Google is not the enemy … ignorance is

I’ve made this claim before and I stand by it:
Google is not the enemy … rather, an overbearing friend.

Yet sometimes I wonder if I’m a lone wolf crying into the night. A rather dogged media and communications professor in the UK has been attacking Google and Wikipedia, describing them as ‘white bread for young minds’, and claiming that ‘easy access to information has dulled students’ sense of curiosity’.

I have a tendency to take things far too much to heart. So as I read this Times article, I felt like Tara Brabazon’s argument came across as a personal attack. In criticising streamlined access to information, she struck a bayonet through the heart of what it means to be a librarian. Everything we do, either on the Web or through our physical collections, is designed to help patrons gain access to material that might otherwise have been restricted by cost, time, geography, and/or access to PCs. In fact, we exist to facilitate eas(ier) access to information.

Professor Brabazon argues that academics ‘can no longer assume that students arrive at university, knowing what to read and knowing what standards are required of the material that they do read.’ My question is this: did they ever? Undergraduates are called ‘freshmen’ in the US for a very good reason — they’re fresh from school, naive, and ill-prepared for the mind broadening and liver damage that comes hand in hand with higher education.

The Professor claims that reliance on the Web in university education has ‘the effect of “flattening expertise”’, as ‘every piece of information … [is] given the same credibility by users.’ I dispute this. If we’re really using social software as much as the proponents tell us, who wouldn’t be able tell the difference between a frivolous MySpace page and a reputable peer-reviewed journal? And if university students can’t tell the difference between scholarly information and a global-edit encyclopaedia, surely both academics and librarians have a responsibility to step in and assist?

Yet Professor Brabazon doesn’t see it this way. Despite her attachment to print material (she believes universities prefer digital formats because they’re a ‘cheap’ option … ’nuff said), Brabazon thinks libraries are ‘in decline’. (I challenge her, and anyone else with this attitude, to visit this building between 12pm and 4am in the lead-up to exams and still retain that viewpoint). Instead of mentorship and advice, Brabazon believes the solution to students’ apparent struggle with authority in their resources is to ban them from using Google and Wikipedia at all in their first year of study. How, I wonder, is she going to police that out of hours?

(‘Wikipedian protestor’, from xkcd.

One of the commentators on The Times article responded to Professor Brabazon’s opinion with this very reasonable argument: ‘If your [sic] at university then you hopefully have a mind so if students decided just to use wikipedia then that is there [sic] fault and I hope it would show up in the marks.’ Unfortunately, as you see, the commentator in question struggles with correct grammar, punctuation, gender agreement and capitalisation, which sadly devalues his argument when speaking out against academic snobbery. He, of course, is not alone. This response is along the same lines but a little more polished.

It’s obvious that this article struck a chord with me, even though I should have been able to laugh it off. Academics are incredibly intelligent people, well beyond the scope of the rest of us, yet some, like Professor Brabazon, clearly lack common sense. And there’s a certain irony, too, not only in the existence of a Luddite ‘media and communications’ professor, but also in the fact that the professor’s negativity alienates a large chunk of her potential audience. Librarians rigorously encourage students to look beyond Google and Wikipedia for valuable resources. Yet the Professor’s unfortunate manner means these normally mild mannered people have taken offence. I hope I speak for other librarians when I say that the solution to this omnipresent problem is not to ban Google, but to make it work for us by repackaging the kind of scholarly content we want our users to find, and letting Google index it. If librarians and academics are dissatisfied with the content provided by Wikipedia, the easiest solution is not to ban it, or to ignore it and whine about students using poor quality resources, but to fix inaccurate information ourselves. All anyone needs is a login.

Oh, and on a final (random) note, if you believe everything you see on current affairs shows (and sadly, too many people do), then you’ll know that all the food we eat is full of growth hormones, which clearly make us smarter. Especially chicken … and white bread.

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3 Responses to Google is not the enemy … ignorance is

  1. Derek says:

    Well Rebecca, I see that the Wikipedia has an entry on Professor Brabazon, and that a Google search retrieved heaps of information. Alas, rather than being grateful and responding generously if critically, the professor has bitten two of the hands which feed her well. Not everyone wants to be a scholar – sometimes we are just curious and want to find out. Wikipedia and Google serve us well.

  2. tony says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    You might want to check another of her articles at Online Opinion.

  3. libodyssey says:

    Yes, Derek, it’s certainly ironic that the tools that Professor Brabazon criticises so openly serve her so well. I guess that’s partially the benefit of an unusual name; it can be a blessing or a curse having one as common as mine.

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