Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Google and Authority

Murky Thoughts objects - or points out - as follows:

I'll take Google over PubMed and Lexis any day. I guess it's my messy mind. I have zero trouble finding stuff with Google.


Or let's say I am much happier to while my time away with Google and so experience it as no trouble, while with bona fide bibliographic tools I feel like tearing my hair out and come away far from confident that I haven't missed the richest vein.

I like Google, too. In fact, I think Google is wonderful, and I use it all the time. I rarely have trouble finding stuff, either.

But for real research, "finding stuff" isn't nearly good enough - you need to be sure you've found the right stuff, and all of it. I don't want my doctor using Google in the course of making a diagnosis, for instance. And when I start law school, if my legal research instructor recommends Google as the first research option... well, rest assured, that won't happen. (The part about possibly missing the richest veins... that's what reference librarians are for.)

Accessibility aside, a facility's usefulness for reference and research is largely a question of having trustworthy authorities, and lots of them, and useful ways of keeping track and cross-referencing them. Libraries do these things very well. They should - they've had hundreds of years of experience doing exactly that: managing information. The Internet... not so great, yet. Google, for example, is fine for casual browsing, but it's barely useful at all for in-depth research. (Part of the problem is the paucity of information available online. If I want to do real research - say, to pick an example out of thin air, I was interested in exploring how Ezra Pound's poetry developed over the course of his life - I'd be much better off in my living room than online - and my living room is pretty small. Google's library initiative will change that, one hopes... if it survives legal challenges... )

Here's an authority control parable, a story I heard from a librarian friend: a high school teacher assigned her class a paper, in order to teach them how to do Internet research. Afterwards, one of her students remarked on how much she had learned - before doing the assignment, she'd had no idea that the Holocaust was just a hoax! You see the problem: on the Internet, everyone's voice is equally loud; but (pace Wikipedia) it's not necessarily useful for reference material to be democratized in this wise. Usually quite the opposite, in fact.

The Internet's potential as a research and reference tool is huge - in fact, revolutionary - but it won't come about simply because the Internet supplants traditional library and cataloguing techniques, but because it inherits them and builds on them.


At 9:12 PM, Blogger MT said...

You just have to be able to tell which Web sites you can trust. I happen to be very good at that. The trustworthy ones have a kind of gleam to them.


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