Welcome To The Information Age: Finding And Using Library And Internet Resources And More
Franklin Park Zoo, Boston, MA
(Please Note that this paper covers many sources of information, especially on the Internet, which are constantly changing.)
Today, zoo and aquarium docents are increasingly under pressure to keep up to date with new research on the animals at their facilities. With people increasingly using the Internet in this electronic age, it is especially important for docents to have good, current information in order to respond effectively and accurately to questions from the public. The purpose of this paper is discuss ways in which docents can better utilize and evaluate the information resources available to them, both directly through their institutional libraries and via other sources, especially the Internet.
Why Do We Need Information?
Of course we need information, to educate and excite our visitors to do our jobs, in other words! And learning doesn’t stop when we finish basic docent training. There is an enormous amount of information and misinformation out there and we need to keep up with it, evaluate it, and use it effectively. Just because it’s in print, or online, or on TV, or you heard it on the radio, doesn’t make it correct.
You need to have the whole picture to know more than just the animals in your collections. Obviously, you should be familiar with conservation and other issues. It’s also important to be able to extrapolate the visitor asks you about rattlesnakes, but your facility only has constrictors. Or, the visitor wonders about “saber-tooth tigers” how do you tactfully correct them and relate the question to the Amur tigers you have on display?
What about local history what animals lived in your area in the past? If you have elephants in your facility, can you relate them to mammoths or mastodons or whales? Know current thinking e.g., be familiar with cladistics; dinosaurs in your backyard; life around deep sea vents. Don’t get caught in ignorance but also be willing to admit when you haven’t heard something (and after all, it may be inaccurate or misunderstood try to find out more from the visitor). And of course, follow up on anything you don’t know!
Today there is a growing glut of information available in a variety of sources. Not only are there the traditional print sources books, journals and the like but more and more information is available electronically. You can now access encyclopedias, dictionaries and other traditional reference books online, as well as many journals, magazines and newspapers. There are also databases which not only provide citations to thousands of articles in scholarly and other journals, but often have links to the full texts of those articles. And of course there’s the Worldwide Web with its wealth of information – and also misinformation. Truly there is such an embarrassment of riches that just keeping up with new information resources is a daunting task.
Your institution probably has a library; certainly all AZA accredited zoos and aquariums are required to maintain appropriate libraries for the use of their staffs. These range in size from a hundred or so books to thousands of items including books, journals, electronic databases, videos, slide collections and much more.
Your facility’s library should therefore be your first stop when you are looking for information. Over 90% of zoo and aquarium libraries allow volunteers to use their facilities, at least to work on site. If you are not familiar with yours, visit and explore the offerings. You should also talk to the person in charge; this may be a professional librarian but may also be a staff member assigned to the position, or perhaps even a volunteer.
You’re sure to find many resources which will help you do your job better, whether you need general information or specifics about the animals, want to keep up with the latest research, or need to find out about issues such as conservation.
For starters, check out the reference sources available in your institutional library. Very likely there is somekind of general encyclopedia for instance, Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. There are probably also generalized works on different taxa; classics include Walker’s Mammals of the World (also available electronically now)
If your institution’s library doesn’t meet all your information needs, try your local public library. (If you’re not sure where it is, you can find it at http://www.libdex.com. You may think of it as a source of books for pleasure reading, or a good place to take your kids, but public libraries today are much more. In addition to books and traditional print items and general reference materials, many if not most public libraries in the U.S. and Canada today offer access to databases with full text newspaper, magazine and journal articles; general information (e.g., online encyclopaedias and other reference books); and much more. Some of these are even available remotely. In other words, with your library card you can access these resources at any time from any place. And to get a library card, all you usually need to do is prove that you live in the area; there is not
normally a fee.
And forget all the old stereotypes about libraries and librarians! Far from being stuffy repositories for books and old journals, libraries today strive to be warm and welcoming places staffed with friendly, customer service-oriented information professionals who delight in helping you find what you need and want you to enjoy yourself in the process. Many libraries now have banks of computers; there are comfortable areas to read, work, have meetings and even eat and drink; and they have librarians who, far from being frowning dragons enforcing silence, are technologically savvy and eager to enhance your visit and send you away happy.
If you are thinking that your local library is too small to have anything worth checking, think again; many libraries are branches or are in consortia that have access to many sophisticated resources. Even though the physical building and holdings may be limited in size, the electronic access may astound you, and of course there’s always Interlibrary Loan (ILL). This is a service provided by libraries all over the world; through ILL, materials not found in local collections are obtained from other libraries. You can literally get articles and books from across the country or even the globe at no cost to you!
