Oct 06

Information Literacy

I’m a little disturbed by Sec. of State Colin Powell’s statement to the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) on sept. 30. He said that he has “…a search engine on my screen all day long so that if I need to know anything about anything or anybody, or whatever, I just throw it in the search engine and it’s faster than me reaching for a dictionary or reaching for an encyclopedia, or reaching for a reference book. So I just threw them all out.”

I’m going to pretend that the part where he discusses the necessity of assessing authority and accuracy was just left out of the transcript.

I wonder sometimes to what degree we should sacrifice a bit of accuracy and authority for ease of access. It isn’t a question as to whether or not we should, because it’s a given that we are willing to do so. The question is, at what point do you say to yourself, “my confidence in the authority of the sources that I can easily access for [insert topic] is so low, that I’m willing to expend additional energy to get sources that are less easily accessed but may be more authoritative.”

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (10/3/2002), “[a]n expansive study of the information-gathering habits of students and faculty members has found that they first turn to online materials, although most view print as a more reliable source of information.” Actually, that finding identifies two problems — relying on medium to indicate authority and the aforementioned tradeoff. I hope that’s an oversimplification of the responses. It would really be tragic if they are lumping together all online resources and saying you can’t trust any of them.

I assume the complete findings will be on the CLIR reports page soon. Must remember to check back.

Of course the really disturbing finding of the day is that the web site of the US Government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) authors its site in frontpage and uses just one big gif with image map on its entry page. I think it’s the unsophistication of it that makes me wonder if it’s an indicator of the department’s overall technological sophistication. I can’t help but use an institution’s or company’s web site as a litmus test for how it views technology in general.

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