A ninth grader recently came in to meet with me for some personalized advice about finding resources for his Freshman Research Paper (lovingly referred to as the “FREP”). I helped him think about his topic and various methods of finding good, quality sources. I showed him ways to search using various search terms and search methods, pointing him to two or three different likely library subscription databases. At one point, together we found the perfect article within a database and used the “send to me” function to send the citation directly to his email.
That evening, he emailed me requesting that I send him the full-text of the article. I could have found it in a minute, and sent it even faster, but I didn’t.
Here’s what I sent him instead: a reminder about how to get to the online library resources page via our community portal MyGDS, the names of the two databases we’d used and a reminder of why they were good choices for his needs, and the honest answer that I didn’t remember which search terms in which combinations we’d finally landed on to find this particular article, but could he remember some of the strategies we used?
Why didn’t I just send him the article?
In many library contexts, getting the right information into the user’s hands as fast as possible is the ultimate goal. The popular argument goes like this: online search engines get people their answers fast, making today’s youth accustomed to immediate gratification… so if libraries are going to compete, librarians also need to make it as fast and easy as possible to get to those authoritative, scholarly, reliable sources we promote.
But I’m not just a librarian. I’m a GDS librarian, which means that I’m a teacher, too. A teacher who—let me quote our school mission—“encourages our students to… be self-reliant, laying the foundation for a lifelong love of learning.” And that means I question, with every single reference question: what is this student going to learn from this?
If this 14-year-old is going to grow up to be the resourceful, ethical, self-starting lifelong learner we hope he’ll be, he needs to practice his information-seeking skills. He needs to understand why search engines aren’t always going to be the best search method, and experience the let-down (or the poor grade!) if he chooses to rely on open internet sources alone. He needs to think through what he’ll find where, and why some search terms are more effective than others. He needs to get in the habit of using a library in the same way he will when he’s no longer at GDS, when he has to seek quality resources available from other providers.
There’s a proverb whose provenance is attributed to ancient China: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” So, in a manner of speaking, this is my job: teaching our students how to fish.