For a while there, life was so easy — all the answers were at our fingertips, no worries, no uncertainty. A fountain of knowledge was ours for the taking and life was good.

fountaindryYeah, those days are gone. The fountain is dry and it’s time to face the facts. And you’re not going to find them with Google (or Bing or any other search engine) unless you’re searching really well, which — sorry to say — you most likely are not doing.

I know what you’re thinking. Of course I can answer questions with Google. The capitol of Russia: Moscow. The number of chromosomes in humans: 23 pairs or 46. Today’s weather: cloudy or maybe sunny. Sure, that stuff is easy. The problem arises when you try to google for answers to complex questions. How did Whitman influence American writing in the 20th century? Does racism impact the economy? How should countries combat terrorism? When you start googling complex topics like these, you can become victim to internet information traps like biased sourcesfilter bubbles, content marketing, deliberately false information and possibly even deliberate manipulation of search results. And if you handle search the way most people do by using only one search phrase then looking at only the first page of results, your sources are going to be pretty bad.

digitalcontentSo what’s a student to do? Why use databases, of course. The databases in the BEHS Library access reliable information sources, are easy to use and, as a bonus, provide citations. For academic research, they almost always are better than an internet search. Are they perfect? Of course not. Every source, whether from the open web or a database, should be evaluated before being used. Things to look at include:

  • Reliability;
  • Transparency;
  • Context;
  • Bias;
  • Type of media;
  • Sponsoring organizations; and more.

It’s not hard to evaluate sources, it just takes a willingness to search for answers behind the researchprocessanswers. So you search, you read, then you question what you read. Rubrics like “IMVAIN” (Independent, Multiple, Verified, Authoritative/Informed, Named) are handy, as is a bit of skepticism and taking the time to read past a headline.

Academic research is not supposed to be one-stop shopping — it’s a circuitous route with many stops for questions along the way. Play with keywords, use what you read to add different keywords, try google advanced search techniques, think a lot, bypass that one-stop google method and have fun! And when you have questions, ask the nearest librarian for help.

Additional Reading

Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning Executive Summary by the Stanford History Education Group, November 22, 2106

“The Native Frontier” by Sally Moat, Marketing News, May2015, Vol. 49 Issue 5, p34-43. 10p.

Top Reasons to Use Databases Pictogram by Joyce Valenza

“Popular on Amazon: Wildly misleading self-published books about Ebola, by random people without medical degrees” by Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post, Oct. 2, 2014

“Don’t Be Fooled: Use the SMELL Test To Separate Fact from Fiction Online” by John McManus, Media Shift, Feb. 7, 2013


P.S. This is a popular topic now. I keep finding more articles to add: