Monday, October 03, 2005

Libraries and the Commercialized Web

This is the second in a series of three posts about articles from the Spring 2005 of Library Trends. The citation for the article is:

Ebersole, Samuel E. "On Their Own: Students' Academic Use of the Commercialized Web." Library Trends 53.4 (Spring 2005): 530-538.

Ebersole's article examines how students perceive and use the World Wide Web for academic purposes. The research took place during the 1998-1999 period, and it focuses on public schools. It opens with a short summary that states how schools are more wired now. It mentions the concern of critics that the Web can have a distracting effect on students. The author then poses this question: "The question remains for public schools and the whole of society: with the stakes so high, how can we harness this unwieldy resource so that it serves our educational goals and purposes?" (531). I am sure this is a question that has become more important in the era of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). It is also a question that librarians in academic settings think about. I know I think about it when I teach students how to evaluate what they find on the Web. Thus the article caught my attention.

The article goes on to explain the method of the research. The study "found that students believe the Web to be a valuable resource for educational activities; the study also found, however, that students are often unsuccessful in finding appropriate or useful resources on their own" (531). The method also describes what surveys were done and what they measured. Among the survey tools was a content analysis study of websites accessed at school media centers. If nothing else, such finding should reassure librarians that they will not be replaced by Google anytime soon. It is a finding that confirms what many of us in instruction already know. Just ask any faculty member their tale of woe when kids just turn in papers with sources from a search engine. It's a process of education and nurturing so the kids learn critical thinking and good judgment. Rome was not built in a day.

In the discussion, the author indicates that there was a disparity between what students said they did with the Web and how the evaluators assessed the websites visited (drawn from the content analysis sampling). Ebersole provides a list of possible explanations for this. One interesting reason boils down to kids being kids. Schools have expectations for Web use, outlined in policies, so kids likely gave an answer they believe to be appropriate for using the Web at school, according to Ebersole (535). Ebersole does point out, however, there may be other valid reasons for the disparity such as difficulty to distinguish between scholarly and popular sites or poor search techniques.

The article moves on next to a discussion of recent developments on the Web. He points out something librarians likely know: that the Web has grown dramatically, that it is more and more commercial, and that it has a lot of clutter. It also discusses how the search engines have consolidated over time. It additionally points out that very often search results do not distinguish between paid and unpaid results. Furthermore, there is a review of how search algorithms may reflect certain biases.

The rising commercialism is not the only issue. Ebersole observes that "the blurring lines between fact and fiction, between opinion and news, and between credible and incredible reporting also draws into question the usefulness of the Web for young scholars. A high level of sophistication is necessary to understand the hidden economic relationships that often influence content and access to the content" (537). Again, this is another reason why librarians are not about to be out of a job. Someone has to teach patrons about these things.

This article would be most interesting to school librarians. However, I think academic librarians will find it interesting as well because those high schoolers will be the freshmen we will meet in our BI classes and at our reference desks.

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