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Library is Dead. Long Live the Library... continued

Is It Real or Is It Fake?

Also troubling is the tendency to rely solely on the Web for research. Electronic databases found in the library, such as ProQuest, MedLine, library catalogs, and other research tools aren't problematic since they're basically digital versions of what used to be, and in some cases still are, in print. But the questionable integrity of other information on the Web has spawned a serious credibility crisis.

"The Internet is the first mass medium that lets the general public produce information as easily as rich corporations," says David Bersoff, research director for the Yankelovich Monitor, which has studied how people relate to the Internet. "It doesn't require a lot of money to have a lot of access. If I try to print a newspaper in my basement, it's going to look cheap and amateurish. But it doesn't take a lot to put up a professional-looking Web site. The potential for misinformation being broadly distributed is much greater."

The classic case of disinformation occurred in November 1996, when newsman Pierre Salinger breathlessly announced to the world that he had discovered the secret of the TWA flight 800 crash. A missile attack, he proclaimed. But the "government document" he cited turned out not to be authentic at all, merely an Internet posting that he'd taken at more than face value.

You don't even have to go to the Web for bad information. "Email has been used to circulate phony but believable health warnings, virus warnings, urban legends--even the promise of money from Microsoft," Gannon-Brodeur says.

Students--even those who have grown up on the Web--are susceptible to I-saw-it-so-it-must-be-true thinking. "The Internet isn't a publisher--it's a printer," warns Lewis Vaughn, editor of Free Inquiry magazine and co-author of How to Think About Weird Things (Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995). "The Web makes it easier to get information, but it's harder to acquire knowledge."

Because there's no gatekeeper, the burden shifts to the individual to evaluate what he or she sees. That's where things can fall apart. It's unclear whether people mix up information and knowledge, but that very thought has the academic community up in arms. If students use the Internet without evaluation, says English, "then potentially their research can be poorer, and in some instances, what they've learned can be disastrously bad."

"People say our moral sense is way behind our technological sense," adds Vaughn. "But in fact, I don't think our critical thinking skills have caught up, either. And maybe they won't for another century."

Hamstringing critical thought even more is that people don't necessarily get savvier about the Web just by spending more time using it, says Questia Media's Williams. The Web doesn't work like shoddy advertising where you become wiser by experiencing the effect of misleading information or hype. "You don't really get burned by thinking the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1680," Williams says.

"What we call information really has four levels of meaning," adds Rubin. "At the base, there is data. Processing data to have meaning produces information, and the cohesive relationship between information is knowledge. Ultimately, there's wisdom, which I think of as the use of knowledge for the benefit of society."



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