Today we start an occaisional series “Docs Librarian vs. Google” where I will take actual reference questions (or slightly tweaked to protect patron privacy) and try to show why it makes more sense to talk to a documents librarian than do a Google search if you are looking for specialized information. The Google searches I’ll construct are ones that I believe your average user would make. If you don’t find my examples fair, provide your own down in the comments.
Today’s question is “How many private and public schools are in Alaska? I need the latest figures available.”
Let’s start with Google. A reasonable beginning searcher might try something like:
Nothing helpful appears on the first page of results. On the second page there is a undated FAQ page from the Alaska Department of Education showing “approximately 500 public schools” but offering no figure for private schools. Nothing helpful appears on the third page.
Maybe our search wasn’t good. Let’s try …
This is a little better. The first page of results offers a Heritage Foundation report offering a count of 502 public schools during the 2001-2002 school year and 69 private schools for 1999-2000. No source is offered for this information and it seems several years out of date. Nothing helpful appears on the second or third pages.
So, two searches, three screens, time to check out several seemingly promising pages. And we have some outdated and unsourced data for our trouble.
Now let’s ask the documents librarian…
Well, I know that statistics for both public and private schools are kept by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). From their front page you can select search pages for public and private schools. Going to the search page for public schools and searching for all public schools gives you 530 schools. Not only do we have the number of schools, but we also have full contact information, enrollment figures and grades served by each school. Clicking on the “data notes” link shows me this information is from the 2003-2004 school year – perfectly reasonable given the slowness of government data gathering. Going back to the home page for NCES and choosing the search for private schools page and searching for private schools in Alaska gives us 64 schools, with contact information, enrollment and grade level for each school. This data, like the public school data, is also from 2003-2004.
The private school search also gives me many options not readily apparent to the Google user. We can use this search screen to isolate the religious affiliations of private schools. Using this feature allows me to see that only six of Alaska’s 64 private schools are Catholic. 13 private schools are non-secretarian, and so forth.
So to me, there was no contest if someone needed up-to-date information from a non-biased source.
If you’re convinced that using a librarian is better than Google for some searches, then please check our where to find government information page and use the “places to ask questions” section to find yourself a librarian. Please don’t send reference questions to admin AT freegovinfo.info as all of us volunteers have day jobs and spend our nights and weekends working policy issues.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.