Saturday, 14 November 2015

Research Sources: Library vs Internet

Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Teachers (like me) often try to force students to use libraries for their research. We assign essay topics like "Compare using a library to the internet for research." Students today constantly ask "Why can't I just Google it?" In fact, some even don't think learning anything is important because all information is available on the internet. Let's take a look at the reality.

First, I use the internet for research all the time. Even Wikipedia. The most important skill in research is finding good, trustworthy information. You can do this on the internet as well as in a library. The advantage to a library is that almost all of the information available has already been evaluated as trustworthy, whereas on the internet you are on your own. Remember, anyone can put up a website. They can give it a reasonable sounding name such as "Institute for Climate Evaluation" and then put up the most garbage information imaginable. So you have to be careful who you get information from on the internet.

Teachers seem to hate Wikipedia. They often state that this is because information on Wikipedia can change and the editors are anonymous. There is no central authority. But this is nonsense. Wikipedia consists of a community of people who are strongly dedicated to truth and accuracy. When I want a quick understanding of a topic, I turn to Wikipedia. But I would not cite Wikipedia as a source in a research project because it is at best a secondary source. That means it is repeating information that has been developed by experts somewhere else. That somewhere else is usually a peer-reviewed journal article. It could be available on the personal website of a researcher at a university. It is much better to go to the original source.

The problem is that if you are in high school and you are doing a research project, the depth of knowledge you are expected to develop is much lower than that of a PhD in the subject area. Your reading skills are not developed to the university level. You may not have access to peer-reviewed journals, which you could get through university libraries, but high school libraries do not have the funds to subscribe to. Therefore, it is much harder for you to access and evaluate original sources.

The sources in your school library are designed for your reading level. They are designed for your knowledge level. They are organized for your use, and the librarian is there to help you. In fact the easiest way to do the research is to go to the library and ask the librarian to help you.

Typing a search term (is it the right search term?) into Google gives you millions of websites to choose from. I have no doubt the right information is there, but can you find it? You may need to wade through dozens of sites to find what you are looking for. It's more like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Using the internet is convenient. If it's Sunday night and your essay is due on Monday, then it's all you have. But if you have a little time, using the expertise of your librarian should be a no-brainer.