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An Educator's Guide to Technology and the Web
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May 21, 2009

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Partnering With the Public Library on Web 2.0 Tools for Student Research

Partnering With the Public Library on Web 2.0 Tools for Student Research

So, you've made it through another school year filled with programs, book talks, and—oh, yes—research projects, when the teachers simultaneously descend on the library with students in tow to begin their reference work. The number of places to turn for materials grows exponentially, leaving us in search of ways to better utilize the vast array of resources available on the web. Seeking opportunities to assist students in learning information literacy skills can become time-consuming. Whether in the thick of this process for several months or every day of the school year, you have an ally you might not have considered: your public library.

Today, Web 2.0 tools make collaboration easier than ever, and your public librarian is there to help you navigate through them. While public libraries have many focuses, resources for children and teenagers are a mainstay of their programs and materials. These librarians work with the same students you do, just after school—helping with homework, research papers, and math problems, as well as finding the perfect novel for a historical fiction assignment. Why not work together during the school day? This collaboration can help you assist students to understand the Web 2.0 tools that can make research fun and invigorating, and it gives you a chance to share the workload.

When working with the public library, many of the tools you currently use can be morphed into great research tools beyond the school setting. Additionally, Web 2.0 tools can save time and avoid duplication of effort. After all, any time you have two librarians suggesting ways to help students search effectively, you are bound to come up with new examples and innovative techniques.

Delicious

One such tool finding wide usage in schools (where not blocked) is Delicious (http://delicious.com), the social bookmarking application. Delicious users can save bookmarks of websites, organize the bookmarks using tags, and share them with other members by making them public or by sending them to other users.

At Schofield Elementary School in Wellesley, Mass., librarian Elisabeth Zimmer noted: "The teachers give me a list of topics in advance, and I find sites and post them using Delicious. The kids have been using the list quite a bit—I think they find it less overwhelming than Google, and it allows them to focus on reading the information and taking notes. It also lets them learn search behavior in a more controlled environment. I feel that if I can show them a selection of reliable sites, maybe they will learn that there is more to life than Wikipedia or the first site on the Google list."

Karen Gray, librarian for St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Va., has eighth grade students using Delicious. "They had to discover the event or moment in the person’s life that forever changed the person's/world's destiny. No two students in any class were researching the same person, but there was some duplication across the grade. Using Delicious allowed students to share quality sites from the web with their peers in other classes."

Because Delicious also allows for adding "friends" to your network, collaboration with another librarian—say, a public librarian—is easy. For example, a school librarian can add sites to her Delicious account that she knows will be helpful to students in a particular class. Then, she can bundle the sites under specific headings or tags for each of the classes or projects in the school. The public librarian can see these tagged bookmarks and add additional sites to the account. By utilizing the public librarian, you can tap into a resource free of charge and gain the expertise of another professional web searcher to locate information for your students' research needs. The public library gains reference question statistics, which would never have happened without the partnering between the two libraries.

Microblogging

As we know from doing research for ourselves and our students, the original topic presented does not always make it to the final draft. Learning how to craft a thesis and its supporting statements takes time and an understanding beyond the depth of most middle school (and many high school) students. One activity that can help students work through this process and give them an opportunity to cooperate with public and school librarians is microblogging (a short form of blogging), where posts may be limited to a certain number of characters.

The most popular microblogging tool, Twitter (www.twitter.com), poses the question, "what are you doing?" However, people use Twitter in diverse ways to communicate information: Some answer the question, "what are you doing?" while others use it to share online content or have conversations. Often, you'll see links in these posts (or "Tweets") to other locations on the web. This is an ideal venue for students to begin exploring research topics with the aid of public librarians in the reference department. Have students "Twit" a possible topic to the public librarian and ask for feedback. The public librarian can suggest ways to focus or broaden the topic as well as give links to credible websites and mention specific books or other relevant resources to consult.

