Posted: November 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

I started middle school in 1996, just after Al Gore “invented” the Internet and before Google. There were a couple years in there where I was allowed to slip hastily made GeoCities pages found through a misguided HotBot search into a bibliography and get away with it.

As more and more people had access to the Internet (I went to a private school in a wealthy area, so by the time I was in 8th grade (1998) most families in my school had Internet access at home), teachers caught on to the fact that you can find a source claiming anything (true or false) on the Internet, which not only took away from the accuracy of the information we were presenting in our research papers, but also hurt our education of the research process.

Teachers started giving parameters for bibliographies in our research papers along the lines of “no Internet sources,” “at least one of your sources needs to be a book” and “you can only have one Internet source.” They taught us to divide sources between those accessed electronically and those accessed in print–electronic sources were unreliable and print sources were reliable, but there was no discussion of why.

Whenever I would write research papers in middle school, high school and early college (hopefully my old college professors are not reading this trying to figure out how to take away my bachelor’s degree, sorry!), I would poke around on the Internet for whatever information proved the point I wanted to make in the paper that was mostly written (at least in my head), write the paper, find a book on a similar subject and use the index to find something (anything!), usually taken out of context, that supported something I’d already written, just so that I had the required number of “books” to cite in my paper. In other words, the paper came first and the research came second.

So in the last ten or fifteen years since I started writing research papers with the minimum book source requirements, the Internet has grown up–it is a different animal and I kind of assumed that teachers would have changed a little, seeing as there actually are good Internet resources these days and in some cases, an electronic resource is the best or only version of some bits of information. It only makes sense that middle school and high school teachers would have dropped the whole focus of privileging information in print and disregarding electronic information in favor of teaching kids to sort through the good, the bad and the ugly of information in whatever format it exists. Isn’t learning how to research the whole point of research papers in middle and high school anyway?

So working in public libraries, I have figured out pretty quickly that that’s not the case at all. A week or so ago, a kid came in and asked me if I could help her find a book about soccer balls. More specifically, she needed a book about soccer balls of different sizes and which size rolls the fastest if you roll it down a ramp in a physics lab-type setting. I went into research mode and told her I would help her try and look for a database article on the subject, explaining that something that specific was more likely to be in article form if it existed at all. She said that no, it HAD to be a book. I didn’t want to come right out and say, “I guarantee you that no person has ever published a whole book about that, but the likelihood is high-ish that I could find a good article you could use,” but I was thinking it. I took her over to the appropriate part of the physics section and we found a book with a similar experiment involving a different type of ball (basketball? kickball? baseball? don’t look at me, I’m not a sports nut), but she insisted that it had to be soccer balls. I took her to the soccer section to look at books that dealt with different types of soccer equipment. I tried to get a little more information about her project. She then told me that she didn’t even care about the information in the book, she wasn’t going to read it, she just needed to cite it (not that I can judge too much, because that’s what I would have done as a kid too)! I finally persuaded her to take physics book with the basket/kick/baseball experiment, telling her that that was the best we were going to be able to find in our library.

We get stuff like this all the time–kids coming in needing weirdly specific information that has to be in a book, even when it’s the type of information that is more likely to be found in an article. Even when the kid is not likely to read the random, giant, dusty 8000000 lexile book we finally dig up on a somewhat related subject, whereas they probably actually would have read the much more pertinent journal article we could find. The kid would also likely learn something useful and relevant about research.

I’m not saying that kids should not know how to find and use books. I just wonder if a better and more useful approach to encouraging kids to use good sources would be to tell them that at least x-number of their sources need to be ones a librarian helped them find–that would force the kid to get into the library and actually engage in the searching process with someone who can help them distinguish good from bad, show them how to use databases (and that databases even exist), teach them to access the library as a point of research and hopefully inform their own independent research practices.

Just sayin’.


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