- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007

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. That same material online may lack some of those cues, she says.

“They grew up in the copy-paste generation,” she says. “They’re not quite sure about plagiarism. High school doesn’t cover the nuances.”

Sometimes, even an imperfect resource can provide just the right spark.

Arthuree Wright, associate director of Howard University’s Founders Library, embraces the impact of the Internet for finding information.

“It’s been a welcome change. People are seeking information,” Mrs. Wright says. “Curious minds at work can be potentially positive.”

At Howard, students can choose to take classes to help hone their researching abilities, Mrs. Wright says.

“Professors also request library sessions for their students,” she says. “Evaluating information on the Web is always a major component of the presentation.

Many of those lessons apply to traditional sources.

“You have to evaluate print information, too,” she says. “Critically evaluate it according to the authorship, the sponsorship, the content date.”

And don’t stop the research after the first effective discovery.

“Use more than one source,” she says, and make sure the sources substantiate each other. “That critical thinking is what we’ve been talking about for a long time.”

One area students often neglect is the OPAC, the Online Public Access Catalog, which links to a library’s print and digital resources.

“They’re far more sophisticated than they used to be,” she says.

Students aren’t alone in needing a few pointers in the ways of research.

Joyce MacDonald, reference librarian with the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville, says the people coming into her library take an overly generalized approach to finding information.

“If they want information about going to Costa Rica, they’ll start on the word ‘travel.’” Ms. MacDonald says.

When library users turn to the Internet for help, she advises them to consider the Web address in question.

“Check the domain name,” she says, adding that sites ending with .gov or .edu may be more reliable than a commercial site ending in .com. “Be aware of the agenda of the person’s site.”

Public libraries subscribe to a number of databases the public can access free, she says.

“The information is more likely to be accurate and indexed more carefully. The search terms more accurately reflect the content,” she says, unlike some online search engines that offer entries by their popularity.

Mrs. Wright says the best, least-tapped resource remains at every library, college or public, waiting to be asked.

“The real overlooked source is the librarian,” Mrs. Wright says.

“Use more than one source. That critical thinking is what we’ve been talking about for a long time.” Arthuree Wright, Howard University’s Founders Library

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