BackTalk: Googling Through Grad School

By Hillary Theyer

As a librarian, I have watched with interest as the library world gnashes its collective teeth over the Internet replacing the library, the great works of the past becoming electronic streams of data, and the laziness of students finishing degrees without setting foot in the building with the books. While I remember with great fondness the libraries of my university past, those hours preceded Internet access in every dorm room.

When I was in library school, the papers and projects were still done with good old-fashioned legwork and bookwork. I remember walking across the University of California campus, from the science library to the medical library, from the arts library to government documents, filling out sheets about how these resources worked and where they could be found. This was how the university was supposed to operate.

An amazing tool

When I started graduate school ten years later, I came with seven years of desktop Internet access, a laptop with a wireless network card, and expectations of speed and ease much higher than before. When our first class of the master's in public administration program included a visit to the library, I was feeling a bit smug, figuring all would be old hat to me.

After explaining how to set up an online password for all the databases, the librarian began to run though the resources most needed for our work, and she explained how to use...a book index...where you have to look up articles in a book, match a code to a source list, write stuff down, then find the source... in paper. The air went out of the room. "You mean, we have to use this in the library?" someone asked. "Like, we have to come here?" I'm sure I had a smile on my face as I thought these wimps of classmates would never have made it through library school.

When I started my coursework, I quickly realized what an amazing tool my laptop was. I read articles from journals no library in the region carried. Keyword guesses led to subject headings, and I saved searches and sent them across databases in multiple disciplines without budging from my seat, transmitting results to my email, my printer, or my hard drive as needed. When I requested an article in print that couldn't be found online, it came to my email as a scanned PDF, not a grainy photocopy I had to drive to the library to pick up. While I did spend time in the library, I came with a list of call numbers and potential sources already in hand, cutting my time in the stacks down and making the time I did spend there more effective. That really great book index? Long forgotten. Even I, the librarian, didn't use it.

Something elusive

There were also times when I wanted an elusive bit of knowledge for which I didn't have a name, a date, or a subject heading. That's when I turned to the simple search engine, often after exhausting more "authoritative" but less flexible resources. When I found a quote that was perfect for my paper, without a citation attached, I drained all the databases under the "quotations" page on the university web site, and even the online librarian couldn't tell me where it was from. Five minutes with Google and there was my answer, which I carefully cross-checked in the online databases now that I had the source.

I used general search engines to locate statistics from organizations, to get narrow information gathered only by cities, and to find practical experience on an online newsgroup. Cruising blogs and bulletin boards, I found current news in niche areas not covered in any database, along with insightful opinion, emerging trends, and questions the formal research process hadn't answered yet. All of these sources were used in papers, presentations, and my capstone project. All were vital to my success in the program.

Balancing online and print

While it can be argued that I knew how to use these tools wisely, when to check my sources, and how to balance online with print, my experience has taught me that it isn't a question of format. It is what suits the user's needs at the time. With my job, I couldn't have spent hours in the library. My papers were written from home on the sofa, and I know I took on more classes and finished sooner because the papers and projects were easier done this way.

The sooner libraries celebrate their online users and merge working with authoritative sources with the ever-growing online world, the better students will continue to do.

In my current job, I am more likely to turn to the online world for students' queries than I did before, more confident about using search engines and more willing to send students off with a printout than to the copy machine with a reference book. I know I work in a library with a fabulous print collection, but it isn't the only thing out there anymore, and sometimes it isn't the best thing either.

Author Information
Hillary Theyer is Senior Librarian, Torrance Public Library, CA.

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