“Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” – Mitchell Kapor
For anyone with access to the Internet, finding information generally isn’t a problem. A Google search using the terms marijuana legalization, for example, retrieves 1,550,000 Web sites, while gun control retrieves 12,200,000. A student choosing to write on either of these popular undergraduate research topics will clearly find much, much more information than they actually need.
And herein lies the problem. While we tend to assume that more choice is better, a growing body of evidence suggests that too many choices can overwhelm people’s ability discriminate and make good decisions. In her Newsweek article titled “I Can’t Think,” Sharon Begley describes an experiment by Temple University neuroscientist Angelika Dimoka, in which the brain activity of bidders in combinatorial auctions was monitored. As researchers gave bidders increasing amounts of information about the items to be bid on, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for decision making and control of emotions – suddenly dropped off, resulting in poor decisions.
Such decisions can have significant consequences. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen estimates that he received 300 – 400 pages of e-mails, texts, and reports per day during the BP oil-well blowout of 2010, and that the deluge of information might have contributed to the failure to close the air space near the rig on the day of the explosion, when there were eight near midair collisions. According to a poll by Lexis-Nexis, workers are increasingly overwhelmed by information, posing a significant threat to worker productivity.
Overabundance of information also has significant influence on the research and learning habits of our students. Many faculty members lament students’ indiscriminate use of whatever Web sites quickly come to hand – a time-saving practice that probably reflects the impossibility of sifting through ALL available information on a subject. (After all, trusting Google’s algorithm to deliver relevant Web content within the first few pages of results is a logical strategy.)
It is in the context of information overload that libraries must consider the services they provide. Google’s Web page is elegant and simple, presenting just a handful of choices. Library Web sites, by contrast, are too often cluttered, full of library jargon, and generally uninviting. For many of our users, the library Web site IS the library, and it is crucial that it be designed in a manner that meets the needs of those we serve. In practical terms, this means using the terminology of our users, reducing the number of links on our pages to the bare essentials, and whenever possible, running tests to obtain user feedback.
It also means promoting library collections as an antidote to the mishmash of good and not-so-good information on the Web. Sources like CQ Researcher, for example, not only provide reliable information in their own right, but also bibliographies that can be used to find additional, reliable information. The fact that CQ, Academic Search Premier (EBSCO), and more subject-specific databases retrieve only tens or hundreds of search results should be marketed as a strength of these resources, because they provide scholarly information in more manageable amounts than is found in Google.
For those of us who work with students and faculty directly, this may also mean opting for a “less is more” approach. Instead of giving students an exhaustive list of database or catalog search results, for example, it might be better for us to suggest a smaller, more manageable number of books and articles. Rather than advising students to perform searches on their own, it might be better for librarians to perform the searches themselves, and use their superior expertise to find the best information available for the student. While we may think we are serving the student by using the “teach a person to fish” philosophy, students will not return to the reference desk if we do not provide them with something of immediate, tangible value. Re-dedicating ourselves to patron service, and helping users navigate the information clutter, is the most important role that libraries can play.