Free websites of value for humanities students and faculty researchers.

Author:McElrath, Eileen


The information needs and behaviors of humanities researchers have been studied extensively. We know that humanities researchers consult colleagues and print material for references as well as using book reviews and personal collections. Library catalogs are used to find both primary and secondary sources. Citations in books or journals are heavily used, but scholars also consult bibliographies. Browsing is used to find related material and physical access to libraries and collections is valued highly (Boone 1986; de Triatel 2000; Broadbent 1986; Blazek and Aversa 2000: East 2005) Hacker (2005, 1) states that, "[r]esearch in the humanities generally involves: interpretation of a text or work of art within a historical an cultural context frequently bringing to bear a particular type of analysis and often relying on establishing connections, attributing significance, exploring contradictions or ambiguities," and so "primary sources, secondary sources that critically analyze primary sources, and sources that answer questions that may arise" are the objects of humanities researchers. The literature of the field tells us that humanities researchers use electronic resources such as texts and databases from established providers like DIALOG and have from the early 1990's (Hockey 1994, 676; Bates 1996, 515).

Importance of the Study

The Internet offers websites with tremendous amounts of information on virtually every topic, but do humanities students and faculty researchers use them for their research? Studies show that faculty members question the accuracy, reliability, and sufficiency of web resources for research. Susan Davis Herring surveyed 1,129 full-time faculty at 30 post-secondary institutions in Alabama. She found that faculty in the sciences were more positive about the accuracy and format of the web than faculty in the social science or in language and literature. Generally, those faculty thought the information on the Internet is "without a recognized selection process, carried out by accepted and reputable organizations or publishers." Herring found that "faculty teaching in the language and literature fields tend to be the least satisfied with the Web overall, and specifically, were less satisfied with its content and accuracy" (Herring 2001, 216).

Undergraduate students, on the other hand, report that the web provides them with information that they use to complete assignments. In 2001, Deborah Grimes and Carl Boening studied students enrolled in an English composition course and found that many students were using unevaluated Internet sites "because of the ease in locating and printing out the results and because of a perceived abundance of information compared to books and periodicals" (Grimes and Boening 2001, 20-22). Juris Dilevko and Lisa Gottlieb studied undergraduate students in a large metropolitan university and found that 50.8% of the undergraduate respondents in humanities (154 students responded to the survey) reported that they used online sources at least 75% of the time for their research papers. Forty-seven percent of undergraduate students across disciplines reported that they consulted online sources first 90% or more of the time. Dilevko and Gottlieb defined online sources as "electronic online resources of any kind" (Dilevko and Gottlieb 2001, 384-385). Increasingly, students are using online sources, including the web, for their assignments, The ideal would be for them to use websites that have value in the eyes of faculty in the humanities.

Rating systems for websites have emerged to provide a mechanism that would convey reliability. For example, the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval," which is given for reliable merchandise, was extended to websites. Websites displaying the "Good Housekeeping Website Certification" have "met the Good Housekeeping Institute's Standards for security, privacy and product integrity. The Web Certification is not a warranty; it is a verification that the website is trustworthy and safe for customers."

Similarly, a rating system developed by librarians allows websites to be evaluated using a rigorous process. Larson (1999, 28) says that, "[i]n 1998, the Machine-Assisted Reference Section (MARS) of the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) appointed an ad hoc task force to develop a method of recognizing outstanding free reference sites on the World Wide Web. The result in 1999 was a list of 25 sites, nominated, annotated, and then voted on by a task force of 13 practicing reference librarians representing academic, public, special and government libraries." Each fall, a list of the Best Free Reference Web Sites is published. The following criteria were adopted by the task force to evaluate the websites:

* Quality, depth, and usefulness of the content

* Clear statement of the content, including any intended biases

* Appropriate for intended audience

* Provides appropriate links to other websites

* Attention to detail--absence of grammatical errors, etc.

* Usefulness for reference to answer specific questions

* May also give a broad perspective of a particular subject

* Ease of use

* User-friendly design--easy navigation

* Good search engine

* Attractive--graphic design leaves a good impression on the user

* Easy output (printing or downloading)

* Currency of Content

* Links are kept up-to-date

* Update frequency is appropriate for the subject matter

* Authority of producer

* Authority and legality clearly stated

* If not easily recognizable, an explanation of the history and purpose of the

* Organization

* Uniqueness of content

* Uniqueness of the resource as a whole--creativity

* Useful in a variety of reference settings

* Appropriate use of the Web as a medium

* Components are well integrated (audio, video, text, etc.)

* Effective use of Java, other newer technologies

* Efficiency

* Graphics load quickly

* Any required plug-in is available for easy download

* Reliable server (Larson 2000, 32).

Each year, approximately 25 websites are evaluated using these criteria and the list is published in the fall of that year. The websites listed cover a multitude of subjects. The purpose of this study is to evaluate the websites that are rated by professional librarians using the criteria listed above and published in the journal Reference and User Services Quarterly, to identify websites of value for humanities researchers, especially students and faculty, and for the reference librarians who assist them.


A content analysis of the annotated lists published each fall in...

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