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There are holes in the buckets–and what the heck am I holding?

One of my big pet peeves has to do with teachers and teacher-librarians who assign research requiring students to find sources in buckets that no longer hold water.

No more than three Internet sources.  You must use three books from the library shelves. 

These particular buckets are no longer solid or meaningful.  They all have holes.  On top of that, I no longer know where my shelves really are.

A little while back, I had a student visit from another school during our evening hours. She knew we had an archive of older magazines.  It seems that a perfect article for her research came from a database.  But using this Newsweek article as a print-out would put her over her Internet limit.  She needed to borrow or copy that article from our print magazine and physically attach it to her project.

But what is an Internet source?  My reference books are on our shelves, but many are available as ebooks are online. Our state-sponsored NetLibrary collection has as many collections of literary criticism, and more new science titles than we have in our own relatively wonderful catalog. My journal collection online is way, way bigger than what I can see in our stacks.

When a student wants to use a particular article from Time or The Economist, does it really matter whether it was photocopied or downloaded from one of our feeds or databases?

I understand that what we are really looking for is that student researchers look for balance and quality in their sources.  (A likely unspoken motive may be that we want to ensure our substantial investment in print materials was justified.)

But these old buckets are the kind of restrictions that unnecessarily drive good students crazy and make reluctant learners more reluctant.  They also make parents wonder.

The real problem, as I see it, is that in looking for balance, our kids don’t see any buckets anymore. 

A stack of 8 1/2 X 11, black and white printed pages no longer looks like a table of library materials. 

On those messy library tables of not so long ago, students could easily see: bookmarks noting great chapters in books and anthologies, entries in thick reference books, and perhaps, that the covers and content of magazines and scholarly journals look just a little bit different.

In 8 1/2 X 11, black and white, print-out format, ebook chapters look just like blog posts and reference and journal and magazine articles.

I now find I have to teach learners to discern some new (or old) buckets, well, buckets that are no longer obvious (even to my seniors!).

It comes up as students make decisions on how to cite those print-outs. It comes up as we ask students to evaluate their source lists for variety and balance and quality and relevance, according to their particular information task. It comes up when we ask learners if they’ve made use of the full range of materials available to them.  (And these days those that full range includes blogs, and wikis, and tweets, as well as the stuff that makes its way through a longer publishing process. See Buffy’s comment below.)

(BTW, NoodleTools does a great job with this type of work, both as students decide on the type of source they are citing and in its List Analysis tool.)

Now before a major project, in addition to discussing evaluation strategies for materials of all sorts, I find I need to teach a little lesson or game about buckets that I like to call, What am I holding?

I bring up a variety of sources relevant to the project and ask what is this? 

Regardless of whether it came from a database, or the free Web, or our shelves, we look for clues together.  If the source has a city of publication and a publisher, it is likely a book.  If it has both a journal and issue number, it is likely a journal.  If it has both an author and an editor, it is likely an anthology or collection.

Delgaudm. Three Buckets. 5 Sept. 2005. Flickr. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Aug. 2009  <‘buckets’>.

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. Gary Stager says:

    Wanna be really horrified? Check out the stupid “research” reports the kids are asked to write.

  2. Buffy Hamilton says:

    I would also add that we have to be careful in thinking about the term “balance” (see this heading from the NoodleTools analysis): “”Is this the right balance of print and online sources for my research?” I think balance can be dependent on the topic–for example, if I had been researching the Iran Revolution this summer, it would have been more than appropriate to have a majority of online resources as opposed to be print. Check out the musings Beth Friese and I had earlier this summer about this issue: over at my blog if you have time.

    I have been very fortunate that my teachers have been receptive in the collaboration process to my suggestions about number and kinds of info source requirements…hopefully, those who are hanging to some of these archaic requirements will rethink their position. Keep fighting the good fight!

  3. joycevalenza says:

    Great points, Buffy. It’s all dependent on the particular information task. And we couldn’t have waited for the journal article while a revolution raged!

  4. Cathy Nelson says:

    Hey Joyce as a newbie at high school level I am just today seeing this very issue. Timely. Sharing as I type a response to you!

  5. Doug Johnson says:

    Joycie, this issue was brought home to me when my son wanted to do a paper in college on the effects of video games on the societal violence. After his instructor insisted on the use of print only resources, he had to change to a topic he was less interested in. A disservice.

    Another example of “format bigotry” I believe.


  6. Jennifer LaBoon says:

    Yet another opportunity to educate teachers as we collaborate with them. I had this even in an elementary library several years back.

    Thanks, Joyce, as always, for articulating it so well.

  7. Laura Gardner says:

    This bothers me so much! I’ve been in a public library for the last two years that has a healthy bunch of databases that we promote in the schools. I’ve had to really fight to convince teachers and parents that articles or e-books from our databases are the same as print resources. We even have one book both in print and as an e-book. I always pointed that one out when I went in to work with teachers and when I talked to parents. Now I’m starting a job in a middle school in a different town and I’m anticipating this discussion yet again. It’s definitely a battle worth fighting!

  8. Tracy Poelzer says:

    This is a great, thought-provoking post, Joyce. You make some terrific points. I like Doug’s comment about “format biggotry” also. Students should be encouraged to use the best tools or resources for the job/project.

  9. Ellen Hrebeniuk says:

    But what’s the aim of the task? Is it for the student to learn about Topic X, or to learn how to use and cite various materials? It is sensible to apply restrictions if the aim is the latter.

  10. K Covintree says:

    Yes, I agree with EH about the “aim” of the task. When teaching students research skills, I encourage teachers to ask for at least one book, one database, and one website.

    Of course, writing this out now I realize that I omit actual format of those items when I encourage them to try this. In my teaching I want students to become familiar with all formats and search for the best information possible throughout these sources. And Noodletools certainly does help students learn how to cite all these newfound forms of books and resources.

    Though I do hear you about “book” requirement, and have slowly been trying to help teachers see that items in Opposing Viewpoints or can be just as valid, if not moreso than some of our printed tomes.

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