Do I Have To Go To The Library?
March 11, 2006 4:53 PM   Subscribe

When do students need to go to a library? I'm writing a lesson plan for teachers to use when teaching research to middle schoolers. Most kids probably figure the internet is the ultimate source for research, and wonder why anyone would bother going to the library. I'm trying to answer that question: this is what I have so far.

Go to the library when:
You need help
•Defining your topic
•Finding a place to start
•Determining which research sources work best or are most accurate

The assignment demands it
•Many assignments require a mix of sources

Controversy makes reliability questionable
•Printed materials are often more reliable than those found on the internet

The subject matter is most often found in printed magazines and journals
•Science and social sciences
•Some are available online but most aren’t; this is likely to change over time

What am I missing?
posted by carterk to Education (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it's much simpler than this. When I'm writing something, I owe it to my subject to check all available sources. The day "all available sources" are available online, I'll quit going to the library. Currently, there's tons of stuff that isn't online. So I have to go to the library (and elsewhere) to find it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:02 PM on March 11, 2006

It's my opinion that the internet is pretty bad for plain research. There's wikipedia and then what? You can Google for stuff and what you get back is even less reliable then wikipedia.

I'd focus on the unreliability aspect of internet material. Just don't let the students turn in stuff that they simply researched online, and require a bibliography that includes more then just URLs.
posted by delmoi at 5:07 PM on March 11, 2006

May I respectfully suggest approaching the question from a different angle?

The question isn't when to go to the library or for what exactly. Information is where you find it. While a library may contain something more or better than online, the medium -- bits or pages -- is ultimately irrelevant.

The real question is the credibility and thoroughness of the information. Clearly, a printed medical journal carries more weight than "Dave's Cancer Homepage." An encyclopedia offers more quality research on endangered species than both your favorite green party Web site or a PR stunt funded by an oil company.

Might the lesson plan include a section on critical thinking skills and recognizing reliable sources of information?

Or is this too advanced for a middle school audience?
posted by frogan at 5:22 PM on March 11, 2006

"The real question is the credibility and thoroughness of the information. Clearly, a printed medical journal carries more weight than "Dave's Cancer Homepage." An encyclopedia offers more quality research on endangered species than both your favorite green party Web site or a PR stunt funded by an oil company."

frogan: While this is true, if you check the legitamate internet pages (PubMed, researchers' websites, etc) you'll find something much better than library journals which, at best are a week out of date, at worse, years out of date. And for something like cancer it changes that fast.

However, for things like history or maybe say engineering, things might change at a slower pace. (Of course, I know zip about those two subjects, so feel free to correct.)

I really think the library is just mainly a good place to start looking. See what the historical sources have to say, and then go to the internet and the current stuff.
posted by ruwan at 5:27 PM on March 11, 2006

Go to the library when:

Your work matters. When you want to be sure that you've gotten it as right as possible instead of lazily reasserting whatever rumors and lies you first stumbled across on the internet. Your work might matter when:
(1) It matters inherently, as it will in many professions.
(2) When others insist that you treat it as if it matters and require you to use a mix of sources.
(3) When you have enough pride to not want to look like a complete idiot to the person reading your work.

I would pair this with a discussion of why the review and vetting processes of reputable presses and journals are valuable to the researcher, even a casual researcher, along with a cautionary example if you can find one.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:28 PM on March 11, 2006

You might try to teach what makes a reliable webpage (beyond "only .gov or .edu addresses"). Teach them to use their instincts and show them some reliable sources for various things, like specialized search engines or good webpages/portals for different subjects. From my own high school experience, I know the library is useful for accessing paid databases of scientific articles, for instance. Teach them about library resources in their area, like community college libraries and inter- library loans. They're most likely reaching the age where their teachers will start telling them encyclopedia level information is not good enough for research projects, so teach them what comes after that. It's hard to find the middle ground between stuff that's too complicated for high school and elementary level stuff; I had major problems finding a science research project idea that wasn't "make a potato battery", but didn't involve expensive laboratory equipment.
posted by MadamM at 5:31 PM on March 11, 2006

I tend to ask about obscure topics so librarian has ever been able to help me with research. Maybe they can help the kiddies, but I'd hesitate on your first section.

