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Search Rescue

As a way to instill better research skills, a university librarian discusses innovative ways to move students--and faculty--beyond their reliance on Google.

With the advent of digital content and tablets, some pundits wrote off the library as a relic of a paper past. How wrong they were. Even as print wanes, libraries are probably more important than ever. This is not your father's library, though. Today's institutions are a reflection of the new technology and digital media, and the services we offer are a blend of book smart and tech savvy. For librarians such as myself, our responsibilities are actually expanding.

The reason is simple: The explosion of data online is putting a premium on being able to sort, search, and evaluate information critically. The campus library is ideally positioned to serve as both a comprehensive resource for authoritative information and the place where students can learn the skills needed to utilize that information.

Unfortunately, too many students--and too many faculty--believe that Google can serve as their guide to this new world. It's a misplaced confidence that threatens to undermine the quality and rigor of their intellectual inquiry. While internet searches have a valuable role to play, they can take students only so far. The challenge facing librarians today is to educate students about proper research techniques--and persuade faculty that they should not accept internet search engines as one-stop research tools. Given how ingrained this search habit has become, however, it is no small task.

As a result, I cannot afford to sit behind a desk and wait for students to stop by with research questions. As liaison librarian for engineering at Drexel University Libraries, I spend much of my time reaching out to student organizations, faculty, and other campus organizations to make sure that our students are well prepared for the demands of the engineering profession. I do this through extensive use of both social media and old-fashioned meetings and training.

Getting Beyond Google
While Google's ease of use and accessibility have made it a primary tool for research, it is important for students to understand that a simple search can also lead to misinformation. While accessible information is increasing exponentially, so is the challenge of finding what is relevant. 

Young scholars need to learn how to discern what is reliable and what is misleading. Too many students are citing inadequate sources, and it is the role of the librarian to teach students to find reliable sources, interpret them, and evaluate the quality of the information they present. Online scientific encyclopedias such as Thermopedia or AccessScience can help students discover the content they need to develop a solid background in specific subject areas. 

It's very difficult for students to access this data if they rely on traditional search engines alone, so we provide our students with valuable alternatives. Knovel, for example, provides students with access to a number of validated technical references. Using its simple data search tool, students can find specific properties of a particular material. Engineering Village gives students the ability to refine search results using facets so that they can find more relevant technical papers quickly.

Students don't arrive at Drexel with knowledge of these alternatives--or of Google's limitations--so it is up to us to teach them. The earlier we reach them, the better. I can't tell you how many times I have heard students say, "Wow, I wish I had known that sooner."

Drexel is still in the early stages of rolling out a comprehensive program to address this shortcoming, but the results and enthusiastic responses we have seen--from students, faculty, and fellow librarians alike--lead us to believe we're on the right track. By partnering with educators, researchers, and practitioners, libraries such as ours are able to collaboratively guide learners in and beyond the classroom. In the process, we contribute to their intellectual growth.

Key to our success to date is involving students, faculty, and staff as much as possible. I work hard to get on the agendas of student engineering groups and departmental planning meetings. I am now listed as a resource on the syllabi for several courses. We are enrolling graduate students to help train new students on these research tools and techniques. We're creating multimedia training content, and leveraging social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to reinforce our presence. More than 800 engineering students follow my updates in Facebook alone.

In addition, we plan to introduce a formal classroom-style training program for freshmen on engineering research skills. This will include online assessment to track our students' progress and more social media involvement.

Personal Librarians
Getting students into the library is the first step. Once there, however, many students find it rather overwhelming, with large stacks of physical items, numerous online databases, and many different types of staff. To help make this experience less intimidating, Drexel University Libraries established the Personal Librarian Program. Through this program, each freshman is automatically enrolled and assigned a librarian. Personal librarians teach students about the information resources and staff they need to succeed, not just in their freshman year but throughout their time at Drexel.  

The Library Learning Terrace, Drexel's newest library, was designed with this teaching mission as a central tenet. Located in the heart of the residence district, it features flexible furnishings that allow students to work individually or collaboratively in groups. The Learning Terrace also provides a whiteboard wall, covering nearly a quarter of the space, as well as a mobile whiteboard to aid in learning. Librarians hold instructional sessions and offer individual assistance at a stationary hub in the space.

To engage students, the libraries use a variety of other strategies, including online tutorials and videos, websites, research guides, and blogs, as well as workshops and presentations held in collaboration with a variety of organizations.

One of our most effective outreach strategies is partnering with other university groups. The Drexel Smart House is an excellent example. As part of this multi-disciplinary project, students are building an urban home that will serve as a living laboratory for exploring cutting-edge design and technology. Students conduct research and develop designs in the areas of environment, energy, interaction, health, and lifestyle, with the goal of improving the quality of life in urban residential settings.

Students use library services to find resources for projects related to the Smart House. Through this collaboration, Drexel Libraries offer workshops, as well as individual and small group consultations that are focused on enhancing information-literacy skills. Another workshop demonstrates how students can find information and keep current with the latest developments about their projects.

For instance, if a group of students were conducting research on lumber and wanted to know moisture properties and impacts on construction, they could quickly find answers through a targeted search. Several resources including IEEE Xplore, Knovel, and Web of Knowledge are highlighted. By using authoritative library resources, students save time and find accurate information.

Over the past few years, we have seen an increase in the use of our library services. We believe this stems from the number of one-on-one consultations that we conduct, as well as our outreach programs across campus. We are also receiving support from university administrators. Students in freshman English classes, for example, are required to attend training on library services, and similar programming exists for first-year engineering students. This past year alone, more than 3,000 freshmen and 1,200 engineering students received instruction on library resources.

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