Henry at the PC keyboardLibrarians have for a while now chuckled, groaned, or both over the Yahoo! Answers service. It purports to be a place where anyone – and, of course, middle and high school students come first to my mind – can ask questions, and anyone is eligible to offer an answer.

The online magazine Slate has published an article on the service, with the great title, “A Librarian’s Worst Nightmare.” And after looking at Yahoo! Answers (afterwards Y!A), it’s hard to believe that most people take it seriously. Looking casually at the questions listed on the Y!A site, lots of the questions are of the “great mysteries of life” sort that have no definite answer, but generate lots of personal opinion. These are questions such as “Is money good or evil?” and “What is a good movie to rent with my friends tonight?”

But Jacob Leibenluft, author of the Slate article, is amazed at how many answers offered to even questions that have definite answers are just plain wrong or way off in the bushes somewhere. He says:

While Answers is a valuable window into how people look for information online, it looks like a complete disaster as a traditional reference tool. It encourages bad research habits, rewards people who post things that aren’t true, and frequently labels factual errors as correct information. It’s every middle-school teacher’s worst nightmare about the Web.

I actually think that Y!A is pretty funny, and I can’t believe that many of the people who post questions (and answers) to it are doing much more than shooting the breeze or asking for advice on personal issues. Yet Leibenluft tells us that 120 million people are using the site, and it has compiled 400 million answers. But how useful are they if most of the questions are like this one?

Why do I feel smarter than everyone else around me? Am I hanging out with the wrong crowd? Is this the result of a chemical imbalance?

And the answers are like this:

you’re not smart, you are arrogant

I don’t think that librarianship has much to worry about. My worst nightmare as a librarian (not that anyone asked me) is that flashback I sometimes get to that morning twenty years ago when someone thought it would be funny to dump a dozen spoiled eggs into a very full bookdrop at the beginning of a very hot Fourth of July weekend. And the AC had been turned off. And I was the first one to arrive in the building.

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