What students (and often their teachers and their principals) don’t know about research and an enriching liberal education

By Adam F. RSS Wed, September 18, 2013

With the fall season upon us, students, their teachers, and their principals have recently returned to school.  In the School District of Philadelphia, each of those groups face immense uncertainty about the future.  As do students and educators across the United States and Mexico. Despite these myriad challenges, librarians want to offer each group the same support for excellence in local term papers that we always have.  

Let us take a tour of the library services, collections, and expertise we have to offer which support students as they take their first steps into the conversations of the global scholarly community:

Encyclopedias and other reference books

By now, most students probably are savvy enough to start their research into a topic about which they know nothing by consulting an encyclopedia.  While the open and democratic editorial structure of Wikipedia is inspiring in its breadth, we often see students use it uncritically and in an unsophisticated way.  Even those who know not to plagiarize brazenly from Wikipedia, don’t know how difficult it is to find an appropriate way to make use of its crowd-sourced articles in their writing.  Librarians can teach your students to see Wikipedia articles in their rough context as akin to the research paper itself.  Just like student writing, it’s only as good as the citations and the clarity of argument, and useful only within in a limited extent.  In other words, at its best Wikipedia approaches the research and writing quality of professionally edited encyclopedia.  However, quality can dip below what would get most high school students an F if submitted as a short reaction paper.

Fortunately, the Free Library also subscribes to several superior electronic encyclopedias, and we can teach you and your students how to use them:

Gale Virtual Reference Library

GVRL is a suite of electronic encyclopedias across the disciplines.  But we also subscribe to multiple subject specialist encyclopedias:

Oxford Art Online

Biography in Context

Student Search: General Encyclopedia

Oxford Music Online (Includes Grove Music Online)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Opposing Viewpoints in Context

Electronic encyclopedias represent only the tip of the encyclopedic iceberg.  At the Central Library (and most branches), the various departments maintain deep print collections of discipline specific encyclopedias which will give your students the best background on a topic they’re considering for exploration.  Through the articles within, students will likely find citations to chase.  Or they will encounter a sensible framework by which to understand the paramaters of conversations on a topic. Most disciplines also have their own additional “reference works” that assist the researcher beyond basic encyclopedic overviews, but please come pay us a visit to consult your friendly librarians in order to learn to use them.

Newspapers, historic and current

At this point, some savvy students will understand that when they Google a current events topic, some of the results will come from newspapers, especially if they search using Google News. Unfortunately, the surface web being but the shallow surface, students are only going to find content from newspapers not behind paywalls.  Or worse, they’ll find articles from third-rate papers with audiences or communities not relevant to their topic.

Fortunately, the Free Library subscribes to several robust newspaper databases offering full-text paywall-free access to more authoritative sources in the global press.  In some cases, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer or Daily News our subscriptions include well over 30 years worth of each papers’ publishing run.  In other cases, we have database to cover historical newspapers from the colonial period through reconstruction.  What about the gaps between 1880 and 1980?  In those cases, departments at the Central Branch often have “clippings files” as do some excellent local university special collection libraries.  These verticle file indexes are collections of articles cut out from newspapers and arranged by subject matter, often with other pamphlets and historical ephemera.  Or in other cases we’ve maintained electronic or print indexes to the stories appearing in the news.  Without these tools, there is no way to access "history's first draft".

Academic Journals and their indexes

Perhaps the main reason to teach students the skills of researching and writing term papers is that it is the journeyman vehicle by which students take their first steps into the global scholarly conversation.  If high school students don’t learn the role of peer-reviewed journals in those conversations, they will not be prepared to enter college.  It's crucial that teachers assigning research papers involve a librarian in teaching these skills to the college bound. 