Twitter can be used as a kind of electronic notebook, allowing students, teachers, and librarians (school and public) to connect, brainstorm, bounce ideas off of one other, suggest resources, and offer direction to students who need a little more guidance. Teachers can use the tool to inform school and public librarians of the next step in a research assignment or of any last-minute additions to a project. Twitter allows for informal yet often immediate feedback for a student who might be "stuck." At the same time, it creates another level of understanding on how to use Web 2.0 tools for research—with the guidance of librarians.

Research Databases

Databases continue to rise in cost each year, and many school districts or individual schools might find themselves priced out of the market. Here is one more reason why turning to the public library makes enormous sense. Students attending a school may also be served by their local public library, so they can use its databases with their library cards. In Massachusetts, elementary school librarian Zimmer realized the advantages of using the public library databases: "I am actually working with the public library at the moment on getting library cards for all my 3–5 graders. The public librarians have been most helpful. I really want the kids to have cards so that they can access databases from home [and school]."

Public libraries run on numbers: The more usage their databases receive, the more likely they are to continue subscribing to the databases. And the better their reference statistics from helping your students are, the more likely they are to enjoy cooperating. Many public libraries will gladly send out a public librarian to instruct students and teachers on how to navigate the public library's databases.

For example, Paul Steensland, a reference librarian at St. Louis County Library (SLCL) in St. Louis, is involved in a project called Reference to Go. "I teach [public] library databases to St. Louis area public school students," he noted. Per its press release, which is accessible at www.slcl.org/news/2008/11/referencetogo.pdf, "A reference librarian consults with a teacher and designs a presentation geared toward the class’ specific needs and assignments. The presentation relies heavily on the SLCL's electronic databases, particularly those which can be used via the Library's website (www.slcl.org). The librarian delivers the tailored presentation in the classroom using a live connection to the website, with examples that pertain to the specific assignments." These tools make it possible to assist the students and yourself without even leaving the school or entering the public library.

RSS

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) might be underappreciated in your arsenal of research tools. This format allows you to subscribe to a website, blog, podcast, etc., using an application called an aggregator (also called a feed reader or newsreader) such as Google Reader (www.google.com/reader) and Bloglines (www.bloglines.com). An aggregator allows you to view updates from the websites, blogs, or podcasts that you subscribe to, all in one location. For example, going back to the earlier idea of using Delicious, it allows you to subscribe to a specific user's tag(s) or tag bundle(s) in RSS format.

Databases such as InfoTrac from Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, also offer RSS feeds for search terms. Public librarians can use tools together by Tweeting the link to an RSS feed for a search in one of their databases. You can have students subscribe to that feed, and they'll have new information pushed right to them. This is a great way to introduce younger students to databases in a controlled manner and to give them a taste of the kinds of information available beyond typical web searching, while saving the time it would take you to do individual (or class) searches for each student. The public library will be utilizing their costly databases and serving their patrons at the same time.

When considering the vast array of research resources on the web, try to find ways to save yourself time and to engage your students. Working with the public library in your area gives you added resources at a time when your library might be struggling to add more technology and print materials. Students are often as comfortable (if not more so) engaging in forms of electronic conversation as they are talking directly to a teacher or a librarian. By using these tools we can collaborate not just with other librarians and teachers but with the students themselves, opening avenues for dialogue where they may not have existed.

Embracing Web 2.0 applications that students use can help create a richer and more-engaged student experience. By working together, the public librarian and the school librarian can create the crucial link in students' minds between the web and establishing creative and useful research habits that will survive beyond playing with Web 2.0 tools.

Tasha Squires is a certified school library media specialist. Her recently published book,  Library Partnerships: Making Connections Between School and Public Libraries, is currently available from Information Today, Inc. Her email address is tasquires@lisjobs.com. Mary Golden is an information services librarian at Joliet Public Library in Illinois. Contact her at goldenlibrarian@gmail.com.

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