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In the Google Age, Information Literacy is Crucial

By Andrew Brown / June 2012

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When I studied engineering in the early 1990s, I spent hours sorting through databases of engineering abstracts to carefully narrow down results using Boolean searches. After that, I'd have to wait days for the hard copy of the technical papers I ordered to be delivered from the central library.

Today's world of powerful Web-based search engines presents students with a dramatically different information landscape from the one I experienced. Students go about their research with the assumption that they will able to find answers to their questions almost instantly. Yet, the instant access to information through search engines including Google is a double-edged sword. While students might be able to find a wide range of information such as what time a store opens or SparkNotes for Plato's The Republic, many students aren't able to discern good information from bad information or the validity of sources. This was recently demonstrated by College of Charleston Professor Bing Pan, who conducted a study that showed that today's students generally rely on Web pages at the top of Google search results as the main test for validity.

For serious academic inquiry, it's important that the information retrieved is the most accurate, highest quality, and as relatively up-to-date as possible. In order for students to develop good habits before they enter the workforce, it's vital to educate students early in their academic careers on how to determine what information is reliable and what is misleading when using search engines. Furthermore, we must take the additional step and educate students about alternative Web-based resources that are freely available to them on campus.

I have spoken to dozens of academic librarians in recent years, and they have outlined a number of strategies they use to teach the "Google generation" that information literacy is important, and rigorous academic research requires different skills to those of finding the address or review of a local hot spot.

The first and greatest hurdle librarians often face when educating students about information literacy is securing the time to do so. In some cases, librarians have as little as one 45-minute class to show students the resources available to them. With many colleges paying for tens if not hundreds of digital content resources, librarians need time with students to help guide them through the available options. Professors and university administrators increasingly understand the benefits of investing this time into information literacy. As students use alternative resources, students better understand the difference in the quality of information found through a research database versus a Google search. Also, students need to learn that the best answer or information may not be available on a public website, but the answer exists if they dig deeper using other sources.

Once librarians secure the time necessary to teach students about information literacy and digital library resources, their mission is two-fold: Teach students how to evaluate the quality of information and sources, and introduce them to new sources of information and research techniques. For example, Jay Bhatt, Liaison Librarian for Engineering at Drexel University, is responsible for evaluating, recommending, and collecting electronic resources for the College of Engineering and the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. By taking the time to find the best digital content resources, and having the time to teach students about research tools and techniques through presentations and workshops, Bhatt is able to help student gain a much better understanding of which resources are most useful.

In addition to teaching students about resources available, some librarians partner with professors to motivate students to go beyond Google searches and use alternative resources when conducting research. Patricia Kirkwood, Engineering and Mathematics Librarian at the University of Arkansas, likewise introduces students to the quality research they need to accomplish their course study requirements. Kirkwood believes, "use of resources is directly related to early exposure," so she not only teaches her students to use online technical resources, she also influenced engineering professors to require that their freshman students in the engineering program use specific resources available to them.

With the explosive popularity of e-readers, iPads, and smartphones, access to information is easier than ever. The challenge is cutting through a deluge of information with questionable or unknown sources to find trusted answers. Advanced information literacy is required in an information age, and students must master and continue to develop this skill throughout their careers. The earlier students learn best practices, the better. Investing time into teaching students about information literacy is as important as providing high quality resources to them. Workshops, presentations and requiring the use of a variety of resources in the classroom are easy and effective strategies to help students improve information literacy.

About the Author

Andrew Brown has significant experience working with librarians on integrating research tools into universities. He has held several sales and business development roles in the Web-based content reference field, including EMEA Academic Channel Director at Knovel and Business Development Director at IHS.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2241156.2303236


  • Tue, 12 Jan 2016
    Post by Elliot

    I think that the author makes a great point. The google generation definitely seeks quick and easy answers, and that can sometimes come at the expense of thoroughness, quality and accuracy. In my first semester of college, when the librarian introduced my writing class to an online database the university used, she had us do a side-by-side comparison with the database and google. I remember being astounded at the number of scholarly articles on a given that we were able to find with the database. It certainly was an eye-opening experience for me.

  • Wed, 11 Jul 2012
    Post by norbert boruett


    You touch on a crucial and sensitive topic. Google enjoys a near fanatical following among students.Whereas Google as provided great application tools for free to educationist, the search remains a challenge to many educators if not used well. In the developing World where the internet is making inroads,more challenges exist.Most assignments and term papers are handwritten and make in a similar approach,so detecting plagiarism is an uphill task. Even, when the papers are typed, most Universities lack tools ie 'turnitin' to handle plagiarism. Actually Google can help teachers detect plagiarism- that for a teachers who has suspected a case of direct lifting can actually copy the text and Google it- it is tedious and you catch one"thief'' Google is powerful- it can translate languages even local dialects ie kiswahili- and this has issues on the teaching of languages.

  • Fri, 29 Jun 2012
    Post by David P Dillard

    I have an extensive research guide about information literacy on the Temple University Libraries Research Guide website at this web address:

    Sincerely, David Dillard Temple University (215) 204 - 4584 [email protected]