Some Thoughts for Library Lovers’ Month

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to information literacy programs, there is a tenacious, underlying sense amongst most people that the open web has superseded traditional library resources, even those available in research databases.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.

Is the research process actually easier these days?

Most people seem to feel the Internet has made research faster and easier. That might be true—for quick and dirty searches. However, writers wanting to ensure their sources are credible may be turning to flimsy websites in an attempt to get their work done.

I had the opportunity to contemplate this problem when I found myself trying to answer the question, “Are ovaries glands?” For the record, the word “gland” worked better in my rhyme scheme than the word “ovary.”

Like most modern people, I started with Google—actually plugging in this question, word for word. I could have just grabbed the Wikipedia article that appeared at the top of my list of search results. I was happy with the answer. Actually, the second hit also revealed a worthy answer, another Wikipedia article. My third hit came from WikiAnswers. provided the fourth. And the fifth site had heart: “Ovary Glands – Ova Achiever.” This site sells stuffed body parts. No joke.

Yes, I could have punted and trusted the information I found on Wikipedia, as it is often accurate. No doubt writers do this every day without reprisal. Yet most writers consider their art form to be a risky business. After all, we regularly put ourselves on the line, exposing our guts to the world in the form of poems, stories, articles, and ultimately books. The last thing we need is to get something wrong because we didn’t dig deeply enough to verify a certain point, as simple as that point may seem.

In any event, I make my living goading college students to think about where their sources are coming from. So I forced myself to move away from Google and try a research database (if you don’t know what a research database is, check out one of my soapbox lectures: The Information Landscape: Thinking About Research Databases).

For this question, I turned to the Gale Virtual Reference Library. It contains many of the reference books older folks once used in pre-Internet libraries. The contents of GVRL will vary from library to library, as librarians handpick the titles included in a particular subscription.

One great thing about this database is that it allows the user to run a keyword search on all of its titles simultaneously. This certainly becomes a faster process than spending time in the stacks browsing the indexes of one heavy tome after the next. However, there is a noticeable drawback. GVRL often contains a lot less titles than a typical print reference collection. FYI: print reference collections are still in existence—in case you miss the old system.

So I ran my search on GVRL, and I must admit the digging process felt clumsier (this time I entered the words, “ovaries” and “follicles”). Instead of locating a succinct answer to my question, I found myself wading through a number of articles packed with medical jargon. It felt like the information I needed was in there, but I wasn’t completely sure.

I tried eliminating the word “follicles,” but I pretty much ended up scanning the same murky details.

Finally, I decided to broaden my topic. I switched to the word, “gland.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science finally delivered an entry that set my mind at rest, “Other endocrine glands include the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands, the testes and the ovaries, the thymus gland, and the pituitary gland.”

I know, I know. Nobody wants to do this—especially your kids. Yet most writers put a lot of time and effort into developing their craft. They spend a lot money on workshops, MFA programs—books about writing. It’s a shame most people don’t bother to learn how to become competent researchers.

Where can I find a research database? 

Almost all college libraries subscribe to research databases. These search tools are often password protected, only available to students and college employees. However, some college libraries may allow walk-in use for the general public.

Many public libraries provide research databases for their users. Here are a few examples.

Works Cited

“Glands.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 1826. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.