Posted by: Emily | July 25, 2008

Is this an “online source”?

Summers are slow around these parts, and I will often go days without a single reference question. And then there are days like yesterday that come out of nowhere and totally surprise me: I had a line at my desk! Two eager information seekers were from a local high school, here to complete a summer research assignment for a fancy-pants science program they’re starting in the fall. There was a problem, I thought, with the assignment itself.

The students came to my desk and handed me a citation, asking if we had the journal in question. I kicked off my standard catalog-search rigamarole: Showing them where to access the catalog from our website, walking them through a JOURNAL TITLE, EXACT search, explaining how to read the holdings information to find out if we had the article they were looking for. Turned out we did, online, via Ebsco’s Academic Search Premiere and I hit ‘print’ with my standard theatrical flourish: Voila! No, no, no! they said, shaking their heads in despair. Finding the text wasn’t the problem. They’d already found the full-text of the article at another library. The problem was fulfilling the terms of the assignment. Each student was asked to choose a topic and then assemble a set of ten articles on the topic prior to the first day of class. In what I presume was an attempt to head off a folder filled with the first ten hits from a Google search, the assignment contained the injunction that only three of the articles could be “from online sources.” So the students were under the impression that they needed to get articles from print journals only, despite the fact that the article we were holding was by all accounts exactly what the teacher was likely to be looking for: From a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, an example of recent scholarship, and relevant to the student’s topic. As I started to explain what I thought the teacher was trying to get at–the distinction between web sources and scholarly sources–a faculty member joined our conversation. Maybe I should hear this? she said.

So my question: We are aggressively shifting our print journals to digital just as soon as we can, like most everybody else. The standard rule faculty use to make sure students use library resources–“only three online sources”–is confusing and in conflict with the rapid digitization of scholarly materials, especially in the sciences. Any strategies for explaining this to students, to faculty, to ourselves?



  1. I face this problem in the public library children’s department, too. Indeed, it’s extremely confusing to people. I think the biggest problem is that patrons don’t understand so-called “research databases”, period. Any time you start talking about databases, digital resources, peer-reviewed blah blah blah, etc., you venture into what is, unfortunately, LIS Jargonland. When I’m explaining Proquest, Infotrac, etc., to 10-year-olds and their parents, I just tell them that what they pull up on the research station is *exactly* what they’d find in the magazine if we had room to keep the magazine at the library, and that the articles are *not* ones they will find via Google on the Internet. Which is usually, almost, sort of true. It’s a fuzzy topic to explain, especially as more journals are offering archived material through their websites, some restricted to subscribers, some free to the public.

  2. “*exactly* what they’d find in the magazine if we had room to keep the magazine at the library.”

    I love this, Lisa! I’m scribbling it and storing it away in my bag of explanations. Thanks!

  3. Sometimes, when I don’t feel like explaining anything, I might just say that the instructor will never know the difference, and then the students may start to question on their own the real purpose of limiting online sources. Problem solved. But mostly I just say what Lisa says.

    I suspect that some people might see the difference between online and print sources as akin to the difference between store-bought and farm-picked produce. Limiting online sources, to them, may not be about the quality of the information obtained but about the actual process of harvesting it, perhaps in order to instill one with a hardy research ethic. But who knows?

  4. Or maybe it has less to do with the attempt to instill a hardy research ethic in students than with the acquiescence on the part of instructors to a labor theory of value, where the scholarly value of a source is determined by the cost of human labor in retrieving it. But with the retrieval of online sources, in the larger picture the cost might be the same, except that it’s been externalized to laborers in the tech industry and so on.

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