Looking Backward | Peer to Peer ReviewClearing out a root directory uncovers a bit of history Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN
Jun 23, 2011
|Photo by Debora Miller|
One of our current projects is launching a new look for our library's website, and that always is an occasion for spring cleaning. Open up a root directory, and it's like pulling out that kitchen drawer that always gets stuck because it's so full. You know, the one where you store string and rubber bands and broken can openers and the odds and ends that you scooped off the counter just before guests arrived for dinner ... 12 years ago. Sometimes when you pull something out of that drawer you wonder why you ever saved it in the first place.
We found lots of broken doodads and bits of string in our root directory. One of the pages that turned up had some notes we had shared from a series of brown bag lunches held with faculty who wanted to improve their experiences with research assignments. I have only the vaguest of memories of these discussions, but it's interesting to see what was on the minds of faculty back in 2002.
Worried about the web
Concerns about the Internet as an information source were very much on their minds. They were distressed that students—even seniors, who should know better—were citing so many web sources in their papers. They wondered if they should set limits on the number of web-based sources allowed in a bibliography. They complained that students were reluctant to use books as sources, and when they did, they needed help understanding how to use indexes and tables of contents effectively. One faculty member suggested that students suffered from a "cultural quick-fix mentality," having become too impatient to spend time analyzing sources or engaging in the messiness and hard work of creativity. Evaluating sources of all kinds was a challenge, but it was a particularly pressing problem when it came to the web.
Other issues they brought to the table are as fresh as ever. In 2002, faculty reported that students had trouble finding a focus for their research, struggled to choose good sources, and struggled to quote, summarize, and paraphrase source material appropriately. They tended to procrastinate, underestimating the time it takes for ideas to mature, and they treated research as a wearisome and uninventive rule-based task rather than as an opportunity for discovery and self-expression. What else is new? These issues remain as pertinent today as they were in 2002—and they were the same challenges in 1990, when I first interviewed students about their research processes.
Plus ça change . . .
The Internet Archive's Wayback Machine has preserved some pages from our website back then. It looked pretty homemade. A web guide for first term seminars that fall devoted more than half its space to searching for and evaluating websites. Our virtual reference service was an email address. We didn't have a blog or a Facebook page. In fact, Facebook hadn't been invented yet.
We've seen a lot of change in the past decade. In 2002, Wikipedia was only about a year old and had somewhere around 20,000-30,000 articles. The English edition alone now has over 3.5 million articles. As something of a barometer of changing attitudes, our faculty development program sponsored a session in 2006 with the title "What the Heck do We Do About Wikipedia?" in which faculty grappled with the "problem" of the newly ubiquitous source, troubled by the fact that anyone could write and edit articles. In 2011, we had another session in which two biologists talked about the assignments they had designed around creating Wikipedia pages. It seems we have figured out what the heck to do.
Another point of difference: in 2002, we added twice as many books to our collection as we did this past year. We also had nearly twice as many print periodical subscriptions. Since then, we've gone through three rounds of journal cancellations. Our budget hasn't grown much, but the price of journals and database subscriptions has. That said, I suspect our students and faculty have far more information available to them today than they did ten years ago.
. . . plus c'est la même chose
It's interesting to compare these long-forgotten notes stashed in our root directory with the three-day workshop we held for faculty earlier this month. Faculty across the disciplines had a chance to work on particular courses and assignments, to think about how research fit into their major program, and to consider ways that the habits of mind they developed through doing research might come into play after college. Looking back, I see we were discussing many of the same issues as we did in 2002—except this time around nobody questioned the value of the web. It didn't even come up.
Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published last year by Minotaur Books.