Daily Tedium

The Windex Problem

The problem with information literacy we have in the age of Google: We give up too early. It’s an issue research librarians are struggling to tackle.

By Ernie Smith

If you’ve been a longtime reader of Tedium, you’ve probably noticed that my byline shows up most of the time. Maybe 80 to 90 percent of the time.

In part, this is because this is my project, and I limit the number of things we publish every month. Also in part, it's because I feel uncomfortable with having writers work for me for free. (The one person I do have writing outside pieces, Andrew Egan, has actually been getting paid for them! This is a big deal because it means the site is paying for itself to some degree.)

But I remember a while back on that someone reached out to me, relatively young and fresh to the writing scene, with interest in writing for the experience. I recommended that he start his own site and use that to build up that experience.

Nothing against him. I hope he does well. But in my note to him, I made this point: “The work Tedium does is so rigorous and research-heavy, it's not a great fit for a starting writer. We frequently dig into sources that are 20+ years old and try to find original documents when possible. Discovering such content, that's not easy work for someone getting going. You should dive into basic beat reporting first.”

Now I’m not saying that someone couldn’t learn those skills, but honing research smarts takes time. And unfortunately, research doesn’t come naturally to a lot of folks.

Case in point: A recent survey by Library Journal found that just 30 percent of freshman students at four-year universities are prepared to study at a college level. (The percentage is even worse for community colleges, an anemic 22.6 percent.)

When I read this, I wondered to myself: How can this be? It feels like in this age of everything-at-our-fingertips, research should be easier, not harder. But librarians surveyed by the publication noted that high schools have failed to properly staff their libraries, and even at universities, information literacy training is lacking. But worst of all: Many research librarians point out that students tend to over-rely on Google’s value as a tool.

“Most of them did not know how to select and establish a research topic and how to design objectives to do their research,” one Puerto Rican librarian told the Journal. “Many of them don’t have previous experiences doing research and using peer-reviewed journals and other materials or resources of the library.”

I think that this is an issue that constantly shows itself, especially when you read news stories online. See, while Google is a great resource, it’s not a perfect one. One thing that I constantly see when I’m using it is a degree of “confirmation bias.” If some interesting fact shows up in Wikipedia, it inevitably shows up in a book, then shows up in dozens of news stories, each using a story that originally relied on Wikipedia as a source. This is something I’m going to call the “Windex Problem” from here on out, in honor of the Wikipedia error I caught in a recent issue.

The fact of the matter is, we consume more information than ever, but we fail to challenge ourselves to confirm that this information is correct. Instead, we assume the first thing we see is correct—or we question the sources that have actually done the dirty work of diving in.

If research doesn’t come naturally to you, treat it as an opportunity—not a limitation. In this information-heavy era, we need more people to be willing to dive in.

Let’s get that number above 30 percent.

Ernie Smith

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Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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