John Wiley and Sons Inc, 1997, $US22.95
284pp, ISBN 0-471-16520-4
This is a Book Review published on 31 October 1997.
Citation: Gibbins N, 'Paul Gilster's Digital Literacy', Book Review, 1997 (3) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/97_3gibb/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_3/gibbins/>
This book sets out to provide a guide to searching for, and evaluating sources of information on the Internet. These tasks are discussed in terms of a concept which Gilster calls 'Digital Literacy'. Digital Literacy, as Gilster describes it, is not merely the ability to read, but to read with meaning, and to understand, information in a digital context. This understanding is a matter of interpreting and filtering the data we see, rather than simply more adept tool use.
This book is a curious work. Although it 'provides Internet novices with the basic thinking skills and core competencies they'll need to thrive in an interactive environment', it is not a text for the raw Internet beginner; the book is aimed at the informed layman and assumes that the reader has at least a cursory knowledge of Internet concepts and tools. Similarly, while it discusses techniques which rely on technical Internet skills, it is not a technical book, and limits itself to topics which are not primarily technical.
The core of this book discusses techniques for assessing the quality and veracity of electronic information sources. For the most part, these techniques should be familiar to anyone who uses a library; examining an author's affiliation and other works are common methods for determining an appropriate level of trust, and Gilster stresses the continuing importance of these in a medium where anyone may self-publish. Gilster also writes of a number of other factors associated with the information we may find on the Internet; the hypertextual links in a document enable us to place the document in some context, and so determine the value of the information it contains.
Underlying much of this book is a healthy degree of caution as regards the Internet's abilities as an information panacea. This critical approach is sadly missing from many other titles in the current explosion of Internet books. Gilster talks about the limitations of the Internet as a tool for research, particularly about the large number of pre-Internet texts which are unlikely to be digitised.
The book goes beyond a discussion of Digital Literacy, and includes a brief history of the Web and a chapter on the developments which will affect its future. While not incorrect, this material is covered more clearly and in greater depth in other works, and its inclusion here serves only to give the book a rather mixed focus.
My main complaints about this book are stylistic. This book contains much commonsense information which is often overlooked in the wake of the Internet boom, but this is frequently hidden by the author's discursive style. Gilster gives over an entire chapter (and sizeable portions of others) to a number of anecdotal descriptions of Internet use. Although these raise some important points, they dwell too much on the specific, and do not emphasise the main points clearly enough. These sections would benefit from a brief, general summary.
The essay style of this book indicates that it is intended as an 'armchair' book, while the cover blurb suggests that it is a tutorial work. The nature of the subject matter means that relevant sections are likely to be referred to while the reader is attempting some task on the Internet. Unfortunately, the discursive style of the book makes this sort of usage difficult, the index misses a number of useful techniques which are mentioned in the body text, and the table of contents is organised only at chapter level.
In view of the stylistic criticisms, this is not a book to recommend. The book does contain a great deal of worthwhile information, but the lack of clarity in its presentation detracts from its usefulness. Also, the requirement that this book makes of its readership (that they have some degree of familiarity with the Internet) obviates much of the discussion in it. The more commonsensical advice in the book will no doubt already be intuitively obvious to most novice users.