Donald Munro

Donald Munro: Fresno State library ‘ranking’ brings out the skeptic in me

If it’s on the Internet, it must be true.

We all know this isn’t true, of course. But habits die hard. The emphatic black-and-white credibility of text — in many ways a holdover from a time in which the difficulty of access to the means of production lent a certain legitimacy to the printed word — continues to sway us, whether it’s in a meticulously edited book or a website thrown up by an unknown party.

I did a double take recently when I read a news report, and then subsequently a news release posted on Fresno State News, the university’s public relations site, that the Henry Madden Library was ranked among the 25 best in the country by a website called College Rank.

Now, I really like the Madden Library. The new addition is impressive. The space for special exhibitions is very nice. The people who work there are innovative and helpful. It’s a jewel of the Fresno State campus.

But the 25th best university library in the country, “beating out” such institutions as the University of Southern California, New York University, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins and Yale University?

There’s just no way.

When I went to the College Rank site, I started to get a better picture of the situation. It turns out the list is titled “The 50 Most Amazing College Libraries.” Somehow the word “amazing” sounds a lot squishier than “best.” (When I pointed this out to the folks at Fresno State News, it was corrected on the release.)

According to the Fresno State news release, the list was compiled by Kevin Shull, whose name does not appear on the article. There are no criteria given on the website other than it evaluated “hundreds of libraries” from around the country and singled out campuses that offer “amazing on-campus experiences, provide stunning and rare book collections as well as offer fantastic campus views.”

I wanted to ask Shull more about his list. I gave him a call at the number listed on the website and left a message. I never got a call back.

I’m not saying my opinion is any more valid than Shull’s. But before I take stock in his opinion, I want to know what sort of credibility he or his website brings to the table. From what I was able to find, it isn’t much.

I noticed the contact information for College Rank listed Columbus, Ohio, as its home. I also noticed that some of the other college-ranking websites that popped up in my search engine also appear to be based in Columbus. One is College Degree Search, which The Bee reported recently ranked the music building at Fresno State as No. 44 on its list of “The 50 Most Beautiful Conservatories and Schools of Music.”

Again, I’m not coming down on Fresno State’s music building. It’s nice. Would I ever call it beautiful? Well, maybe. Well, probably not.

Obviously, the idea of what makes an “amazing” (or even “best”) library or a “beautiful” music building is subjective. You can argue with such lists or praise them, but what their creators want most is for them to be passed around. Let’s say you’re a college student and sweep past a link touting a ranking of college libraries. You might just be curious enough to see whether your own campus got a thumbs up to go ahead and click.

Which is what I suspect many of these sites are designed to do: to get as many clicks as they can.

On one level, these lists are harmless. No harm done. They’re part of an Internet culture in which nearly every aspect of life is ranked, rated and dissected.

But on another level, reading about Fresno State’s library as being ranked the 25th “best” in the nation is a reminder of the importance of critical-thinking skills while navigating through the hurly-burly of public discourse today. My rule of thumb for any link I come across on Facebook: Look at the source. Sometimes I’ll look closely at a URL if a story sounds odd. Even a mainstream website has copycats, which happened to me once with a USA Today link.

In the first hours after the Lufthansa crash, one of my Facebook friends posted a Yahoo link and added: “They are saying that the King of Spain was on this plane!!!”

I thought: Wow. Then I went to a bunch of other sites and checked Google. No word about a royal fatality. At least I wasn’t going to share an unsubstantiated rumor.

I hate to be a grouch, but here’s my advice: Be skeptical. It will serve you well in this big online world of ours.