Even those not destined for college need to understand from where knowledge about our world comes.  It emerges from a scientific process of inquiry as mediated by peers in a tug between consensus and new discoveries.  Your students might find articles from the scholarly press, but only the tiniest sliver of this publishing world, by searching the free and open surface-web. The Free Library of Philadelphia can introduce them to a host of article databases which will open up a far richer world of writing on assigned topics.  Or if Google Scholar has led them to a decent citation, let the Free Library help them avoid paying outrageous article fees through a combination of our database subscriptions and Interlibrary Loan:

Books, and the good old Dewey Decimal Classification System

Chances are without the advantages of access to school libraries or school librarians students have not been introduced to one of the tools that makes a professionally run library so powerful: Classification.  Our arrangement of books on the shelves is a robust faceted system that allows the entirety of human knowledge published in book (and other forms) to be discoverable in increasingly specific subdivisions and specialties.  That’s a mouthful.  The bottom line is: The discovery of one book on a topic usually leads to the discovery of other useful books next to it on the shelves.  The Dewey Decimal Classification System provides the addresses that make this map of human understanding of the world sensible.   The serendipitous discoveries of browsing shelves arranged this way are not to be underestimated or fully superseded by hypertextuality or the machine algorithms of the Internet.

Browsing, however, is insufficient.  Students also must learn to use a catalog to harness the power of ideas both across disciplines and across library collections.  Not only is every branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia linked by a free system of “intralibrary loans”, but rather the majority of English language libraries are linked by a free system called “Interlibrary Loan.”  A well-designed course will give students who will be writing research papers ample and early warning that they should make Interlibrary Loan requests early in the semester, so that their books are available in time for the assignment.

Most students also don’t know that many books are indexed.  Thus they are unaware that the nature of the assignment might not require that they read the whole work, but rather that they use the index to find the relevant sections which address their own topic.  As long as they understand that context matters and learn to read efficiently within a work, they need not be defeated by hundreds of pages of text. Without these skills, it’s a safe bet they haven’t been introduced to bibliographies, chasing notes, or any myriad of other useful appendixes at the back of the book.

The Internet

What can we say about the surface web, that won’t be dated the moment we publish this posting?  Plenty!  When we talk to students, we try to teach them to think like a scholar:  Who published this?  How credible of an authority is this author?  Which perspectives do they represent? Who is the audience?  When was this published or updated?  And for what purposes?  

Search engines evolve as does the ICANN domain naming system, but for the moment, many students are unaware that they can build advance searches that limit results to specific top level domains.  Do they know that you the teacher will respect a government publication over a blog post by an amateur?  Or that the non-profit industrial complex also produces interesting reports and perspectives, but the challenges of identifying bias are greater?  Or finally, some open publishing in academia can be a fruitful source of authoritative information.

Students who think they’re experts in searching for what they want, don’t know that they are not experts at searching for what you want: a well-understood and appropriate source for citations within a larger student-driven analysis or voice.  We  teach how to search the surface web as an expert would, much the way we teach students how to search the scholarly deep web.  Just ask us.


First and foremost, students should know that the libraries, that librarians lovingly cultivate, are designed to be liberating spaces for curious independent learners while simultaneously opening a window on the totality of human achievements in attempting to understand our universe and ourselves.  Students or former students who may otherwise feel constrained by the increasingly narrowing focus of schools will find that libraries truly are welcoming people’s universities.  Librarians are committed to their mission: to advance literacy, guide learning, and inspire curiosity for all residents of their communities.  We are eager for you to join us in the thrilling wonder of discovery.

Principals should know that municipal librarians (professors in these people’s universities) can be available to visit faculty meetings to discuss integrating the above broad set of resources into the local curriculum.  We are expert teachers of information literacy (to staff as well as students) embedded within each community and so are worth inviting. They should also know that it is possible to arrange for class visits to the Free Library of Philadelphia’s extensive system for the purposes of supporting student learning, improving school projects and attending the additional enrichment programming that we organize.  Just ask.  One word of caution though: all of this is no substitute for certified School Library Media Specialists (I.E. Teacher-Librarians) who are responsible for the K-12 library curriculum.  The public library cannot fully replace what ought to be a cumulative 13 years of library curricula.

Teachers should know that librarians are available for consultations on the assignment of the best print and electronic materials relevant to your lesson plans.  We also can guide you and your students in utilizing the best methods and practices in literacy, discovery, project based learning, and research.  You can visit our libraries, and often we can visit your classrooms.  We'd especially like to talk with you prior to assigning summer reading.  Again, Just ask

To all students and pedagogues, we wish you much strength and success in the face of the moral, political, and structural crises you are facing this year.

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