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Librarians Help Students Navigate Their Way to Correct Information

By John Fleck
Of the Journal
    When the psychology students poured into Gemma Morris' Eldorado High School library one recent morning, they headed straight for the books.
    Banks of computers sat unused as the students pawed over a stack of reference books Morris had laid out before their arrival.
    One of the only exceptions was Britny Rasinski, an 18-year-old senior.
    What was she looking for on the computer? The names of books dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder. "I prefer books over the Internet," Rasinski said.
    Asked why, her answer was quick and firm. On the Internet, she said, "you don't really know who put it up or anything."
    By that time, Morris was across the library helping some other students find the books they needed. But if she had been standing there listening, she almost certainly would have smiled.
    Morris is no Luddite. There are 70 computers in her library, and she happily encourages students to use them for research. She has a reputation as one of Albuquerque Public Schools' most Internet-savvy librarians.
    "The Internet has opened up new worlds," Morris said as she showed a visitor around the Eldorado High School library.
    But what worlds are they? And how can you tame the Internet beast, turning a networked computer into a useful research tool?
    That is the problem school librarians like Morris face as they deal with the onslaught of tech-savvy students eager to sit down and type the first thing that comes to mind into the Google search engine.
    Consider an example from Manzano High School librarian Heather Dahl: A student sits down at a school library computer and types "global warming" into Google.
    The first thing that pops up? A link to a Web site called "GlobalWarming.org."
    That's the moment Dahl starts worrying.
    The Internet offers access to a staggering array of information about global warming. Some of it is by scientists, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Some of it is posted by advocacy groups, trying to win readers over to their particular political perspective on the issue.
    What, exactly, is this "GlobalWarming.org"? Scroll down to the bottom, and in the right hand corner you find the disclaimer that the site "is sponsored and produced by CEI"— the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative organization with a vocal political stand on issues surrounding climate change.
    In other words, it is not the sort of place to start when you are looking for unbiased explanations, said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist who works on public communication of global warming. He called it "a classic disinformation site," a "science-free zone."
    So what is a student researcher to do?
    To start with, Morris steers students to Web databases purchased by the school, which give students access to information that has been independently vetted for its reliability.
    One, for example, contains published essays offering opposing viewpoints on controversial questions. Others provide access to academic journals.
    The idea is to steer students at the start toward reliable sources, Morris explained.
    She also tries to give students tools to help them evaluate what they do find on the open Internet.
    A handout she gives her students encourages them to ask basic questions about who wrote things they find on the Internet, what the writers are saying and why.
    A simple technique she recommends is to "triangulate"— verify Internet information from three independent sources.
    And always, there are the books, lovingly catalogued in the shelves that surround the library's computers.
    "There's validity in still having books," Morris said.
    Tips for Young Researchers
  • Start with books. School libraries generally have computer-based card catalogs to help you find what you are looking for.
  • Use the library's in-house resources. Most school libraries have special computerized collections, which give access to academic journals and other publications that have been vetted for quality.
  • If you use an Internet search engine like Google, pay close attention to who wrote what you are reading. Anyone can post anything they want on the Internet. One trick: Look at the three-letter ending of the site's Internet address. Sites that end in ".edu" are generally colleges and universities, while ".gov" is the government.
  • Ask who posted the information on the Internet and why? Is it a dispassionate researcher, or a political advocate trying to convince you of their point of view? Do they have a reasonable claim to expertise, like being a university scientist?
  • Don't jump to the conclusion that the first thing you read is correct. Check it against independent sources.
  • Cite your sources. Let your teacher know where your information came from. And never cut and paste someone else's words. That is called plagiarism and is always wrong.
        -- SOURCE: School librarians