There are other libraries besides your local public one as well. There are probably colleges or universities in your area with libraries, and these may be more accessible than you would think. Some really are closed to anyone not part of the college community, but others admit anyone reasonably respectable looking who can produce a picture ID. Some post signs indicating that only members of the college community are allowed, but in practice they don’t check if you look reasonably respectable, and still others have what amounts to an open door policy, though they are unlikely to advertise the fact. In any case, it’s always worth a try.
Businesses also may have libraries with access to sophisticated databases; consider biotech companies and law firms especially. Obviously you can’t just walk into such places, but look for connections a friend, another volunteer, or perhaps a board member. This could be very useful once in a while when you need an answer to a specific question.
As mentioned above, your local public library almost certainly has some FREE databases, some of which may even be available remotely! Your zoo or aquarium may have a couple as well. Here are a few of the most useful ones for our purposes:
- BIOSIS. The most basic database for biology and the life sciences. Most libraries have it. It also offers a more limited free interface (Biology Browser). Note that although the default is Basic Search, you can choose Advanced or Expert and fine-tune your search.
- AGRICOLA. A governmental site which is available free but is carried by most libraries in a more useable fee-based form. Don’t be misled by the name; it covers much more than farm crops, cows and tractors
- Applied Science and General Science. Two pretty common databases; from the same vendor, so you usually find both. More general, but still may have a lot of relevant material.
- Academic Search Premier and Expanded Academic. Two of the most popular scholarly databases; they cover all disciplines but they do index some of the major biology journals. If you are looking for specific information they are worth checking.
- Almost all libraries today have online versions of standard reference works such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, World Almanac, dictionaries, etc.
- Some specialized zoological resources are also online Walker’s Mammals of the World; the Zoological Record; Biological Abstracts; Aquatic Biology, Aquaculture & Fisheries Resources; etc. Unfortunately you probably won’t find them except at larger public libraries or academic institutions (and a fortunate handful of large zoos, aquariums and natural history museums).
- Sometimes, however, such databases are available through a commercial aggregator, of which the most ubiquitous is probably DIALOG. This was one of the original vendors in the electronic library world, and though it’s expensive many libraries do have it, though generally not for public use. But if you have a specific need and have befriended your librarian.
Then there is the Internet. This is not the most accurate or even necessarily the quickest source of information, but it certainly has its uses as long as it is used judiciously. Below is a list of Internet websites worth checking, followed by a (very important!) list of tips to evaluate the information you get.
Of course there is always Googling, or using search engines such as Google or Yahoo. This can be a perfectly okay way to look for information, especially if you’re looking for a quick, general answer. But keep in mind that such search engines are going to give you unfiltered information and it’s up to you to pick and choose among the results. Here are a couple of tips to help you search more effectively:
- Commercial search engines like Google will give you everything they find which contains the terms you entered. There will be lots of repetitions; some of these will be obvious from the initial results page, but youmay not realize that others are the same because the apparent URL is different. When you click on the link,however, you may well find yourself on a page you’ve already looked at more than once. Generally once you’ve looked at the first couple of pages of Google results, you’re probably not going to find a lot more.
- Try running a slightly different search and see if you come up with better, results.
- Enter all the terms you can think of that are relevant to your search, in the order of their importance to you.
- If you get too many, narrow the search with more specific terms, though you’ll still probably have to wade through a lot of junk to find what you want.
- In search engines, unlike commercial databases, it can be difficult to do really specific searching. However, there is usually an Advanced Search screen (look in the menu bar across the top in Google, for instance)which will allow you to limit your search and make it more exact and productive.
- Google will generally search automatically for plurals. It also now has a synonym command. Just put a tilde (the character ~) in front of the relevant word and it will look for all the synonyms of that word.
- Finally, remember that commercial search engines are most useful for quick and dirty searches; to help you figure out what terms to use to narrow your search; and to give you fast answers to simple questions. They will NOT give you everything on the subject, and they will NOT evaluate the usefulness or reliability of the information they produce. So don’t expect too much, or rely too heavily, on them.
- The final note on searching for information, whether in print or online: unless you are looking for a simple answer and find it right away, always check more than one source. That way you not only get more information but also ensure greater accuracy. And if you find contradictory information, keep digging! Below are a few tips on evaluating online sites in particular, but they are useful in checking print information as well.
