Sunday, January 20, 2013

This is what happens when you require certain types of sources

During lunch on Saturday a student came up to me to ask me about sources he wanted to use for a project.

Student: You know how on Wikipedia they list their sources on the bottom of the page? Is it okay to use those?
Me: Of course. That's how research works--you see what sources other people are using when they research similar topics and then you use those sources for your own research.
Student: So I can cite a book even if I haven't seen it?
Me: Wait, what?
Student: There's a book on my topic in the references on Wikipedia, and I want to cite it in my bibliography.
Me: Even though you've never read any of the information in the book, or even seen it?
Student: Yeah.
Me: No.

And then we talked about how to get to our Biography databases and other places to look for actual information, and then I sat down and banged my head against the table for a while and then ate my lunch.

I often hear other librarians get frustrated with teachers who require that students have X number of print sources (particularly when they won't accept digital content as meeting that requirement) and I occasionally share those frustrations (though anytime I have approached a colleague with concerns about such requirements, every last one of them has been receptive and flexible). Selecting sources based on container rather than content seems counterintuitive.

But I also understand why teachers have those requirements, and the goals they're trying to accomplish make sense to me.

Sometimes consulting a print book is the best possible starting point for a student simply because the information in there is limited. Even the largest book is puny compared to a list of search results on Google. The table of contents and index of a book are far easier to navigate and interpret than most database search result--and learning how to navigate a table of contents and index is helpful when it comes to understanding how other types of searches work. And yes, students need to learn how to navigate all kinds of search results, but those aren't necessarily the skills they need to be focusing on at every stage of every research process. 

More importantly, without the requirement of having to have a print book, or a database article, or any particular type of source, there are many students who would never even consult these resources.Without (seemingly arbitrary) requirements, many students would not push themselves out of their comfort zones when researching. They'd simply stick with the resources and formats that they've always used. And good research strategies and skills are, in many ways, about moving out of your comfort zone; most of us don't leave our comfort zone easily, and those requirements can help pull students out of theirs.
But sometimes the sources that meet the requirements aren't the best sources for a project. Sometimes what I have in physical format in the library is inferior to what can be found online, through a database or a website. And sometimes a book on the library's shelves has the perfect bit of information that will become an "aha!" moment for a student.

This is one of those "easy to answer in an ideal world" questions for me. In an ideal world, there would always be the time, and structure, and support for students to consult a diverse array of sources before settling on the ones that best met their needs. Students would willingly move out of their comfort zone--or at least not actively resist.

But most of us don't work in that ideal world. There are limits to our time. There are limits to our resources. But we can nudge around the edges. We can encourage, and we can push, and we can cajole. We can challenge ourselves, and our colleagues, and our students to think broadly about what types of sources we use, and why. And at the very least we can be clear that someone else's Works Cited page can be an excellent source--but not one to copy and paste into your own.


  1. Ooh, I've just hit upon a wonderful money-making scheme! Students with research papers pay me to take whatever cockamamie thing they've written, fix the typos, and weave it into some otherwise official-looking online report. All I'll need to do is get my hands on a url such as Sure, teachers and librarians throughout the land will despise me, but I won't be able to hear them over all the cha-ching sounds I'll be making.

    Oh, and don't worry; I'll cite this blog post as a reference. (Inspiration, reference... whatever.)

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