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Skillbuilding: Evaluating Web Resources


From OnBoard - Newsletter of the BCG
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Sandra MacLean Clunies, "Evaluating Web Resources," OnBoard 10 (May 2004): 12-13.

When is a page not a page? Can we use the same criteria for evaluating information we find on the Web that we use for judging the quality of books? Yes and No.


What’s the Same?
The same common sense criteria that readers use to judge the quality of books apply to the Internet. I forgot this during the first flush of genealogical research that took place even before the Internet had arrived. I blissfully photocopied book pages that later proved to be total nonsense. I’ll bet you did, too! That’s how we all collect “former ancestors.”

We learned to ask the same questions of “hard copy” books and publications that we now ask of for Web content. For a lecture that I give on this topic, I received permission from the authors of Web Wisdom: How to Evaluate and Create Information Quality on the Web to use their helpful checklists. I include these in the syllabus content of major conferences at which this lecture is presented.

There are six major categories of criteria, with dozens of questions to ask in each one.

  • Authority (of a site or a page)
  • Accuracy
  • Objectivity
  • Currency
  • Coverage and Intended Audience
  • Interaction and Transaction Features

These checklists are further specialized for major types of websites: Advocacy, Business, Informational, News. Navigational aids and nontext features are also covered. My “hard copy” of the book Web Wisdom was published in 1999. Five years is a long time in the digital information age. Fortunately, authors Janet Alexander and Marsha Ann Tate have kept their own website current with updated links at:
<www2.widener.edu/Wolfgram_Memorial_Library/webevaluation/webeval.htm>

What’s Different?
A book cannot hit the shelves of stores or libraries without some expense of time by an author. It may be self-published at the author’s expense, or sent to a commercial publisher, which will add editing and printing time and costs. Then comes a distribution and publicity cycle to get the publication to the readers. The length of time between a budding writer’s germ of an idea and the final production of a book will be months, if not years. Ask Elizabeth Shown Mills how long it took to complete Professional Genealogy,1 and she’ll tell you at least ten years!

A Web page can be born full blown overnight. With the many sites offering “free” web-hosting and free HTML conversion to subscribers or members, it costs little extra to do and takes no particular skills to accomplish. A few clicks on the keyboard, and a new Web page appears. There are no distribution costs, as it is immediately accessible to every computer on the planet with an Internet connection.

Should we then be surprised at the percentage of inaccurate and misleading “information” that circulates incessantly on the Web today? And in all probability, some of that “data” can be traced to you, even if you never uploaded it!

You have probably shared this uncomfortable experience with me: while Web searching, you find someone has uploaded data you gathered a decade ago. It contains errors you have since corrected with continuing research. It may even have your name attached as a “source.” Who did this? Where did they get the information? Then you recall some “snail mail” exchanges with fellow researchers years ago. You try to e-mail this website’s author to request removal of the material, with little satisfaction. Some unknown person created a GEDCOM including your data and it has been copied and circulated ever since.

You might be able to “correct” it at one website, but it will soon pop up on another one – ghosts and gremlins that seem to have eternal life. While these annoying appearances may seem immortal, there is also the unsettling reality that many websites themselves are ephemeral.

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
A book page and a Web page have very different lifespans. We can easily find books that were published dozens, even hundreds, of years ago. In an article published in the Washington Post, writer Rick Weiss quoted Brewster Kahle, digital librarian at the Internet Archive in San Francisco with the statement that “the average lifespan of a Web page today is 100 days.” 2

Efforts to preserve Web content include the process of caching by the search engine Google, which claims it has archived billions of pages that have disappeared from the Internet. If you get the ubiquitous “Error 404, page not found” message when clicking on a URL, return to the Google listing and see if the “cached” choice is available and click on that. Hopefully, the dead page will rise again on your screen.


At www.archive.org, the WaybackMachine may also help you find the content from an inactive or deceased website. When citing content found on the Web, it is critical to include the date you saw or downloaded that information. Future readers may then be able to resurrect the Web page even if it has effectively “disappeared.”

Of course, we need to ask a question or two when exhuming dead Web pages: if it was good information, why did it disappear?

Major websites with quality content tend to live longer and remain accessible to the researcher. Libraries, archives, genealogical societies and organizations are adding new materials all the time. Paid staff or experienced volunteers have created or organized the content with standards and guidelines to assure and improve its quality and accuracy. Some have instituted a subscription service in order to cover their own costs of producing the online information. I have enrolled in several subscription sites and find them invaluable to me.

Safe and Sane Searching
It’s always exciting to discover some long-sought information on a Web page. Perhaps it is indeed new-found and accurate. Then again, perhaps it’s not. By using simple checklists or guidelines we’ve already applied to data we find in books or other publications, we can approach the wonderful world of the Web with cautious optimism!

Notes
1. Elizabeth Shown Mills, ed., Professional Genealogy: A Manual for Researchers, Writers, Editors, Lecturers, and Librarians (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 2001).
2. Rick Weiss, "On the Web, Research Work Proves Ephemeral," The Washington Post, Washington, DC, 24 November 2003, page A08. Downloaded 24 February 2004 from <www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp_dyn/A8730_2003Nov23?language=printer>

Sandra MacLean Clunies, CGSM

This article was originally published in OnBoard, BCG's educational newsletter and is protected by copyright. Individuals may download and print copies for their personal study. Educators are granted permission to provide copies to their students as long as BCG, OnBoard, and the appropriate author are credited as the source of the material. Republication elsewhere is not permitted.



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