No “webliography” of Internet information sources can ever be exhaustive or completely accurate. It is all changing constantly; new sites appear, old ones vanish or change URLs, or they are simply not kept up to date. With that in mind, here are a few free sites to help you find information, beginning with general sources:
- Librarians’ Index to the Internet: http://lii.org/. There is one whole section on Animals, with topics such as Assistance & Therapy Animals; Bones; Cephalopods; Endangered Species; Marine Biology; Paleontology; Species Identification; Wildlife Conservation; and Zoos, to mention just a few. Each has blurbs about and links to relevant sites, all chosen by librarians, so at least they’re pretty authoritative.
- Natural History Caucus, Special Libraries Association (http://www.lib.washington.edu/sla/). This looks a bit dry but it has some really good links bibliographies, reference sources (check these especially),etc. with clickable links. Definitely worth bookmarking.
- Another library site with good general stuff as well is kept by Steve Johnson, librarian and archivist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (http://www.westnet.com/~sjohnson/toc.htm). It has a lot specifically for librarians but also includes some very useful links, including the following:
- Recommended List of Books and Other Information Resources for Zoo and Aquarium Libraries (http://www.sil.si.edu/SILPublications/zoo-aquarium/tpbib.htm). This was compiled by Kay Kenyon of the National Zoo, with input from several other zoo and aquarium librarians.
- BiologyBrowser (http://www.biologybrowser.com/) is managed by BIOSIS, which is a subscription database, but BiologyBrowser is free. Of course you can’t get much specific information because theywant you to buy BIOSIS, but there are some helpful links.
- There are other, broader citation databases available from commercial vendors; check them out courtesyof the Bronx Zoo’s Steve Johnson at http://www.westnet.com/~sjohnson/toc.htm. Note that you only get the references.
- FirstGov for Science (http://www.science.gov/). There is a wealth of governmental resources available on the Web, but this is a good place to start. You can select Biology and Nature and then enter a searchof your own, choose a “narrower topic,” or choose a particular government website from an extensive alphabetical list.
- Among governmental websites, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has an excellent website with many links: http://endangered.fws.gov/wildlife.html
- University of Michigan Museum of Zoology maintains the Animal Diversity Web (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/). This is a good source of information on different species, not in any order. For example, a search for “Chiroptera” gave 193 matches. You can also click on a pictured group of animals; thus, clicking on the octopus partially pictured in the upper left hand corner of the homepage takes you to Mollusca. Overall the site is a bit dry, but it’s a really good fast source of info about different species.
- The Electronic Zoo (http://netvet.wustl.edu/ssi.htm) links galore.
- You can now search PBS programs by keyword or title. For example, try Nature at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/database.html. There’s a section for teachers, including teacher guides; lots of links; you can download video clips, photos, and more; search a Critter Guide for different animals; etc. This can be very helpful if someone says “Gee, I saw a program on PBS about tigers…”
- Tree of Life (http://tolweb.org/tree/phylogeny.html). Emphasis on phylogeny but has references and links. Very current; being produced by biologists from around the world.
- University of California at Berkeley – http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu. This link is to the Museum of Palaeontology but it’s an excellent site and has lots of general stuff besides, as well as good links to other sites.
- American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) at http://www.aza.org. A lot of the information is for members only but there are fact sheets, SSP listings, and lots more. Plus anyone at an AZA institution should be familiar with the organization.
- The WWW Virtual Library has a section on Biosciences at http://vlib.org/Biosciences.html
- IUCN a primary conservation site – http://www.iucn.org
- NISC (http://www.nisc.com), National Information Services Corporation, touts itself as a “Company inthe Public Interest.” It publishes information products covering a wide range of topics. It is fee-based but offers free access to a limited number of databases, and you can get a free 30 day trial.
- Various zoos often have excellent resources; there is a list at http://www.mindspring.com/~zoonet/www_virtual_lib/zoos.html
For specific information, here is a sampling of sites:
- Mammalian Species – published regularly by the American Society of Mammalogists. Each year 25-30 new accounts are issued, each of which covers a single species. These vary in length from 2-14 pages. Subscriptions are $30.00 per year and most zoo libraries do get these; however, PDF files of the first 631 accounts are also now available free online at http://www.science.smith.edu/departments/Biology/VHAYSSEN/msi/msi_intro.html
- PrimateLit a bibliographic database (http://primatelit.library.wisc.edu/). Gives citations to primate literature going way back; very easy to use. Also has lots of helpful links.
