Thanks for your question. I?m an academic reference librarian, and as
someone who is also does Google Answers on the side, this is an
interesting subject for me. Many thanks to my fellow researcher,
Omnivorous-ga, who was very helpful with this question. I?m going to
try and separate Google and Google Answers, but some of your questions
are answered throughout.
There have been some articles written about GA in the library
literature. To date one of the most substantive and researched pieces
was written by a group of Cornell librarians. They did a small study
comparing the answers to e-mail questions asked using the Cornell
e-mail service and questions posted to Google Answers.
?Google Meets eBay: What Academic Librarians Can Learn from
Alternative Information Providers,? by Anne R. Kenney, Nancy Y.
McGovern, Ida T. Martinez, and Lance J. Heidig. D-Lib Magazine, vol.
9, issue 6, June 2003
Jessamyn West, who is also a librarian, has written a number of
articles about GA based upon her personal experiences as a researcher.
There has also been a piece about GA looking specifically at legal
questions. Although none of these fall into the scholarly category,
I?ve linked to them or provided a citation to the articles below:
?Information for Sale: My Experience with Google Answers,? by Jessamyn
West. Searcher, vol. 10, issue 9, October 2002
?Google Answers Back Or How to Become an Ex-?Google Answers?
Researcher,? by Jessamyn West. Searcher, vol. 11, issue 1, January
?Google Answers is Not the Answer,? by Jessamyn West. American
Libraries vol. 34, issue 6 (June/July 2003): 54?6.
?The Librarian Is in and Online,? by Jessamyn West. Computers in
Libraries, vol. 23, issues 9, October 2003.
?Got Answers: The Impact of the Google Answers Service on Legal
Research,? by Peter Murray. infoEdge, vol. 3, issue 1: 4-5, Fall 2002
Personal comment: Traditionally, ready reference (e.g. What is the
capital of South Dakota?) questions are more typical for public
libraries than academic ones. I know from personal experience that the
typical questions I have fielded tend to do with locating journal
articles and teaching patrons how to navigate citation and article
databases. This is not the type of question easily handled by a
service like GA or by using a search engine such as Google, although
many GARs (including me) have assembled bibliographies for customers
in the past.
Personal comment: Anecdotally, I can attest to the fact that a good
number of students want to turn to the WWW more than to databases.
They often have a hard time differentiating what is scholarship and
what is not. That said, their professors and instructors are still
insisting on the distinction.
I don?t want to get too deep into information literacy, because that
is a whole other question and subject unto itself, but that?s what
we?re dancing around. The standards the profession has adopted are
usually incorporated into the library instruction classes we teach,
primarily because although students may be comfortable with search
engines?and to a lesser extent with databases, they don?t seem to have
mastered the skill of evaluation.
Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education
Personal comment: It also feels like the questions, while fewer in
number, are taking longer, probably because more and more instruction
is incorporated into the interview.
Which is borne out by some of the data collected by the ARL
(Association of Research Libraries), which suggests, ?A variety of
explanations have been voiced regarding the decline of the number of
reference transactions . . . Heavy users of library materials and
services may make less use of in-person reference services than did
such users in the era before the availability of online catalogs,
remote access to indexing and abstracting databases, and electronic
full-text resources delivered at the desktop. Often, those people who
do approach reference librarians require more assistance than before.?
ARL Statistics 2001-2002: Research Library Trends, by Martha
Kyrillidou and Mark Young
Personal comment: I am generalizing here but the patrons often seem to
fall into two camps:
1. They don?t even know where to begin
2. Or they?ve already hit the Web and they?re either frustrated by too
much information or they have been told or realize that what they?ve
found isn?t going to satisfy their professor/instructors? demands for
Either way, those are going to be more complex and lengthier reference interviews.
Not too long ago Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post wrote an
article that resulted in something of a furor on several librarian
listservs. In it he suggests that ?Students typically search only the
most obvious parts of the Web, and rarely venture into what is
sometimes called the "Dark Web," the walled gardens of information
accessible only through specific databases, such as Lexis-Nexis or the
Oxford English Dictionary.?
Personal comment: I?m not the only librarian whose jaw probably
dropped at that. I?ve worked at several institutions ranging from a
community college to the large research university, and I?ve looked at
more student assignments than I can shake a stick at. Almost all of
them require the students to go into Achenbach?s ?walled garden,? be
it in something like InfoTrac OneFile or Medline. Whether or not
students actually understand the difference is something that is
debatable, but that ties into Information Literacy.
?Search for Tomorrow: We Wanted Answers, and Google Really Clicked.
