Unplugging RESEARCH Internet Searches Overshadow but Don't Supplant the Reliability, Need for the Traditional Library

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

Unplugging RESEARCH Internet Searches Overshadow but Don't Supplant the Reliability, Need for the Traditional Library


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

George Mason University librarian Jamie W. Coniglio laughs when recalling how she helped a business student one day during a campuswide blackout.

"I told him, 'We'll just do it the old-fashioned way,' " says Mrs. Coniglio, head of the reference department at Fenwick Library. "I showed him how to look up journals and find the old abbreviations for them."

The student looked puzzled and asked her, "How could you ever go to school this way?"

Information may be just a Google search away for today's students, but quality research demands more than just a mouse click.

Universities are particularly concerned that students don't lean too hard on the ultimate database, the World Wide Web.

But whether information is gleaned online or after dusting off a stack of weathered tomes, some basic tenets of research remain vital.

At George Mason, students sharpen their research skills primarily through two required English courses that nudge them into the school's libraries. A separate history class also emphasizes strong research methods.

Many universities and colleges are trying to incorporate research instruction into their curriculum, rather than offer lessons based solely on library trips.

Teaching such skills without dovetailing the material with current projects doesn't work nearly as well, she says.

"The kids will get lost or their eyes will glaze over," she says.

For some students, if the information "is not in their top five Google search, they move on," she says.

Professors are starting to stipulate on the class syllabus that they don't want information gleaned off the Web.

"They want the intellectual curiosity of digging for what you can," she says.

That said, many offline publications and materials have their indexes online.

"Look at the Web as not the whole, or a piece of the whole, but as a window into more," she says.

Web access is one reason students get frustrated by the glacial pace of old-school research.

"Students have seen so many things accelerate over the years. They're conditioned to a very instant response. Research isn't necessarily an instant result," she says.

At George Mason they go far as to take the research to the students via a specially equipped cart that has Internet access and research materials. If the weather is nice and there are a lot of students outdoors, a librarian will bring the cart around campus for students to use in their studies.

Even surfing through databases can be a chore. At George Mason, students can access more than 500 different databases.

"You have to have some kind of game plan or strategy for approaching your topic," she says.

Robbin Zeff, an assistant professor of writing and a professional technology fellow at George Washington University, says all students at the Foggy Bottom university take a writing course steeped in research materials "no matter how wonderfully they did on their ACTs."

Students partner with a reference librarian as part of those courses to help guide their research.

"They're not the high school librarian who just says 'shush,' " Ms. Zeff says.

While modern students are adept at finding material online or at the library, they're less schooled in identifying credible sources and avoiding plagiarism. In the past, a student could examine an academic journal and judge its credibility by looking at the masthead and leafing through its pages. …

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