life lessons through storytelling used a different outlet from that of the 17th-century London broadside publisher, or the modern government employee writing a report required by public disclosure laws.

No one planned it this way; it just happened, as different forms of expression found their markets, niches, and publics. Once established, these forms in turn influence authors, who tailor their expression to match the one they consider best for their message. Publishers and librarians know that a journal article is not intended to fill the same information need or reach the same audience as books, sound recordings, court decisions, personal Web pages, or letters to the editor.

Enter the Web. While widening our information horizons in ways for which I will be eternally grateful, it has - again not by anyone's plan - blurred traditional distinctions among forms of information. With no physical clues, the information seeker must look closely to distinguish a newsgroup posting from a magazine article, an organization's Web page, or someone's personal views. On the computer screen even online encyclopedias and periodical databases are still just words with hot links and that little pointing finger.

Commercial information providers who deliver their databases via the Web shamelessly take advantage of information searchers' confusion when viewing information in electronic form. For instance, one major online periodical index/full-text provider advertises itself as a "one-stop reference resource." Since when, the librarian in me cries out, do periodical articles answer the same information needs as all other formats? …

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