By Michael Ross, senior vice president and general manager for education at Britannica, and board member of A Pass Educational Group
Adapted from a Britannica blog post, “Untangling the Web: A Student Guide to the Internet,” by Michael Ross, August 28, 2007
A common concern for all information professionals is getting research completed with as little anxiety as possible and as efficiently and accurately as possible. When an assignment comes up, the first thing that most of us have been trained to do is go straight to the Internet. That in itself is not a bad thing, especially if we have a good idea of what we are looking for. But what often happens, especially with an unfamiliar topic, is that we search for answers and find ourselves in a murky sea of sometimes useless, inaccurate, and badly designed Web sites. At the very least, we can’t tell the difference between reliable information, propaganda, and just plain junk. This causes confusion and even more anxiety, and lost productivity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s plenty of good information on the Internet; you just have to know how to find it and how to avoid the sites that aren’t trustworthy. Remember, the Internet is getting more complicated every day, due in part to marketing efforts designed to fool the naïve user. Therefore, finding information requires some level of sophistication on the part of the researcher.
One thing I’d suggest is that you subscribe to a recognized, trustworthy general-reference service like Britannica.com and supplement it with free sites by respected organizations, such as NASA, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. Information from major publishers and government agencies is usually reliable.
Sites without marquee names may have good information as well, but they require some scrutiny. Here are some tips on what to look for:
Credentials. Are the authors of the site experts in the subject? Look for degrees, publications, and institutional affiliations. For example, a professor at a well-known university who has written a book about Chaucer is probably a good source on medieval literature.
Accuracy. A few minutes on a site should give you a sense of whether it’s generally reliable. Look up a subject you know something about and see what it says. Does the information coincide with your prior knowledge?
Point of View. Does the site promote a strident point of view? Is it heavily commercial? Because children may have trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, it’s usually best to stick with sites that strive for objectivity, at least for grade-school work.
Presentation, Navigation, and Design. If you are providing the site to a younger audience, is the site too scholarly for children? Not scholarly enough? Is it easy to navigate? Does it have a “child friendly” look and feel? These are questions you should ask to find the site that best suits your objectives.
Here are some examples of free sites that Britannica editors recommend, compiled and annotated by Britannica indexers.
Smithsonian Institution. The site has three large sections: Art & Design, History & Culture, and Science & Technology.
The Nobel Foundation. It’s easy to browse and has information on the prize awarders and the recipients as well as an interesting “Explore and Learn” section.
The Busch Entertainment Corporation Family of Parks. A good source for exploring the animal kingdom, with pictures, scientific classifications, fun facts, and bibliographies on many animal species.
PBS Online. With up-to-date features, the site has four large sections on general topics (Arts & Drama, History, Home & Hobbies, Life & Culture, and Science & Nature) and a section dedicated to News and Views.
Universities are often an excellent source for reliable information. The University of Virginia, for example, maintains a large section on American Studies. Topics include the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition—odd for a Virginia school, perhaps, given that the fair took place in Chicago.
Renascence Editions of the University of Oregon has an extensive database of original texts of English literature.
The National Park Service offers a panorama of the American historical landscape, national parks, historic monuments, and landmarks.
The Academy of Achievement has a good collection of contemporary biographies with sound and video clips, interviews, and photo galleries.
The Web Gallery of Art. This Hungarian site (in English) has an extensive, searchable database of high-resolution images of European paintings and sculptures from the 12th to the mid-19th century.
There are many others. Explore the Web and discover what’s there; just make sure to look carefully and teach your researchers and editors to do the same. Most of all, remember that there is much knowledge that can’t be found on the Internet, and for that your local library is still the best source, especially because your library will most likely subscribe to quality databases that are not free on the Internet. And libraries can almost always be accessed remotely. And speaking of the library, professional librarians are excellent guides on how to use and how not to use the Internet. See “The Librarian’s Guide to Great Web Sites for Kids” and “ALA’s Great Web Sites for Kids.”
It’s great to be able to take advantage of all of the information that is now available at our fingertips on the Web; but without some guidance the inexperienced researcher can get all tied up in knots. But being attentive to the pitfalls and the advantages of what is available online, and being mindful of what may or may not be trusted content, can help even the novice researcher untangle the Web.