- Bat Conservation International (BCI) (http://batcon.org). The premier source for information on bats.
- The Cephalopod Page (http://is.dal.ca/~ceph/TCP/index.html). Once you get away from the main page and the annoying ink blot which follows the pointer around, there’s lots of good and fun! – information here.
- AmphibiaWeb (http://elib.cs.berkeley.edu/aw/) – inspired by the global declines.
- Crocodilian, Tuatara and Turtle Species of the World – http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/natsci/herpetology/turtcroclist/
- Entomology Index of Internet Resources from Iowa State University – http://www.ent.iastate.edu/List/
- The Ultimate Ungulate – http://www.ultimateungulate.com/. A very well-done site.
- Ichthyology Web Resources – http://www2.biology.ualberta.ca/jackson.hp/IWR/index.php
- The Condor is now available and searchable for free on-line on the Cooper Ornithological Society homepage (www.cooper.org). The full content of volumes 1-102 (1899-2000) is available.
- Bushmeat Crisis Taskforce – http://www.bushmeat.org/.
- And lots more!
Evaluating The Information You Find:
There is so much information available on the Internet, and it’s by no means all accurate or reliable! Anyone anywhere can put up a webpage, and one of the problems with a simple Google or Yahoo search is that there is no real quality control. So how do you evaluate what you find? Here are a few points to consider:
(This section was adapted in part from http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/ulib/ref/guides/gen/eval.html. Kwasi Sarkodie-Mensah: firstname.lastname@example.org. Boston College, Chestnut Hill 02167, Copyright 2001 Trustees of Boston College)
What sort of organization is sponsoring the site is it an educational institution, a governmental agency, a commercial enterprise? The URL extension (see following) tell you; be especially suspicious of .com sites; they may be really good but usually they are trying to sell something.
.com for commercial products or commercially-sponsored sites
.edu for educational or research material
.gov for government resources
.int for international organizations
.mil for US Department of Defense
.net for networks
.org for nonprofit organizations
Who is the author/producer of the website? What are her/his credentials? It can be hard to tell! Try the “About” page, but even then it’s not always clear. If that’s the case, it may be a warning flag. Also, does the author/producer provide a feedback link that allows you to contact her/him?
- Is the information reliable, factual, accurate as far as you can tell?
- Is the information relevant and in depth?
- Can you detect any biases – political, ideological, or religious? The links might give you a clue. Is there any advertising? Are goals stated?
- Is there an indication as to when the information was first placed on the web? Are any dates given, and if so how old are they?
- How current is the information is there a date when the site was last updated? Look at the bottom. Remember, however, that the updating may not have encompassed the entire site perhaps only a small change was made. Check for dates throughout.
- Do the links all work? It’s hard to keep up with constantly changing links, but there are a lot of broken ones, that may indicate that the site has not been properly checked lately. It also could show that the linked sites were not very stable to begin with; that might make you wonder about quality and reliability.
What seems to be the purpose of the site? Is it primarily to share information or summarize research? To advocate a particular position on a subject? Or to advertise a product?
Who is the intended audience? Is it for teachers? College students? Researchers? The general public? Children? Think about the appropriateness of the information for your purposes. A page designed for children may be just fine if it has good, accurate information well presented, and if you don’t want a lot of details; on the other hand, it may oversimplify. On the other hand, a site for college students and researchers may have too focused information for your needs.
If you can determine the target audience, that may give you clues to the site’s purposes and help you decide on its usefulness and accuracy.
- Is the site well designed, with sections clearly and logically organized?
- Is it “user friendly” and easy to navigate? Are the connections intuitive or is it difficult to figure out what to click?
- Are the graphics attractive and helpful? Or are they distracting and annoying?
Finally, think about the coverage is it what you want? Is it too simple or too technical? Is it just a collection of links? That may be very useful but if you just want a quick answer it could be time-consuming. Different sites fill different needs there is no one place to go for all the information you may want at different times. Often, especially when you need a quick answer, it’s faster to go to a known print source and simply look it up, rather than spending time on the Internet searching multiple sources.
Today we are fortunate that there is so much information available. On the other hand, so much of this information may be difficult to retrieve or unreliable, so it’s a mixed blessing. It is important to not only find but also evaluate the information you need to keep current and adequately and accurately answer visitors’ questions and concerns.
© Dorothy Barr, AZAD 2003. Contact me at email@example.com.
Barr Welcome to the Information Age page 6