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The student’s most neglected resource

One of the most difficult things for me as a father is watching one of my daughters struggle with something that doesn’t need to be that difficult. One of my girls got a present the other day, and, after I’d removed the bullet-proof packaging they put on toys these days, I sat back and let her figure out how to make it work.

She’s ten. And, she’s quite smart. She can do this.

Or, she would have been able to except for one small problem. She wouldn’t read the directions. I know she had the directions because I handed them to her. Twice. But it didn’t help. She’d take a quick look, read a line or two at the most, and then try again. It didn’t take long for her to get pretty frustrated.

I wasn’t far behind.

Few things are more frustrating than watching somebody struggle with something that could be so much easier if only they’d use what’s right in front of them.

You’d think that college and grad students would be smarter than my fifth grader. But time and again I see students struggle because they won’t use what’s right in front of them. And, there’s one resource in particular that students constantly neglect. Every school has at least one. But it’s like students don’t even know they exist. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve decided that their classes are just too easy. So, they need to make things harder.

That’s like deciding to scale a cliff without any ropes. Sure, it’s more challenging. But it’s also a good way to get yourself killed.

So, what is that most neglected resource? The librarian.

Now, before all you digital natives begin to scoff and explain how outdated libraries and librarians are in this modern world, hear me out.

If you had asked me a few years ago what a librarian did, I think I would have mumbled something about keeping track of books, maintaining silence, and keeping me from drinking coffee while I studied (which, by the way, is why I stopped using libraries). I’ve learned better since then.

At the very least, a good librarian can do two things that every student desperately needs. First, the librarian knows the best ways to find information. That information may be stored in the library’s physical books, its digital archives, or just out there on the internet. Regardless, it’s still information. And, information is only useful if you can find it. That’s what a librarian has been trained to do. I’m continually surprised by students who are frustrated that they can’t find enough good resources on their topic, but they haven’t bothered to consult a librarian. That’s like the guy who’s angry that he can’t find the pickles in a grocery store, but hasn’t bothered to ask someone who actually works there.

Second, a good librarian knows how to assess the quality of your information and its sources. Do a Google search on something. Anything. How many hits did your search return? I’m guessing it was more than three. Now what are you going to do? How do you know if any of them are any good? Like most students, you’ll probably just stick with the ones that came up first. After all, they’re on top so they must be good. Um, no. You’ll need to do better than that. And, for that, you’ll sometimes need help.

Good, reliable information. That’s what the student needs. And, that’s what the librarian is all about. Seems like a match made in heaven. If only they’d meet more often.

Sadly, that’s not how it often works out. According to a recent study, “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.” As “digital natives,” they use Google frequently, but they don’t know how to use it effectively. And, even when they find information, they don’t know how to assess it. Today’s students desperately need good librarians, but they don’t know it.

Be smarter than a fifth grader. If you want to be a good researcher, especially at the beginning of your journey, get to know your librarians. Ask them questions. Take their advice. Bring them cookies. It will pay off in the end.