But a real simple thing you're missing: any material from any book. You get what, 10 pages tops from Amazon, and another 10 from Google Books, if either has bothered to scan the book. Plus publishers can block whatever material they want from online access. Maybe it's just me, but I haven't seen any photos, graphs or maps on Google Books or Amazon either.

Also, pretty much any journal from the early 90s or before isn't online, but are available in the stacks.
posted by raaka at 5:31 PM on March 11, 2006

The credibility of information is important to me. The concentration of credible information is a lot higher in a library than it is on the internet. That said, there are pools of credible information on the internet. If I were a teacher and somebody listed a reference as "I got it on the internet" they'd have to redo their report. If the reference was, as an example, The Journal of Solid-State circuits which is published on the internet but is also a well respected peer reviewed periodical I wouldn't have a problem.
posted by substrate at 5:33 PM on March 11, 2006

Many library websites contain electronic versions of journals & databases that can be accessed with one's library card which would otherwise be "pay very steep prices for access". Very useful when you need to quote high-falutin' journal & it's not on the shelf. It's an issue a lot of librarians run into -- they point folks toward and show them how to use the electronic resources only to hear "we can't use stuff that's online." Frustrating because sometimes the databases of ejournals, etc. are where the most current content is failing the accessibility of the dead tree version of the journal.

That said, it's good to learn how to use the physical resources of a library as well because not every journal reprints full content online, and there are stacks and stacks of books (in the free standing shelves as well as the reference section) where the content is also likewise not available online. If you're learning how to do research, you need to learn how to access both the physical and electronic content available, learn about authority control, and who better to help you with all that than a real, live librarian?
posted by susanbeeswax at 5:34 PM on March 11, 2006

Thanks for your thoughtful responses. Since these are middle schoolers, I'm assuming most would need to have their arms twisted to leave their bedrooms, and that that while they might understand the basics of why some sources are more reliable than others, their ability to truly care has not yet fully developed.

The first part of my lesson plan reviews some reasons one might want to do casual research (most of which could be done quickly and reasonably with Google): curiosity (who was this Bruce Lee guy?), to find background information, or to answer a specific question (what is the speed of sound?). I'm comfortable recommending to kids that they use the internet for these kinds of questions- now I'm looking to tell them when 5 minutes and a search engine won't cut it.
posted by carterk at 5:38 PM on March 11, 2006

I've been on my undergrad maths course for a year and a half now, and am yet to even step into the library. Pretty much everything I need can be found on the internet, but then I guess that might be different if I was an English student.
posted by Orange Goblin at 5:38 PM on March 11, 2006

Try Clifford Stoll's "Silicon Snake Oil" for an amusing collection of arguments about the inferiority of online resources.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:45 PM on March 11, 2006

I am an academic reference librarian and half of my job is explaining to college students why they should use the library rather than simply Google it from their dorm rooms. I think it's important for students of all ages to understand that librarians are trained in using and explaining online and electronic resources as well as print ones. Even if someone is bound and determined only to use web resources for their research, 9 times out of 10 I can help them search better, faster and more efficiently, because I have have the training, experience and professional google-fu.
posted by Biblio at 7:01 PM on March 11, 2006

Go to the library when you want to talk to a librarian.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:05 PM on March 11, 2006

1. The value of a reference librarian can not be understated. An interesting exercise might be to pick a topic and have students propose the types of queries that they'd use to search for references, and compare it with queries devised by librarians. If you pick a clever example (perhaps one that refers to a city that has changed its name or one in which the obvious query would pull up lots of junk), you may be able to convince them of the power of reference librarians.

2. Books. If you want to include quotes from books, you can have a hard time finding them on the web. Articles are more likely to be downloadable.

