This article first appeared in the School Librarian, 47 (3),
Autumn 1999 and is reprinted here with permission.
The bibliographical references have been amended to reflect current accuracy.
The internet and the World Wide Web are big, bigger than we can imagine. There is a lot of information there, and every day there is more and more. Many people, too many people, seem to think that anything and everything is available on the web. Scientists at the NEC Research Institute recently suggested that the Web can be seen as a searchable 15-billion-word encyclopedia (Lawrence).
But the web is not an encyclopedia, of any size. An encyclopedia aims to say something about everything. An editorial team tries to ensure that what is included in an encyclopedia is comprehensive, is accurate, is authoritative, up-to-date, representative.
There is no editorial team behind the internet. Anyone can publish anything. There is a lot of good stuff there, but it is not comprehensive, and much of the information is inaccurate, out-of-date, lacking authority, biased, intentionally or unintentionally misleading. It may be there, it may not be there. It may be good, it may not be good, and if it's good it may be available only to subscribers, protected against those who have not paid their dues.
When information is found on the web, there may be no clue as to who wrote it and what their credentials are, we may have no idea how complete or accurate or up-to-date or free from bias the information.
To counter this, we teach evaluation techniques to our students. We want them to think about what they read, to check their sources, to get second opinions. It isn't always easy.
To illustrate this, I would like to share two exercises.
The tale is told of an American politician who, in a debate on the introduction of Spanish-language teaching into U.S. schools, is said to have declared, "If the English language was good enough for Jesus Christ, then it's good enough for me!" I remember Alistair Cooke telling this story in a "Letter from America" some years ago, and a friend recently brought the story to mind. I wanted to find out the name of this politician.
I used Alta Vista <http://www.av.com/> and tried this search strategy:
"english language" AND "good enough" AND "jesus"I had 24 hits, and some interesting teaching and learning points into the bargain.
The hits varied tremendously: it was someone from Arkansas, it was someone from Texas, it was a man, it was a woman, it was said in 1917, in 1924, in 1988. One hit attributes it to satirist H.L. Mencken. Another cites author Bill Bryson, quoting a report in The Guardian in his book Mother tongue. One hit is repeated, word for word; it uses the phrase "a depressingly stupid lady"; this one could be a mailing in duplicate to different humour groups. Other hits, even those which agreed on the person, showed differences in spelling or punctuation or wording.
Three main contenders emerged, Texas Governor James Ferguson, Texas Governor Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, and an unknown congressman testifying to the Joint National Committee on Language. This last might well be verifiable, for the then-chairman remains chairman to this day. It is of course quite possible that one of the later speakers was knowingly quoting an earlier speaker, and that any or all of these main candidates made the declaration! It should still be possible to verify who, what, when and where - but it is clear that this is not a simple reference query.
That exercise arose from a real research need, my own. The second exercise grew from my reading of Ann Smith's page on Information Literacy <http://inst.augie.edu/~asmith/infolit.html>. Smith points to discrepancies in web postings of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. Smith points to just two sites, sites which carry versions which differ in marked respects. I followed this up by making a search on Inference Find <http://www.infind.com/> and found the speech posted on many sites. I selected six of them, at random, hoping that a majority would carry the original speech.
There are two main and very different versions of the speech on the net, and my six sites were split three and three. First thoughts might suggest differences between the speech as prepared and written, and the speech as actually delivered. This is not the problem.
In the various postings of each of the two main versions, there are differences, especially in spelling, punctuation and paragraphing. At least one posting uses bold font and a larger face for certain phrases and sentences, where other postings use the same font face and size throughout. These alone make good discussion points.
But these are minor details. The differences go much deeper than that. One of the versions of the speech is almost certainly the original; it uses the word "Negro". The other appears, at first sight, to have been edited for political correctness, for it prefers the term "colored American".
I believe the text which uses "Negro" is the original, but it is surprisingly difficult to verify this. One of the books in our library includes a version of the speech, but in light of my 'net experience, I really would like to find at least one more source. Again surprisingly, none of the many books we have on King and on Civil Rights includes the full speech; such extracts as I find make no mention of either term. Later I found that, until quite recently, the King family held the copyright of the speech and the text was less than universally available.
One of the internet sites includes sound clips from King's speech, and he uses "Negro". Ordinarily, that would be enough to confirm the issue. But a few days later, I learned of a cd-rom encyclopedia which includes a sound-clip of John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, probably authentic, except that the encyclopedia has also a sound-clip of Thomas Jefferson reading from the Declaration of Independence.
How questioning must one be, how critically thoughtful, how determined? How can I believe the evidence I find? For too many people, if it's on the web, if it's on cd-rom, if it's in print - then it must be true; this has always been so. Many of the children I teach have difficulty imagining a world without television and cars and supermarkets. "Technology is technology only for those born before it was invented," says Alan Kay (Tapscott). For those born afterwards, the past may merge into a blur. Why shouldn't, why couldn't, Jefferson's rendition be authentic? Does it matter whether King used "Negro" or "colored American"? How long before we find "African American" or some other politically-correct term used? Does it matter?
It matters. Close inspection of the two versions of King's speech reveals something even more sinister: there are sentences and paragraphs which are present in the "Negro" version but missing from the other; at least one paragraph is drastically different in the later version. The later version plays down King's concept of peaceful and dignified protest.
This is history rewritten, and it is dangerous. I am concerned that any good researcher, attempting to validate a hit, might well find copies 2, 3 and more of the false version of King's speech - and so suppose that this really is what King said. What is more, if a searcher uses an internet filter which excludes documents containing the word "Negro", they will never know, however many search engines are used, however many sites are visited. It is all very chilling.
I wonder too if sites posting the revised speech do so aware that they are not using the original version. Is there racial or political motive to their choice of posting, or are they simply, innocently, dangerously, perpetuating a lie?
The internet is a very, very useful tool. Many librarians view the internet as the resource of last resort, just one of many sources of information, not always the quickest, not always the best, not always the most appropriate. But for many reasons it is the first choice of a large number of people, and especially of children. We must work to make sure they are very aware of the pitfalls and the shortcomings, we must never lower our standards of critical thinking and awareness. This has always been so, regardless of the medium which carries our information. In the age of infoglut, it is more important than ever.
Lawrence, Steve and C. Lee Giles. "Searching the World Wide Web." Science Vol. 280 (5360), pp. 98-100, 1998. <http://www.neci.nec.com/~lawrence/science98.html> 27 July 2001.
Smith, Angie. "Information Literacy." (n.d.) <http://inst.augie.edu/~asmith/infolit.html> 24 January 2000.
Tapscott, Don. The Digital Economy, Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996, page 17.
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It was last revised on 4 September 2001 (and two spelling corrections made on June 2, 2005).