Last week, a student needed some information for a research assignment: the letter that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was in response to. When I found it on a website, her face fell. I was puzzled. “Isn’t this it?’ I asked.
She nodded. “But we’re not allowed to use anything other than books and library databases.”
This is a dilemma faced often by library staff members. Faculty sometimes make Google off-limits for research papers. And it’s understandable. Faculty are tired of reading papers that have been copied from websites or full of sources from some crackpot blog (the Jolly Librarian excepted).
And who can be anything other than sympathetic for the poor instructor who assigned personal response essays only to receive several identical responses, all copied from the same website.
Still, I think banning search engines as sources is just not a good idea:
First, it can give students the idea of an unreal dichotomy of search engine= bad while database = good. Now I can hear some faculty members howling in disbelief: “But Jolly Librarian! You are always going on about those wonderful databases you have in the library! Are you turning your back on them?”
Not at all. I could not have made it through my doctorate without JSTOR. And I think Academic Search Premier is the best database ever for students who are doing the sociology journal assignments.
But there is nothing magical about a database. It is a collection of magazines and journals. And magazines and journals can have both useful and not-so-useful information. There are letters, book reviews, editorials, etc. that may not be what you want to include in a research paper.
And, sure, there are some pretty awful things circulating on the web. (I should know. I seem to have people sending me them to me on a regular basis) But there is some good information as well: government documents, business information, more and more online archives, etc. And don’t get us started on Google Scholar.
Second, not allowing the web as source ignores the fact that, for most of their lives, students will be using search engines to gather information. Google is the first place most of us go for information. Today, for example, I needed to verify the author of Brave New World. Did I go into a database or check the library catalog? No, I used the little Google search box at the top of my screen.
In fact, we in the library often use a search engine as our first response when a student asks a question that can be easily answered. And, sometimes, if you force us to admit it, we Google a question and then find it in a database if the student can’t use web sources in an assignment. Of course, we have the advantage of knowing how to critically evaluate sources.
So, while I love our databases, I think the best approach is not to discriminate against types of sources, but to teach students how to critically analyze ALL sources. After all, like the devil, bad information can come in all sorts of packages.