Thursday, September 22, 2011

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

I’ve been a research librarian for a long time. Over the years, it’s been fascinating to observe, and be part of, the continuing advance of information technology, and to see how it has changed how we create, store, retrieve, and use information. There is more information available than ever before, and we can choose how, when, where, and by what means to receive, analyze, slice and dice, repackage, and share it, and of course, much of it is “free.”

But it’s not all sweetness and light.

The sheer volume of all the “information” available these days raises an important question: Where does it all come from? How good is it? Who is producing it, and why? In the “old” days, bibliographic indices, and the early databases on which they were founded, included only standard publications, newspapers, peer-reviewed journals, and the like, and they had already been evaluated during the editorial and peer-reviewing processes. There was no commercial, personal, or entertainment content. Researchers and their clients could expect quality and consistency.

Jump ahead to today – what’s not available? Phone directories, wikis, personal websites and blogs, multimedia, social media, news vendors, countless aggregators, entertainment sites…the list goes on and on. And who produces all this information? Anyone. Commercial publishers, any business with a product or service to sell, any individual with an axe to grind or a point to get across, anyone who has “knowledge” to share on a blog or in a wiki, anyone.

The haystack has gotten huge, and there’s a lot more than hay in it now.

So, where do you even start when you need to find information? Google and other search engines are useful as starting points for general inquiries, but they can’t even get you close to the best resources, which are behind pay walls and which will never show up in a Google search. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s stick to information that anyone can find using Google. This week, for example, I’m assisting a client who needs information on certain building products which have been recalled. I’ve been asked to research the issue and write a technical advisory guide which will be distributed to property owners. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it?

It never is. Here’s what I’m finding:

 • The product was developed in the mid-1980s and sold through the 1990s. That’s mostly pre-internet days. Finding news articles from that period through free online sources? Not likely.
• The class-action lawsuits that were filed have been mostly settled, so not much “active” information is online.
• The recalls and lawsuits covered several products from several manufacturers. Some of those manufacturers have been sold or have gone out of business or changed their names. There’s not much of a “trail” out there. (We used to call that a “paper trail” – hah.)
• There are similar products still on the market, so the researcher has to be aware of these and act accordingly.
• The technical information that is readily available is provided almost entirely by commercial websites of contractors and renovation specialists, as a means of drawing potential customers to their websites. That’s a perfectly legitimate use of the information, but it means that the researcher has to evaluate that information very carefully to ensure that it is accurate and not distorted by sensationalist presentation or language.

Managing all this requires developing a very structured, methodical approach to searching – no browsing, no surfing. It requires keeping track of multiple concepts, product and business names, sources, timelines, and lines of inquiry. It requires evaluating every piece of information, fitting it into the puzzle, and understanding how it may serve my client’s needs. It requires thinking past the immediate question to “get the big picture” on what information might exist, and where it is, and how to find it.

Once I figure all that out, the writing will seem like a piece of cake.

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