Several weeks ago, an interesting topic came across the GLMA listserv. The conversation began with a May 8 message from a high school media specialist that stated, “One of my ongoing issues is trying to get students to include at least one book as a source in research projects.”  Other media specialists shared the concern that students were not using print materials and discussed strategies for getting students to use at least one book for research projects.

In spite of all the money spent on print materials, print materials do not get adequate attention during research projects in some schools. This may be the case even when teachers encourage their use. Especially in a time of nonexistent budgets, we need to know that each dollar we spend is spent wisely, providing maximum benefits for student learning. One solution proposed was the requirement on the teacher’s part of using a certain number of print resources as a part of research assignments.  We have also been in libraries where students had to identify several print materials before consulting any online sources.

Later that evening, Buffy shared her concerns about requiring a print resource for every research task.  She worried that print books might not always be a feasible choice for certain high school research topics, especially those involving current or emerging topics.  She also wondered if forcing students to use a print book, especially reference, might be better accomplished through the purchase of virtual editions that could be accessible to all students since print copies are limited to one student.  Buffy also worried if the focus of mandating at least one print book might detract students from exploring emerging forms of social scholarship that might have more timely or richer content.  Beth pointed out that because many of us adults grew up in a “book-centric” learning environment, it might be difficult for us to let go of the mindset that “books are always better”.

We proceeded to discuss it via twitter, wondering about the research tasks in schools and the resources in place to support them. During the course of our virtual conversation, we then decided to compose this blog post collaboratively to sum up the main points of our exchange, and seek input from our professional community.

We have concerns about the requirement to use print resources for research assignments.

You don’t have to look too far to see print’s potential limitations. A quick peek at shows in bold relief how information in books decays or is superseded.  Books become artifacts to what we once thought about a topic. How current is the print collection in your library?

Not only do books go out of date, our print collections are also limited by the amount of time it takes to publish books on current topics, not to mention the limits of space on the shelf. We wonder how the requirement of print reflects on the assignments given. Do teachers take your print collection into account when selecting research topics and designing research projects, or do the Georgia Performance Standards play a larger role in research task design?  If students have a voice in topic selection, what kinds of topics can students choose? Is inquiry taking place? Many of the topics that students might choose are so current that books may not be published yet, if at all. Does this mean students cannot inquire into them since they can’t meet the requirements for inclusion of print resources?

We suggest that, instead of requirements for the format of information coming first, the topic of inquiry take the lead. In their lives after formal schooling has ended, students won’t be limited by whether or not they can get their hands on a book about a topic. No one will say “find a book first, and if you can’t find one (or two, or three…) then choose something else to wonder about.” From the topic of inquiry, decisions about the kinds of resources that are appropriate follow. Justifications for the information included, including the formats consulted and selected, are essential elements of information fluency. Those detailed justifications should be key parts of the assessments for assignments.

This is not to say that online information is always trustworthy or up to date.  Although there are certain resources that seem to be relatively consistent in their reliability, it does not hold true across the board.  So our answer is not simply ignoring print because online information is more current by default. In addition to choosing formats for searching and collecting information, how information in those formats was checked and verified is also important.   In his May 12 blog post, “Information Literacy”, Ira Socol writes, “Yes. Print can be wrong, despite John Calvin’s firm belief in the societal value of fixed text. We all know that information on the “internet” can be wrong, and we warn our students about this potential pitfall. If we are good, we tell them to check authorship, credentials, the source of the website, the motivations, and we ask them to find corroboration and/or dissent. But do we do this as actively when a student pulls a book or newspaper off our school library shelf?”  Our AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner include the skill, “Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis
of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context” (Skill 1.1.5).  Are we doing that if we automatically privilege print books by making them a requirement for every research task?

We wonder what the barriers are in your schools. We know that the access students have in individual schools to different formats of information can vary widely. In some schools, the print collection may be the most up to date resource available on a topic. Internet filters, limited funds or restrictive policies may prevent students from accessing more current information in other formats. In some cases, the argument may be that administrators are persuaded by circulation statistics, which makes the use of print resources a part of proving our necessity. No doubt, the considerable financial investment represented by a print collection also plays a role in many schools. These are important parts of the discussion. How does it work in your school? What points have we missed?

In our view, no single format of information is the best choice for every topic. Doug Johnson echoes this with his great points about format bigotry. Stephen Abram and Judy Luther call it format agnosticism. Although both of these terms are loaded, the central point remains the same. We need to move away from privileging a single format for information, and instead support student learning in a complex information environment. Throughout the process of inquiry, we should facilitate student thinking about the formats of information that will be most useful for their topic of inquiry. As they proceed to the verification of that information, then reflecting on, rethinking, and repeating the process as necessary, we ask that they explain their choices about what they included, and, finally, defend their decisions as a part of the product. This gives students a model of their real world information seeking that builds structures for thinking about what they are doing as they create knowledge. Rich, productive thinking is not format dependent.

We welcome your thoughts and input.

Beth Friese, teacher librarian and Ph. D. candidate, University of Georgia,  Department of Language and Literacy Education.

Buffy Hamilton, Ed.S.
Creekview High School