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By Indirections Find Directions Out
November 15, 2010 - 10:00pm

Librarians and faculty in the disciplines have different lines of sight on students who struggle to find sources and use them effectively in writing. Faculty tend to see the Alpha and the Omega: they explain the assignment, often at length, to get the students started, and then puzzle over the wreckage once they get the results. ("What? But I explained this . . .") Librarians tend to see what happens in the middle of the process, as students try to learn enough of the lingo to come up with useful search terms and then sort through possible sources, looking for sources that are relevant and readable. Sometimes we get questions about how to create parenthetical citations and bibliographies, but we rarely see how students have actually interpreted sources in their writing. So it has been really interesting to sit in on a seminar with students this semester as they brainstorm research topics and share their work in progress. I'm seeing more of the process than I usually do, and it's giving me some things to think about.

Like, why does it have to be so hard to do simple things?

As students in this seminar share materials via e-mail for their colleagues to read before class, I notice that many of them use JSTOR. (I have yet to see another database consulted). So far, none of them have known how to find a stable URL. They paste whatever is in their browser. Even if they were to share the stable URL, anyone who is off campus will get the mysterious message "You are viewing the first page/citation. Full-text access may be available if you are affiliated with a participating library or publisher. Check access options or login if you have an account."

If a student clicks on "check access options" and is persistent enough to click through three or four screens, she will finally arrive at the library's website, where she can log in through our proxy server and reach the article. If she chooses the second option, she will be asked for a username and password that she don't have. To make it all even more complicated, JSTOR references pop up in generic Google searches, but since we only subscribe to some JSTOR packages, not all, the login procedure that works for some journals won't work for others. No wonder students get so confused.

Students also send links to Google Books to the class. These typically are books for which the publisher has provided some full text, but they are incomplete, often with pages missing from the middle of a chapter. I'm guessing students have discovered these through Google searches, but I'm not sure they know how to actually get their hands on the book. They might use the "find in a library" link, if there is one. (And does anyone know why sometimes there isn't? Is it at the discretion of the publisher?) That link, if there is one, will take them to the free version of WorldCat, not the completely different one you reach through the library's website, the one that's harder to search but easier to use when making interlibrary loan requests.

Having our holdings represented through Web searches is no doubt a good thing for discovery, but it's frustrating that you can't easily move between those Web-based links and library content. Even knowing where to look on the library's Website is complicated by the fact (that will come as no surprise to librarians) that students typically have no idea how to find a book or article based on a citation. Students are used to coming at sources through databases, not by journal title and issue. Most of them have never seen a journal in print and have little sense that they come in volumes and issues. And distinguishing between an article in an edited volume (that has to be tracked down through the catalog) and an article in a journal (located through a link resolver by journal title) is often beyond them.It was just as hard - in fact much harder - twenty years ago, when indexes and catalogs were mostly searched by hand. Yet with library materials so conveniently indexed by Google, yet so tantalizingly out of reach, the complexities of getting access are daunting.

And this makes me wonder about how students will cope after they graduate. Will they run into paywall-restricted sources like JSTOR articles and get frustrated? Or will they skip right over those links, assuming that nobody would have any reason to consult a scholarly article after college?

Having licensed materials behind a paywall creates lots of headaches for student researchers. But what's really discouraging is to think that by making them inaccessible to anyone who isn't in the club, we are making the very idea of scholarship irrelevant except for school purposes. Open access is more than a convenience for scholars whose libraries can't afford to buy or license everything they need. It's the only way to consistently inject researched findings into public discourse about issues. And frankly, we all could use a little more of that.


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