Off the Shelf

A library diary

How’s your Information Diet

I worked at this funky place in Newton, MA where they do academic research. It’s not a university, but it’s not your garden variety non-profit either. A lot of what they do is make connections –ones that other scholars haven’t previously. Some of them are off the wall. Some are actually pretty prescient. In any case, there’s a whole lot of research’n going on. Nine times out of ten, people who should know better are just trawling when it comes to information access. So I wrote the following post to address what I saw as a basic problem in approach. It’s largely fallen on deaf ears–what is it about academic types? Why do so many of them think they know how to use all these tools? Am I just too honest in admitting there are so many strategies they can make your head spin like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist? Anyway, this has become one of my cause célèbre and I’ve reproduced here for my pleasure and perhaps the poor soul who stumbles in here.

Jim Morris, Dean of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon West, says we’re all suffering from an overabundance of information, infobesity he’s called it. When someone recently asked me about the validity of articles uncovered in an EBSCOhost search, I initially answered that you could pretty much depend on what you retrieved from an aggregator database because it’s been vetted in some fashion: either it’s in a referred journal, a source you trust like the NYT or a government document. But in thinking about it further, I realize that question implies a much broader one: namely, what is research? And then I started thinking about what would happen if we all went on an information diet.

A die-hard, traditionalist might say that research isn’t supposed to be easy. “Research is a process of discovery in which we mine new information, sift through it, and ultimately discover the few gems we need” (Bell, 2004, Chronicle of Higher Education). I’m no troglodyte, and it strikes me that Web and Google in particular, have changed the face of research. What you do now is cast as wide a net as possible, dredge up as many full text resources as possible and then start wading through everything you’ve caught. In essence, you’re searching, not “researching.” But if you take the time to devise a sound search strategy before you go on the expedition, you’ll probably spend a lot less time browsing irrelevant results.

First, consider that if your goal is to produce quality research, you want quality sources and those may not be obtained by the “more is better” approach. Maybe what you should focus on is refining your question to its purest.

If this is all too abstract, I agree, so let’s assume the following example:

We have the idea that the way K-12 education reform is happening is unlike any other time in US history. Rather than top-down (e.g., from Administrative level to actual teacher), we believe with the proliferation of computer networks in school, the opposite is true: more and more reform comes from the bottom up (e.g., teachers devising strategies that work, sharing them with others until they reach the Administrative level).

So we want to know the number of school districts with intranets where curriculum resources are posted for teachers and students. We could try using EdWeek’s state report cards. But in thinking further, we realize we can refine the question “How many school districts have intranets on which curriculum resources are mounted for teachers and students” into 4 distinct queries:

  • How many districts are mounting/recommending Web sites for use in curriculum/professional development?
  • How many K-12 libraries are subscribing to databases for teachers/students to use for research?
  • Who is accessing & licensing streaming media or media rich instruction?
  • How many classroom Web pages are in use (i.e., Science Teacher has set of Web pages for his 8th grade class including links, curriculum and classroom/assignment schedule?

Now, we can cast the net (as in fishing) more precisely. In addition to the EdWeek source, we can also check states’ Department of Education sites. We might also try the library angle and look for information about the numbers of subscriptions to aggregator databases or even check K-12 Web sites to see what, if any links exist to library Web sites and what kind of recommendations the school librarians are making. Further, we can start a search of teacher-generated Web pages.

If you want to know about some of the search strategies we used, I’ll be happy to write them up. But once again, this is probably more than you wanted to know. Bottom line: The idea is to make all this electronification work for you. Otherwise, it’s like fishing with a telephone pole.

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