What?s Next?? by Joel Achenbach. Washington Post, February 15, 2004,
Personal comment: Librarians use Google and other search engines all
of the time. It has changed our job. I often use search engines in
conjunction with subscription databases. Sometimes it?s useful as a
starting point. Other times it?s handy to verify facts very quickly.
For the most part though, the content that academics and students
require for their research and assignments is found almost exclusively
in subscription article databases.
You may also want to look at a couple of other Google Answers
questions that touch on some of the issues you?re interested in.
Personal familiarity with literature on Google Answers
ARL ?reference statistics?
?academic librarianship? reference
?reference questions? ?ready reference?
google librarians "washington post"
information literacy standards
I hope this answers your question. If you need additional information,
or if the links do not function, please ask for clarification before
rating my answer and I?ll do my best to assist you.
Clarification of Answer by
14 Apr 2004 14:04 PDT
What I actually wrote was, "because although students may be
comfortable with search engines-and to a lesser extent with databases,
they don?t seem to have mastered the skill of evaluation." I'm not
saying IL is not being taught. It is?sometimes in the one-time library
instruction classes, sometimes in for-credit courses. That rather
points to a need for it.
I've linked to a couple of examples of colleges that offer classes below.
Information Literacy Credit Courses in Canadian Colleges and Universities
Introduction to Information Literacy in the Health Sciences
SUNYConnect Information Literacy Course
LBR 200 Information Literacy
This is a much larger topic than the one addressed initially in your
question. There are differing opinions on the subject of IL, and there
is a great deal of scholarly literature out there. From the sounds of
it, you?re well-versed in the lingo and are aware of the concepts in
the field of library and information science. I?ve selected a couple
of articles, but if you have access to the Library Literature
database, you will find many, many more there
Christine Thompson writes, ??it may not be the Internet that is
responsible for poor research, but rather students? inability to
evaluate the information they find on the Internet? (p. 261).
?Information Illiterate or Lazy: How College Students Use the Web for
Research,? by Christine Thompson. Portal: Libraries and the Academy,
Vol. 3, issue 2, pp. 259-268.
?Information Literacy and Higher Education: Placing the Academic
Library in the Center of a Comprehensive Solution,? by Edward K.
Owusu-Ansah. Journal of Academic Librarianship, vol. 30, issue 1,
January 2004, pp. 3-16.
Middle States which is an accrediting body of colleges recognizes the need for IL.
Developing Research & Communication Skills: Guidelines for Information
Literacy in the Curriculum.
?Information Literacy in Science and Engineering Undergraduate
Education: Faculty Attitudes and Pedagogical Practices,? by Gloria J.
Leckie and Anne Fullerton. College & Research Libraries, vol. 60,
issue 1, January 1999, pp. 9-29.
Tackling your second question now regarding length of reference
interviews. Search engines allow for natural language searching. Most
students have that down (and yes, I am generalizing). When it comes to
databases or OPACS (online public access catalogs), however, most
databases require knowledge of Boolean operators and/or subject
headings. Those usually aren't intuitive techniques. Depending on the
patron's discipline and scope of their assignment, they might need to
use several databases-- which may or may not use the same interface
and which may or may not use a different controlled vocabulary.
Sometimes, depending on the assignment, the professor/instructor may
require peer-reviewed (aka refereed or scholarly) articles. If that's
the case, than that's yet another factor that needs to be added into
the reference interview.
A 1996 study concluded that ?Lower-level students are confused about
the scope and diversity of library resources. They have difficulty
interpreting the bibliographic records in the OPAC and in periodical
indexes. The terminology of library research is unfamiliar to them.
They lack the critical judgement to both select appropriate sources
and develop strategies for finding information when their first
?What Do They Know? An Assessment of Undergraduate Library Skills,? by
Lillith R. Kunkel, Susan M. Weaver, and Kim N. Cook. Journal of
Academic Librarianship, vol. 22, November 1996, pp. 430-434.
Personal comment: The other side of the coin is that there are some
really expert searchers out there. And in those instances, you are
correct that when those types of patrons approach the desk, their need
is going to be more complex, because they?ve already done the basic
research. Statistics questions, for instance, would fall into the kind
of scenario you?re talking about, as would locating certain kinds of
government documents. Others might be trying to locate abstracts of
conference proceedings or locate articles from incomplete or incorrect
Another aspect to this is that as more and more information is
available online, ?More time is spent with each question, because
?enhanced searching capabilities plus the addition of material we
never had access to makes it more difficult to give up on a question.
We often go much further with a question before giving up.?"
?The Impact of Digital Reference on Librarians and Library Users,? by
Carol Tenopir and Lisa Ennis. Online, November 1998.
I hope this clarifies my original answer and gives you some further resources.