The Library and the Internet: Complementary Research Tools
Attraction of Google
There have been few days over the past several years when I haven’t used Google to answer some query or to access some information. It’s an extremely powerful tool whose results usually leave me satisfied. However, it is common to encounter students who believe that Google is the sine qua non of research practice and that no other tools or strategies are required. It’s clearly a problem that some, while recognizing the power of Google, fail to understand its limitations, above all the fact that publishers who sell books, journals and other resources tend for economic reasons not to post this material for free on the web. Some students are unaware of alternatives to Google. I don’t mean Yahoo, Alta Vista or other web search engines; rather, some just do not know of the Libraries’ numerous databases that generally point to material not in Google, that is material not posted by publishers on the web. Certainly there are numerous students who are indeed aware of the Libraries’ resources but who prefer the ease, immediacy, and ubiquity of Google. Though this preference is not admirable, it may be understandable. Much database searching is not particularly intuitive. Databases are complex creatures, optimal searching of which requires knowledge of and utilization of a variety of sophisticated features. Few databases are as inviting as Google, or indeed Amazon, myspace.com, or Netflix.
Growing Need of Information Literacy
Using the traditional library well was never particularly easy. It has now become even more challenging, the digital revolution, the information explosion, the resultant embarrassment of choice, and the myriad ways to access information combining to steer some students to easier avenues such as Google. A remedy often adduced is the inculcation of “information literacy,” a quality defined by the American Library Association as being able to "recognize when information is needed and hav[ing] the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." Some canvass for a mandatory “information literacy” course for all undergraduates, though this is probably a contentious area best left as the topic of another article! Nevertheless, most would agree that it is important that beginning researchers have a thorough understanding of the difference in quality between most of the resources readily accessible through Google and those retrievable through BC Libraries’ hundreds of databases. This requires a solid grasp of how scholarship is published and disseminated, peer review, copyright, the economics of publishing, what is posted on the web and what is not, the Open Access movement and other related areas. An informationally literate student will readily realize why most serious research necessitates utilization of the Libraries’ subscription and purchased databases. At the same time, she will also understand that a vast amount of material potentially valuable for research is increasingly freely available on the web. Google and other search engines should not be ignored by researchers.
Despite their fondness for Google I suspect that many BC students do not utilize it as effectively as they might. How often is Google’s advanced searching capability utilized? How many click on Google’s MORE link which provides more focused searching by Catalogs, Directory, Images, Maps, Finance, News, Patents and a host of other options. Do all students know of Google Scholar, a database of scholarly materials many of which are linked to BC’s holdings. Though it’s not as focused as many subscription databases, Google Scholar scores highly on account of its size, breadth and great cross-disciplinary depth. The types of scholarly material it contains are greater than most other databases and include peer-reviewed papers, theses, books, abstracts and articles from academic publishers, professional societies, preprint repositories, universities and other scholarly organizations. Google Scholar may also include multiple versions of an article, possibly preliminary, which one may be able to access. One may also set one’s searching preferences to BC Libraries’ holdings so that the FindIt@BC icon will be linked to results (click on Scholar Preferences to the right of the Search Box and then select Boston College Libraries (FindIt@BC) under Library Links). It is particularly useful to consult the Advanced Scholar Search Tips in order to increase the accuracy and effectiveness of one’s searches.
Google Book Search
I also wonder how many use Google Book Search, an initiative to digitize books from a growing number of major libraries (presently thirteen in the US, UK, Spain and Germany)? The potential number of books to be digitized is vast. For example, almost all of the University of Michigan’s over seven million volumes will be copied. Of course, the full text of all books digitized by Google will not be freely available to be read online, printed out, or downloaded. What one retrieves will depend on the book's copyright status. Only digitized books in the public domain will be accessible full-text online. Still, while Google is reluctant to issue firm figures, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of books are already available full-text to anyone with internet access. Though criticism has been aimed at the quality of some of the digitized images, Google Book Search is already a potent research tool and one that should be known and utilized by students.
Google: Not the Only Search Engine
I suspect that Google is the most commonly used search engine. However, there are others, scores of others, including Ask.com, Scirus, Clusty, SMEALSearch, Live Search, Exalead, and of course Yahoo!. Different search engines search different parts of the web, doing it in different ways. There are also widely divergent methods of ranking results. Many search engines facilitate focused or specialized searching. Some are good for finding images, sounds, blogs, and moving images, at searching for different file formats, at returning thumbnails of pages, at locating RSS feeds, at retrieving podcasts, at limiting searches to a region or geographically and so on. The following four web sites are useful overviews of the great variety of search engines and their particular specializations: 1) The Top 100 Alternative Search Engines, April 2007; 2) Finding Information: Search Engines; 3) Tool Kit for the Expert Web Searcher; 4) Search Engine Resources.
Selective Web Guides
A strategy that may be useful to one struggling to conduct successful searches of the millions of web sites searched by Google, Yahoo and other search engines is to utilize what are often called “selective web guides.” These are categorized guides to web sites generally built and maintained by librarians and educators. The sites to which they link have been evaluated for accuracy and high quality content. Some useful ones (there are many others) include:
INFOMINE is a virtual library of over 100,000 web resources selected, annotated and indexed by librarians. Resources include databases, e-journals, e-books, conference proceedings, bulletin boards, mailing lists, articles, directories of researchers, and many other types of information.
Intute, a free online service created by a network of UK universities and partners, provides “access to the very best Web resources for education and research. Subject specialists select and evaluate the websites in our database and write high quality descriptions of the resources. The database contains 115627 records.”
This is a UK-based catalog of evaluated and well-categorized Internet resources covering a wide range of academic subject areas. It is useful for finding quality resources across disciplines.
Scout Report Archives
The Scout Report Archives contain well over 23,000 critical annotations of carefully selected Internet sites and mailing lists.
Librarians' Internet Index (LII)
LII contains over 20,000 “best of the web” entries organized into 14 main topics and nearly 300 related topics.
In conclusion, to conduct scholarly research students must have strong familiarity with the excellent print and electronic resources purchased and subscribed to by BC Libraries and be able to access and use them as effectively as possible. However, they must also be aware of and be able to retrieve the enormous amount of high quality information and data readily available for free on the internet. To limit oneself to one type of resource is not good research practice. Moreover, bearing in mind the “culture of academic honesty” discussed by my colleague Margaret Cohen in another article in this newsletter, such limitation might not be in keeping with the tenets of academic integrity.
Collection Development Librarian