3. Older hard copy source material that hasn't been indexed online.
posted by i love cheese at 8:39 PM on March 11, 2006

reliable, authorative information can be found in the library.
libraries employee people like biblio who are trained and knowledgeable professionals, skilled at helping people find what they need (and help them help themselves).
Students today need critical thinking skills to process the crazy amount of information out there.
3 cheers for the library!
posted by TheLibrarian at 8:41 PM on March 11, 2006

Go to the library when you want to talk to a librarian.

Or just when you need to find resources. That includes non-digital resources, and digital resources. The latter is important not only because they've got subscriptions to expensive journals and databases, but because librarians are trained to figure out what you're really looking for, suggest where you need to look, and teach you how to get to it.

Putting aside the authority issue entirely, it is the case that people usually over-estimate their ability to find things online. Witness as evidence the number of AskMetafilter questions that begin with the words "My GoogleFu has failed me!". Most of these questions can in fact be answered with a proper Google query, but they give the lie to the notion that search engines have made everyone an expert in doing research. It's helpful to get a second opinion, at any rate.
posted by Hildago at 8:43 PM on March 11, 2006

The nasty big secret of the Internet is:

Search sucks.

As a strategy, typing putatively non-random strings into query engines over large indexes with obscure and frequently changed ranking algorithms might not be optimal for arriving at guaranteed shortest path access to information. In contrast, for libraries with open stacks, the Dewey Decimal System is revelatory. Online catalogs are so useful, that if there were one for the Internet, Google would be forgotten by all the cool kids in a week. 'Cause ya see kids, with a catalog, you can know, lickety split, what the library doesn't have, whereas, with Google and the Internet, you can't ever really know whether the Internet didn't contain what you were looking for, or whether you are just too dumb to find it.

So, mostly, Google makes you feel dumb, and the library makes you smart.
posted by paulsc at 12:21 AM on March 12, 2006

I had a political science professor who devoted most of a class to learning how to use the library. There is a who lot of sources in a good library that many of us are not familiar with with out an introduction.

I love the internet, but the trouble with a lot of the info you find there is that there is no providence. A lot of times you will come across good info and not be able to find who the author is. Also, I am an old goat, but I can't imagine many college professors being real impressed with a paper whose only citations come from the internet. Than is almost worse than using World Book!

Finally, there are usually lots of pretty girls in the library which makes it far more enticing than a cramped dorm room. Even, if the kids are only in middle school, knowing how to use the tools in the library will help you be less of a "tool" when you get to college. That was bad, I know :)
posted by phewbertie at 3:06 AM on March 12, 2006

You've got a school librarian? Talk to them and see what they think. Or talk to the reference librarians at your local public library. Basically, talk to whoever's going to be serving the library/librarian function for your students.

A lot of the answers above seemed skewed to the academic library, and might not be appropriate for your middle school audience. Talk to the librarians who are used to dealing with that audience.

And try to not to draw too strong a boundary between print and online resources, or even resources available on the public web and other resources that are privileged. As others have noted above, there are credible works to be found online. And for some of the types of questions your students ask them, the librarian may very well be going to google and accessing resources on the public web. The trick is learning to evaluate them. I have a friend who turns this into a little skit in her class: Famous Physicist says a basketball in motion will do xyz; Famous Basketball Player says a basketball in motion will do abc; who do you believe?; if you're not sure, how do you try to figure out who's right, where do you go to do research? In other words, seconding frogan and others above, but making it a game of sorts.

(The twist is that both the Famous Physicist and the Famous Basketball Player have given correct but incomplete answers.)
posted by Carol O at 3:46 AM on March 12, 2006

hey carterk I have some research articles on information seeking that involves looking at students searching the web vs other methods.
One of them has some practical suggestions for online web assignments. They maybe a a little more than what you need but if you want to back it up wih research, let me know.
posted by TheLibrarian at 5:54 AM on March 12, 2006

Years ago, when I was teaching a (theatre) Directing class, I taught a unit on research. As an assignment, I wrote down a big list of questions (in my case, historical questions based around a Shakespeare play) and the students had to find the answers.

