A Google search on a wide-ranging, contemporary issue can yield millions of results in a matter of seconds.
For a middle school student looking to write a paper on the global state of child soldiers, for example, entering the term into the popular search engine would yield more than 6 million instant hits, results that range from advertisements to Twitter accounts to highly partisan opinion pieces. Weeding out the reliable and scholarly contents from that mass of information could easily be a long, difficult and fruitless effort.
"These results could very likely include the type of content you may not want students to see, no matter what age they are," said Denise Wendl, manager of the Cherry Creek School District's Library and Visual Media Services Department. To illustrate her point, Wendl scrolled through the first page of results for the "Child Soldiers" search prompt, a list that included advertisements, opinion pieces, gruesome photos and other content that would hardly be useful for a student searching for legitimate material for an academic research paper. "The top hits are ads. You may never know who is behind that ad. You have news stories, but they could be news stories from any group in the entire world putting out any information they want to.
"You may not know if you can trust this information," she added.
That's where academic databases are useful. April is School Library Month, and a wealth of databases available to the district's more than 54,000 students and, for that matter, teachers, nurses and other staff members, that play a big role in making district libraries centers for 21st-century learning. The CCSD library system features a number of academic databases that offer users carefully vetted and pertinent information from thousands of books, scholarly journals, news articles, primary sources and other legitimate materials. Many of these resources are licensed through organizations like the Colorado Library Consortium or directly from educational vendors. They're the same databases in use at libraries and universities across the globe, and they offer users access to a wealth of academic materials that can be narrowed down by subject, reading level and grade level.
To prove that point, Wendl punched the "Child Soldiers" prompt into EBSCO, a database used in more than 55,000 schools nationwide, that comprises thousands of eBooks, scholarly articles, historic records and full catalogues of magazines, newspapers and periodicals of record.
Where Google yielded more than 6 million results, the EBSCO search resulted in less than 3,500, academic material related to the subject and geared specifically to middle school students.
"Unlike the web, where it's really hard to pick out what's good and what's not, (databases) allow students to quickly go through results and see what works for them ... You have access to the full text, either in HTML or PDF. It also gives you the Lexile reading level (to the appropriate grade level)."
-- Denise Wendl, manager of the Cherry Creek School District's Library and Visual Media Services Department.
"Unlike the web, where it's really hard to pick out what's good and what's not, this allows students to quickly go through results and see what works for them," Wendl said, pointing to the full-text summaries that accompany each and every result. "You have access to the full text, either in HTML or PDF. It also gives you the Lexile reading level (to the appropriate grade level)."
That kind of precision has helped secure EBSCO's status as a standard tool in research facilities across the globe. These databases are used as research tools in public libraries, community colleges, as well as public and private universities; because of their constantly-updated search capabilities and contemporary content, these databases have become a go-to international tool for students of all levels. In CCSD, the database is also a resource for teachers looking for the latest content in the most well reputed scholarly and professional journals.
"These kinds of electronic resources are widely used in thousands of libraries and schools of every type and size across the globe," said Jim Duncan, executive director of the Colorado Library Consortium. "These kinds of tools bring educational resources that are vetted and dependable, particularly when compared to an engine like Google and doing a search for that equivalent topic."
That's not to say that such databases, which draw on online resources, are completely foolproof. Because the database is connected to the internet and because the internet is constantly shifting landscape that transforms from minute to minute, databases like EBSCO can potentially connect to websites outside of their network, pages that have little relevance to research and that may be inappropriate for students working on a research paper.
It's a risk that's a reality of any kind of online activity in 2017, Duncan said, one that points to the importance of educating kids at an early age about responsibility and propriety when it comes to navigating the worldwide web.
"In our education systems today, I think that information literacy has to be a common core skill," Duncan said. "Look at how much is available electronically in our world … To be an informed user is crucial."
Teacher librarians across the Cherry Creek School District take that responsibility seriously. In addition to teaching students about proper and savvy database use from an early age through elementary school resources like Brittanica, those in charge of research spaces play an active role in steering students' library experience.
"What we do is teach students how to use technology and online resources in a responsible manner," said Evelyn Scott, coordinator at Cherry Creek High School's Kathleen D. Smith Library who was honored as the "Librarian of the Year" by The Education Center in 2015. "We teach effective ways of searching for effective information. Information is coming down the pike faster than most people can process; we want to teach critical thinking and responsibility."
It's a lesson that goes beyond time in a library, a classroom or even a school building. Making sure students make appropriate use of district databases is an effort that extends to time spent online at home; parents can easily make a world of difference when it comes to steering a child's internet activity in the proper direction.
"What we can do is teach students how to use everything properly, to make sure that if they do find something inappropriate, they don't linger; to make sure that they do stay on topic," Wendl said. "Some of the respect for the content has to come from teaching students and parents that things are going to show up once in a while. But they're going to show up on the general web, even more so.
"Databases are still the best places to start," she added.
Read more about CCSD libraries:
High School Libraries Offer Students Skills for the Future
CMS and SHHS libraries earn “highly effective” designation; CCHS library coordinator named Librarian of the Year
Eaglecrest Library is national award-winner
District Library offers variety of resources