Gov Docs online – can you trust them?

This is something that only until recently started keeping me up at night. My LibPunk partner in crime, Sarah Glassmeyer, raised the issue with me once and it took me a second to get what she was saying. I mean, I understand why the legal community cares about the authenticity of an online document as it pertains to law, but why should I? That’s not should in a “screw authenticity” sense, but more of a “is this really an issue?” sense. I’ll admit, I sort of took it for granted that public agencies would put stuff online and we would trust it. Silly me.

Then I spoke to some other law librarians, and I realized this is an issue that more people should be worried about. Gov Docs Guy had a post earlier this month titled Claire Germain on Digitizing the World’s Laws: Authentication and Preservation. Here is a link to Germain’s paper. This is a topic that AALL has been working on for quite some time. I’m now happy that somebody else is.

It’s weird to me that I haven’t heard much from SLA’s Gov Info Division on this topic, though they have co-sponsored session about scholarly communication with SLA’s Academic Division. (I’m a planner for SLA-ACAD, FYI.) I’ll admit, this hasn’t really been on the radar for the Transportation Division either, even though we all rely heavily on government sponsored (and published) research/reports/standards/guidelines. There is a sweeping trend for agencies to stop issuing their reports in paper, and going exclusively electronic where there’s the new issue of discovery and archiving. I think that because we’ve been so focused on collecting, cataloging, and trying to preserve these documents, authenticity has just been sort of assumed. I mean, we still have some agencies who issue (contractually mandated) reports sort of under the cloak of night… hidden on some weird directory with no link to the outside world, and then they delete it months later. These errant engineers feel that’s due diligence. It drives the librarians (and other researchers) up the wall.

I guess it all comes down to the fact that gov docs and gov info is a mess. A huge intermingled mess. The requirements differ from agency to agency, tier of government and so forth. The end users also have a wide range of needs. You have the legal community who want to keep the ducks in a row and prevent (or be able to act) on litigation. Then you have the librarians and records management people (not always the same thing!) who want to keep things accessible (or not). There are also the producers who issue the report to be compliant, but who also might not really see the value in the report other than to fulfill an obligation. At the end you have the end user who wants the document. They care that it’s authentic for sure. They also expect the thing to be accessible and to exist. I don’t think our needs are all that different, but we need more coordination… which is a huge intermingled mess for now.

What’s wrong with people who Google?

Absolutely nothing.

LIS News linked to a story on ZD Net called, I love Google… don’t tell the librarian!.

I don’t think that her librarian is alone in her dislike of Google. Unfortunately, despite its outstanding search algorithms and wide variety of free, value-added resources, it gets a bad name with library scientists since so many students use it to the exclusion of other print and electronic materials. Wikipedia is much the same; when used as a starting point for research, questions, and discussion, it’s an incredible tool. When used to cut and paste into a paper without any learning involved (as the first few hits of any Google search invariably are), then it loses any value as an educational tool.

The other resources (whether in print, online, or as local data stores) that librarians can provide for students are incredible as well, but Google and the like are accessible anytime, anywhere. Teachers, library scientists, parents, and anyone else with influence in students’ lives need to educate young people in how to exploit everything that Google (and the rest of the Web) has to offer, instead of populating plagiarized papers with superficial bits of meaningless information.

I don’t think I know any librarians personally who really dislike Google. It’s a great tool. Sometimes when people are looking for specific facts or data, a quick Google search will satisfy their information need just as much as a trip to the library. There was a bit of Google panic five years ago, but it seems that most libraries have worked on incorporating tools like Google in their arsenal. That’s progress.

Christopher Dawson is right though- students need to learn how best to use Google. Many times a simple Google search will yield too many results and overwhelm the researcher. Wikipedia is a good starting point as well to get a rough idea of a topic, but neither Google nor Wikipedia should be the ending place. I think most people know that or are starting to figure it out, so there’s no need to panic. I often do outreach to different student groups about my library and I’m surprised by how sheepish they act when I ask if they use Google Scholar like it’s a four-letter word. That’s sad to me. I don’t know if they feel that way because some bun-head has chastised them for using it or if they worry they’re going to put librarians out of a job. Whatever it is, often it’s clear to me that these students don’t make the connection that the only reason Google Scholar is a powerful tool for them, giving them instant access to many full-text articles, is because their library pays for the licensing for electronic access.