Online and In-Person Trust

For years, one thing that librarians have pounded away at is the evaluation of online materials. In classrooms and on the reference desk, we constantly harped at online information (and we ought to do so for all information, really). It’s been decried as a fault, a relic from the days of geocities, where “anyone can post anything.” We used to tell people to look for authors, last updates, the names of organizations–any indication of adgenas, for good or evil. The model used at Duke University of “Authority, Purpose, Currency, Objectivity, and Support” all still ring true, although I’d argue currency isn’t always a good indicator of anything. Does  old knowledge always go bad?

What it really comes down to is trust: who do you trust, and why?

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism just released its 2010 Digital Future Study, which had some interesting findings:

  • 61% of internet users said that half or less of the information online is reliable.
  • 14% of internet users said that a “small portion” to “none” of it is reliable.
  • 53% of internet users said most or all of the information from search engines is reliable.

For better or worse, we’re becoming more skeptical of online information, but that third bullet point threw me. The conflation of trust between what a particular search engine finds and “trustworthiness” scares me, especially since search engines lack something everyone has: a brain that can critically evaluate things. Perhaps the semantic web will eventually do all of that thinking for us, but any software includes the bias of its’ creator, intentional or not. Conversely, there are many good websites that search engines can find, but the “best” (if you go by Duke standards) might not show up in the first two pages of results. This is the librarian’s dead horse.

A good part of me wishes this skepticism was extended to the rest of the library. Our organization and our resources all contain their own biases. That is our blessing and our curse. Each library, seemingly so similar with the same databases, the same titles, the same call numbering systems, etc., all hide the differences shaped by the communities we serve and the staff we employ. Furthermore, every book on our shelves can be examined by the criteria of “Authority, Purpose, Currency, Objectivity, and Support.” Worse than the illusion of information online being wholly reliable, is the myth that print is above the biases of authors, publishers, schools, governments, and libraries. It’s our job as librarians to navigate this, and not just worry about the internet.