I would have accepted answers from any source -- as-long-as the answers were correct. But there was no reasonably way that the answers COULD be retrieved anywhere except in the library. (I went to the library when I was making up the assignment and did the research myself.)

I recommend you do something like this. Let them TRY to do the research online if they want. One gains an instant respect of libraries when one finds they are the only means of success.

The fun thing about an assignment like this is you van make the questions very rich and varied. Include visual questions -- the answers would be in an art book or a symbol dictionary; questions about obscure news events from long ago (microfiche); questions about a recording that isn't on DVD; etc. Most people don't know the great variety of materials are in most libraries's collections.
posted by grumblebee at 6:26 AM on March 12, 2006

A good school-library relationship is important. Once that's established (the library is aware of school lesson plans and assignments), then the best reason for a student to go to the library would be "it is equipped to make your work easier and get you a better grade."
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:58 AM on March 12, 2006

I would have accepted answers from any source -- as-long-as the answers were correct. But there was no reasonably way that the answers COULD be retrieved anywhere except in the library. (I went to the library when I was making up the assignment and did the research myself.)
I recommend you do something like this. Let them TRY to do the research online if they want. One gains an instant respect of libraries when one finds they are the only means of success.

This is exactly what I was going to say. Pick a topic where they'll get bad information on the internet and good information from the library. A lot of them will refuse to absorb the lesson, because they're young and lazy, but at least some of them will get the picture.

It always amazes me that anyone over high-school age could think for a minute that "it's all out there on the internet." I look around me and see hundreds of books in my office, each with hundreds of pages and thousands of pieces of information, and very few of those pieces of information are available on the internet. It would be easy for me to come up with dozens of topics about which there is little or nothing available on the internet, and how could it be otherwise? We've had centuries to churn out books on every conceivable subject, and just a few years to create the internet. Yeah, there's a lot out there, but it's heavily weighted towards topics that interest geeks: movies, pop music, trivia, and of course pr0n. Want to know how the "equitable fields" system of taxation influenced the expansion of the Chinese empire, or learn an obscure language? Read a book.
posted by languagehat at 8:12 AM on March 12, 2006

Some random thoughts:

1) Have you defined "research" earlier in the unit? Is it a search for factual information only? A search for information that answers your question (which would depend on the question)? Something else?

2) "Middle school" is a broad range. The younger ones on the spectrum (generally fourth-graders who are 9 - 10 years old) still think more like younger elementary age children than they do older kids. Their abstract thinking skills are only beginning to be developed. They still need physical, hands-on experience with most concepts in order to form an internal representation of it.

Therefore, a visit to a library ought to be the FIRST stop for any research done at this age. They are already familiar with the library as a place to find information, and have learned the differences between fiction (pretend) and non-fiction (fact) books. Now you expand on the concept of "non-fiction" by introducing critical thinking - is this source really "fact" or is it "opinion presented as fact"? How can you tell?

Once you can look at and feel a physical item in your hands, and can be reasonably certain that you can or cannot trust its contents, then you can move on to research in the more abstract world of cyberspace.

3) Another point to consider is whether or not your intended audience has the computer skills to make Internet research as easy as library research. Most schools have a library, not all have a computer lab and/or Internet access. Will the teacher be spending her/his time teaching kids to use the Internet, or teaching them how to research using the Internet? Don't assume that all middle-schoolers know how to use the Internet. I would think it's a safe assumption that they all know how to get around in a library, however.

4) Also, (again, depending on the specific age of your audience) I think you can make a point about the right tool for the right job. IOW, you may go to the library for some answers, or the Internet for others, or a combination of both, depending on the situation. If the library is closed, you use the Internet. If you are at the library already, and all the Internet terminals are in use, you use the stacks. If you're looking for information in a magazine from the last year, the library is your place. If you want to find out who won last night's ball game, your first stop is the Internet.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:24 AM on March 12, 2006

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