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See You Online! Tips for Using College Library Resources and the Web
(Continued from 1)

Using Search Engines for College Research
Search engines allow students to surf the Web and find information on nearly anything. Many instructors warn college students away from using search engines for research papers or assignments because of the vast amounts of unsubstantiated information on the Web. Since no one really needs to prove the legitimacy of the information they put on their Web site, you can (and will) find anyone claiming just about anything! If your academic program encourages use of the Web for research and assignments, or if you simply enjoy surfing, keep some factors in mind:

  • Different search engines will produce different results for the same research. For example, one popular search engine ranks its results by number of hits a page or site has received. The uppermost research results will be relevant, but just because they appear first does not mean they are the best or even most reputable sources.
  • Pay attention to Web address (“domain”) suffixes—“.com,” “..edu,” “.org,” “.gov,” etc—to see who is responsible for creating the Web site. While an “.edu” site is hosted by an educational institution and for that reason may seem legitimate, consider that it could belong to a student stating personal opinion, gossip, or guesswork. In contrast, “.gov” sites are maintained by the government and will nearly always have professional contact information. Web hosts develop new domain suffixes constantly, so while looking at the suffix could be useful, it shouldn’t be the only deciding factor when choosing to trust information.
  • If available, check “last updated” dates (is the page old?), contact information (can you get in touch with someone to ask for a bibliography or information sources?), links to external sources (do they seem relevant?), and what you already know about your research subject from other reputable sources (is the information too unbelievable?) before trusting academic information you find on a Web page or site.
  • Fees and “information retrieval” charges should be approached with skepticism. Often returning students assume that because they’re unfamiliar with the Web and its rules and policies, information retrieval charges are legitimate. This may or may not be true. Private companies do offer “information aggregate” services for a fee. In these cases, students pay a flat monthly fee for access to collections of articles in their major. What students may not realize is that they likely have access to the same information (and more complete databases) through their institution’s library system for free.
  • Some legitimate databases and traditional newspapers who maintain a Web presence do provide access to anyone for a small fee but just as many others simply ask users to register in order to see the same kinds of information for free. Click around and be certain you’re not purchasing access to databases and articles your college library has already purchased for you. If you have questions, call your school’s library and ask!

University Electronic Catalogs
Nearly all higher education institutions have their library catalogs online. While this is an obvious convenience for students used to working online, returning adults students (as well as students used to modest high school libraries) may be intimidated by an e-catalog. Both the tiniest university and the busiest community college have library professionals able to demonstrate how to navigate your way through a basic search of your library’s catalog. Asking for assistance in learning how to access the vast assortment of journals, books, databases and other resources available at your college library is an excellent idea. Don’t feel alone when using your school’s catalog for the first time. If you’re continuing your education at a larger university, you’ll likely be able to attend public classes that specifically teach users how to navigate and use the online catalog.

If your college or university doesn’t offer these services, or if you’re an online student at a distance, take advantage of your library’s online tutorials, help pages, FAQ (“Frequently Asked Questions”) pages, and online reference service (if available). Don’t hesitate to call or email your school’s library professional for help with using its resources. Many times, local public libraries will have subscriptions to popular databases as well and will offer free classes to students on how to search them, providing another free access point to the best information for your research needs.

With a little good humor and a healthy dose of skepticism, using the Web for student assignments and research can be rewarding and intriguing. Don’t forget to make full use of library resources available to you as well—both online and in-person—not only because you have paid for these services through tuition and student fees, but also because each question you ask strengthens your educational foundation.

I saw my library student, the woman who couldn’t scroll a Web page, walking through the building last week. I felt a jolt of recognition when she walked by because I wasn’t seeing a woman who “knew nothing.” I was watching
a woman trying to catch up, a returning adult who, modeling persistence and refusing to be overwhelmed, had decided to ask questions, get online, and persevere.


A former English and Women’s Studies instructor, Sylvia M. DeSantis lives in Pennsylvania. Her work has appeared in Atriad Press’s Haunted Encounters series, Greenwood Press’s Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature and online publications including Garden and Hearth, VegFamily and Bookmarks Magazine. She may be reached at slyv_girl@yahoo.com.

Related Articles: Information Literacy: Library Research for the Technically Savvy and The Digital Library: Online Databases and Reference Software.

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