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When settlers from the East planned to “go West,” they faced many challenges. Becoming hopelessly lost was likely. Starvation was a possibility. Floods threatened total destruction. Settlers needed an experienced guide to lead them to their destination.
When students begin research projects, they face similar challenges—although the challenges are intellectual rather than physical. They can become hopelessly lost as they try to follow Internet links from one site to another. They can be starved for good information. They can be flooded with note cards that contain bland and useless facts. Students need a guide. They need a school librarian who can lead them along the trail of solid, meaningful research. The librarian must understand the student’s assignment, assist with locating helpful resources, and know the basic processes for writing a research paper.
Understanding the student’s research project assignment requires conducting a reference interview. In the Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science by Joan M. Reitz, a reference interview is defined as “the interpersonal communication that occurs between a reference librarian and a library user to determine the person’s specific information need(s), which may turn out to be different than the reference question as initially posed.”
The key to this interview is good communication initiated by the librarian. Before any exchange of information takes place, an “attitude” exists. “How the student perceives his or her question will be received” (Riedling) contributes to the overall tone of the interview. The librarian must provide an atmosphere that is comfortable for the student to seek information. In addition to the physical surroundings, the librarian must use both verbal and nonverbal skills to encourage the student. According to Riedling, nonverbal strategies include “physical gestures, posture, facial expressions, tone of voice, and eye contact.” The media specialist must ask open questions and practice active listening, while utilizing other verbal skills including “remembering, restating, paraphrasing, closure, and inclusion.”(Underdown) The librarian must determine just what sort of information is needed and the depth that is required. The process is accurately summed up by Riedling’s statement “that a successful reference interview is one in which the student feels satisfied that you have given personal attention and accurate information.
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Once the school media specialist has identified the true research needs, he or she must be familiar with the types of resources that are both available to meet the need and acceptable to the teacher. The specialist needs a working knowledge of the reference books available in the school library. For example, English and literature reference selections in the Gaston Christian School Library include:
o The Oxford Companion to American Literature
o The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature
o Critical Survey of Long Fiction
o Short Stories for Students
o Poetry for Students
o A Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers
The local public libraries also continue to be excellent places for locating resources. At the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library the reference librarians are available to help with keyword searches and printouts of bibliographic information for books that look especially promising. The librarians are occasionally even asked to help select a topic. They provide guidance with word processing and acceptable style and format as required by teachers. Mary Ann, a reference librarian at the Gastonia Main Library, suggests a number of reference resources for research concerning authors and their works:
o The Dictionary of Literary Biography (259 volumes)
o Contemporary Authors (198 volumes)
o The British Writers Series--in-depth biographical information
o Contemporary Literary Criticism
o Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism.
A reference librarian can quickly search the database indexes of books in the reference collection and provide a printout of volume numbers and pages that apply to the subject matter.
Proficiency in assistance with Internet searches is becoming extremely valuable. A school library web page with pertinent links for various subjects streamlines the process. As a school media specialist continues both formal and informal education, he or she should constantly expand a compilation of valuable web sites. Some of the sites suggested to students at Gaston Christian School include:
o www.people.virginia.edu -- The Literary Web
o http://vos.ucsb.edu –Voice of the Shuttle
The Gaston- Lincoln Regional Library webpage has many helpful resources. At “Reference Tools—Truly Useful Web Sites” (www.glrl.lib.nc.us/glrlref.htm) there are links to search engines, directories, ready reference sites and the online catalog for the library system. There is also a link to the Library Access Page for all libraries in the university system of North Carolina and a catalog link for the 44 NC community college libraries. After obtaining a current password from the library, a student may use NCLIVE at the public library or from home. NCLIVE is a database that allows full text access to over 5,500 journals, magazines and newspapers. Reference librarians at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library frequently assist students in finding journals through the NCLIVE Internet database.
Finally, having knowledge of the basic steps in composing a research paper provides a foundation for the school media specialist to assist students in their efforts. “The research process boils down to three essential operations—searching, reading, and writing.”(Weidenborner, p. 2)
The student first states a hypothesis or educated guess as to what the research will uncover. The search process involves preliminary research in general sources such as a textbook or encyclopedia. One reason to begin here is to discover terminology that will streamline the directory and search engine inquiries. The second part of the research is a broader search to include all available sources such as books, periodicals, journals, web sites, audio-visual materials, and interviews.
After gathering a variety of sources, the critical reading begins. The student must read for understanding, always searching for information that is applicable and reliable. To increase reliability, some teachers require all information obtained from the Internet to be validated by a second source. The only exception is information posted to the web by a reputable organization or an academic library. A general rule of thumb is to look for file extensions of .edu, .org, and .gov. Some sources may be discarded as irrelevant. However, when pertinent information is found, index cards should be used to record a very brief summary. Only one fact or several very closely related facts should be written on each card. Also, each card should be marked in some way to correspond with bibliographic information. It is only after thorough reading that a general thesis or conclusion can be made. The student’s initial hypothesis is either confirmed or modified in light of the results of the research.
The final stage of composing the research paper is the preparation to write and the actual process of writing. As the student prepares to write, the note cards are organized into a logical order. An introduction, including a focused thesis should be written. The note cards are used to create a rough draft. At this point the information may need reorganization to improve clarity or flow. Another revision can be made to fine tune mechanical problems. Attention must be paid to formatting, which is often a function of academic discipline. For example a literature research paper is usually formatted using the MLA style as opposed to a scientific research paper which is generally formatted using the APA style. After several iterations of organizing, revising and formatting, a final draft emerges as a polished product with sources properly noted.
The journey may be short or long. The sources reviewed may number five or fifty. But most students want to walk efficiently and effectively through the process of writing a research paper. And, their journey is made easier by a librarian who understands the student’s assignment, can help locate appropriate resources, and knows the correct process for actually writing the paper.
Mary Ann. Reference Librarian, Gastonia Main Library, Gastonia, NC. Personal Interview. 19 July 2002.
Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science. Joan M. Reitz. 29 April 2002. Western Connecticut State University. 25 July 2002 <http://vax.wcsu.edu/library/odlis.html>.
Riedling, Ann Marlow. “Great Ideas for Improving Reference Interviews.” The Book Report. v 19 i 13 p 28 (Nov 2000). 25 July 2002 <http://web4.infotrac.galegroup.com/itw/infomark/749/793/25782401w4/purl=rc2_ITOF_1_Great+Ideas+for+Improving+Reference+Interviews_&dyn=sig!2?sw_aep=ncliveglr>.
Underdown, Mark. “The Reference Interview.” Online posting. 1 Nov 1995. University of South Australia. 25 July 2002
Weidenborner, Stephen and Domenick Caruso. Writing Research Papers: a Guide to the Process. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986.