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Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited
So, libraries were wise to jump on the technology vessel early, and librarians are smart enough to see that the best outcome is to have a hand in steering this ship. Technology has made so much data so easily accessible to so many that information overload is a frequent complaint. Librarians can help cope with this problem in a number of ways. We can attempt to have influence over the structure of index interfaces so that these interfaces better direct users to precisely the information they want. Similarly, we can try to shape where the content in various full-text databases is from so that full-text sources are more consistently from more serious journals. Finally, we need to get users to rely more on electronic resources that we have vetted and placed on our library Web sites.
What we really want to see is our users taking full advantage of our knowledge of sources to better inform their research. Philip Davis recently published a study in the journal Portal: Libraries and the Academy that gets to the heart of what librarians see every day on the reference desk (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/portal_ libraries_and_the_academy/v003/3.1davis.pdf). Students, in this case college undergraduates, are relying on Web resources to an increasing degree to do their research. These Web resources are not electronic indexes, databases and Web sites vetted by libraries, scholarly societies or commercial vendors, but instead pages found through a popular search engine like Google. These pages could be posted by hobbyists, fellow students or the lunatic fringe. What the pages had in common was that they were freely and easily available when the student was writing his paper. To counter this trend, Davis convinced a faculty member to require his students to include at least five peer-reviewed sources in their bibliography. The result from this simple interaction with a faculty member was a complete reversal of the trend to dubious references.
It's a simple study and a simple solution to an obvious problem, but the greater point is that librarians need to be involved. In academic institutions, this involvement can take the form of Davis' asking faculty members to demand more stringent requirements of their students' assignments. Other librarians are consulting with faculty members using courseware like Blackboard or WebCT as a virtual component to their classes. Still another area that is a natural one for a confluence of librarians, faculty and technology is plagiarism. Plagiarism is much easier for students to carry out today. It's as simple as the cut-and-paste technique so often used in word processing. It is so easy that many students probably don't even realize that what they are doing is wrong. Making students understand what plagiarism is and how easy it is to avoid while using the same information is a job well-suited to librarians, particularly if they are working in conjunction with faculty.
Is technology cheap? No. Is technology without its own problems? No. However, I would much rather deal with sorting through the surplus of information overload and try to teach users how to distinguish between worthwhile resources and those of questionable value than be struggling desperately to find anything on point that is owned locally. Users continually vote the same way by their strong gravitation to anything electronic.
So the lesson of this sermon is that when you're trying to figure out where the money will come from for a new on-line resource of vital importance to your user base or to upgrade those five year old PCs with which your staff or public are struggling, failure is not an option. Beg, cajole, convince your controlling administration. Write a successful grant. Find the money. It's worth it.
John MaxymukReference Librarian at the Paul Robeson Library, Rutgers University, Camden, NJ, USA