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On repairing database denial (and making them sexy)

I used to worry about databases.  A lot.   For the past several months I’ve been involved in things that most of the edtech world probably considers a little sexier than databases—blogs, and wikis, and RSS feeds, and tagging, and Twitter, and digital storytelling—you get the idea.  

Last night fellow Twitters Alice Barr and Durff pointed me to the TeachersTeachingTeachers webcast. I quickly joined the chat in progress. Susan Ettenheim and her TTT colleagues hosted the first of three live chats about state subscription databases.

Among the folks there were representatives from Georgia’s Gallileo, New York’s NOVEL,  Maine’s MARVEL! (including Sylvia Norton), and Florida’s FEL.

It was clear that several of the teachers attending the chat had little experience with state-supported subscription databases. The librarians in the chat testified with enthusiasm.  I probably went a little overboard.  And the chat led me back to my worries.

Among the many things I learned at NECC and at BLC this summer, was that the nonlibrary edtech world, however savvy they might be about emerging ICT tools, is largely unaware of the value of databases. In fact, one well-known edtech friend told me, frustration clear in his voice, “I just don’t understand why my librarian is so into those databases. What’s the big deal?”
Google and Wikipedia are most people’s entry points to information seeking and research.  I love both those tools.  They do a great job much of the time for many of my information tasks.

But, I know of other starting points and so do my students.

My students and teachers cannot live without databases.

Once they’ve played with them, they know they can find more of what they need more quickly in these developmentally appropriate tools, often designed, and always selected, with their curricular needs in mind.  In their exit interviews, they decribe elibrary, Opposing Viewpoints, netLibrary, Biography Resource Center, Literarture Resource Center, Facts On File, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, ABC-CLIO, United Streaming, Safari Montage, and JSTOR as if they were rock stars.  They ask for more.

They love the depth they find when they are exploring Andrew Jackson’s presidential decision making, Hurston’s use of the storytelling tradition in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the way newspapers treated Hitler’s rise to power in the late 1930s, China’s political and environmental issues as it emerges as 21st century economic power, and issues of ethics and sports.

Our students know their teachers are impressed with what they find in our school-, county-, and state-funded databases.  They know their papers and their grades improve when they balance their sources and stretch the scope of their readings.  They are confident with their skills and feel very prepared for college research. 

Our school culture values quality sources. Sometimes those sources are blog posts and wikis. Sometimes they are articles from scholarly journals.  Sometimes they are primary sources.  Sometimes they are articles from 19th century newspapers. Sometimes they are videos.  Sometimes they are ebooks.  The point is that my students know they have access to a greater beyond.  All students should.  It’s an equity thing.

But I guess until you actually see the scope of the database universe you don’t really know what you are missing.   Many teachers, even the most tech-savvy, have not had that tour. 

Not all information is actually free, whether it wants to be or not. 

But happily, much of it is free to the user, supported by our state, regional, and local libraries (and, of course, our taxes).

Unhappily, hard as these organizations try, I don’t think most folks know about their vast, free information options.  Students without librarians who work to present EASY access to these materials are at a disadvantage. The waste and the inequity of this keep me awake at night.

It’s largely our own fault.

We haven’t made the sale.  We haven’t made databases sexy. 

We haven’t made access easy enough.  We haven’t simplified password issues.  We haven’t clearly defined which databases do what. In some cases I am not sure that we have made it clear what the word “database” means.  

We need to investigate federated searches for the K-12 market, searches that allow students to truly mine the structures and syntax of individual databases, as well as our catalogs, and the free Web search tools that work best for their needs.  Aggregated result lists should make sense to students at their point of development.  It ought to be easy.

We need to do some work beyond the license.  We need to be able to bust open database suites to link to individual databases in our pathfinders or whatever linking devices we provide to learners. The word “EBSCO” means nothing to students or teachers.  We need to aggregate the databases our states provide with those we pay for with our library budgets.

We need to create better information landscapes.

We need to spread the word and push the tour.  We need to make databases a little more sexy.

And we need to make sure that our love of databases does not blind us from seeing the huge value of emerging information sources.

Join Teachers Teaching Teachers for more database conversation over the next two Wednesday nights, 9:00 PM Eastern on the EdTechTalk Channel.   Thank you TTT for providing this important forum!

Listen to the chat here.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. Cathy Nelson says:

    It was an absolutely wonderful session! I was happy to hear so many excited about the topic too!!

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