As I move into my last few months at work—I’ll soon be retiring from my community college librarian job—I want to leave behind a few of my recent musings on librarianship. I firmly believe information literacy has fallen through the cracks. While educators pay lip service to information literacy programs, there is a tenacious, underlying sense amongst most people that the open web has superseded traditional library resources, even those available in research databases.
As an aside, I’m defining the open web as the pages we search for every day through Yahoo! or Google. In contrast, many libraries subscribe to password-protected research databases containing articles and books. These databases offer library users access to electronic materials under copyright restriction. In a sense library users “check out” electronic copies of books or articles when they track down items in a research database (after using a library card to log in). Though web-based research databases, such as InfoTrac (Gale), have been around since the late 90s, I suspect your average person has no idea what one is, not to mention how to search one effectively—or why they would even want to bother.
While most current traditionally published materials—books and journal articles—are not freely available on the open web, people seem to shrug at the thought. They’ve become experts at using Google. They always find enough anyway, so what’s the point? Indeed, surfing the open web makes us feel smart and in command. We know what we’re doing! Critical thinking is something instructors talk about. That’s Greek to me. I cringe at the vast body of work that may end up being discarded in the name of ease. This work is currently available in libraries and research databases.
If we as a society don’t make more of an effort to think about how information is created, why it was created, where it is housed, not to mention how credible it is—we are all going to just talk at each other and stop going into any sort of in-depth analysis or deep learning. We’ve gotten in the habit of grabbing chunks of texts off the open web—chunks of text that fit in with the way we see it. Then we throw them at each other. We don’t often bother to evaluate the stuff we find, though most people do understand what goes into the open web. Most people know a good percentage of this information is junk and nattering.
I shouldn’t have to say it: many editors and publishers try to bring out work that is carefully vetted. Of course, traditionally published sources can be erroneous or biased, but odds are the overall quality of the sources available in a research database, such as Academic Search Premier (EBSCO), is going to be much higher than the results of your average Google search. Special note to Google: I’m not picking on you. I love you as much as everyone else. I just think people need to know when you are the best way to go and when you are not. That last line is my concession—a roundabout way of saying we need to learn how to effectively mine the open web, too.
But I digress. I want people to set the open web aside for a moment and consider what research databases have to offer. I suspect one reason the word database is not bantered about in mainstream consciousness is that K-12 teachers are behind on information literacy. Yes, they are using the open web with their students. They might even be teaching their students how to evaluate the sources they find there. But they are probably not teaching them when they might want to choose a research database over a Google search.
Research databases are expensive. Not a lot of K-12 schools subscribe to them. Besides, many schools no longer have librarians to fight for what is currently possible with online research (and there are a lot of exciting changes, folks). Case in point: when I begin a workshop with my community college students, I often poll the class to learn how many of them have ever used a research database. Unless I’m working with a more advanced group, I rarely see many hands.
It doesn’t have to be this way! Our students should be taking to research databases with ease and using them to thrive. While kids love to feel like they are great at using Google, they could no doubt find a similar self-esteem boost over searching a research database. It just takes more effort to show them how to use research databases well.
So how can our K-12 teachers demonstrate database searching when they are strapped for resources? Public libraries could step up to the plate by offering a robust set of databases for their user districts. That way there could be one set of databases for an entire city and all of its K-12 schools.
Another solution could involve alliances between community college libraries and K-12 schools. This may seem outside of your average community college library mission. Yet if our students were exposed to research databases in middle school or high school—or even upper elementary school, college instructors would have it easier. College students could then put more effort into improving their reading and writing—instead of scrambling to learn how to track down sources worthy of academic research.
It goes without saying, you can’t just put databases up on a library website and expect students to “get” them. In-depth training requires a commitment of time and resources. In the end, people must become convinced the general population needs to learn how to utilize web-based research databases. I challenge educators and librarians to turn database into a household word.