Finding and using the best of the web


Last night I happened to catch some of the ITV evening news bulletin and noticed that a reporter was standing in a university library. The overall piece was concerned with the furore over piracy laws and the fact that a number of websites closed down for one day in protest. One of the websites to take such actionwas Wikipedia, which, according to ITV, was causing students a lot of bother. The report suggested that the library had been busier than average, and showed students pouring over copies of the Encyclopeadia Britannica, all because they couldn’t access Wikipedia for one day. A number of students were interviewed, and they all spoke of the fact that they couldn’t get the information they needed for their work on that day because Wikipedia wasn’t available.

With my librarian’s hat on, the apparent incovenience of not being able to use Wikipedia for a day seemed, dare I say it, a little disproportionate. I wondered why it was that the students weren’t being encouraged to use the library’s reference materials, and why the ‘librarian’ set up to “ssssshhhh” the reporter wasn’t shown helping the students to get the information that they needed from quality, academically-appropriate resources.

I admit it. I use Wikipedia. But I only use this service when all other sources of information have failed me. For example, I might be watching a film and wonder where I’ve seen the supporting actor before. I can’t seem to find much information on the Internet Movies Database so I bung the name of the actor into Google and go to the Wikipedia entry for the actor. I used to work as a cataloguer for Intute and found Wikipedia incredibly useful to find birth and death dates for composers and musicians who were so ‘current’ that no reference source included them. More recently, I needed to learn about BBCode very, very quickly and Wikipedia came to my rescue.

However, as a librarian that’s where my Wikipedia usage stops. Why? Well, the thing about Wikipedia is that although the material listed is mostly accurate, there are glaring errors, and the credentials of the authors of the articles are not checked. So that very useful article on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity may not have been written by an expert in the field and therefore may not provide a solid basis for study. That’s where the library comes in useful. Here at Bolton, we have access to a wide range of electronic resources including reference sources that you can use to find background for your research. Don’t forget that a number of public libraries subscribe to online versions of important reference works such as the Encyclpaedia Britannica.

And that’s not all. There are times when subscribed-to services such as electronic journals and databases might not go far enought to enrich your research, and there are undoubtedly times where websites may be what you need to conduct your reserch. On each of the subject pages, you’ll find lists of websites that you may find  useful for research. These lists are by no means exhaustive, but have been selected on the quailty of the information available as well as the credentials of the creators. In addition, there are few multi-disciplinary sources that are a good starting point. One is Intute. Although no longer updated, Intute lists and describes website, all of which have been selected and scrutinsed by subject specialists. Another such service is Digital Librian, which like Intute, makes use of subject specialist.

Not all websites are created as equals. As clever as Google can be, it cannot determine the quality of the information presented by the website. For example, you might be doing some research on the rights of parents to request flexible working. You put some terms into the Google search box and take a look at your results. A beautifully referenced sixth-former’s project. A discussion on Mumsnet. A government White Paper. An annoymous essay written in 1998. Which do you pick? The third one. The first one may look good, but might not go into suffcient depth for the level of your research. The second may provide an insight into popular perceptions, but is not academically appropriate. The last one might be interesting but you will not be able to tell the credentials of the author, and the information may be very out of date. So what you need to think about when you are looking at a website is how old the website is (i.e. currency) if appropriate, who has written it (i.e. is there likely to be any bias) and why it has been written. Knowing how – and why – to assess websites is an important skill. Intute includes a number of online tutorials in the Virtual Training Suite for a wide variety of subjects that introduce not only important websites for that subject, but also presents a few tips and hints for making sure that you know how to find and appraise information available on the Internet.

Remember that during library opening hours, there is always a librarian available at the Subject Help Desk to help with research, so don’t be afraid of online resources, just come and talk to us!


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