Monday, November 9, 2020

Why Do Colleges Require Students To Use Library Databases?

 Throughout all of my schooling from middle school through college, I was required to use library research databases to find sources to cite in research papers. Freely available resources that were found online through typical search engines like Google and Bing were not acceptable. They were said to be seen as unprofessional or less than scholarly. The information available online might not be reputable because you could not know who exactly was posting the information. Anyone can post anything they want to online.

We were supposed to find information for papers from either physical sources, like actual books in the library, or articles available through the research database on the library's website.

I can see the reasoning behind why they would want us to use more reliable sources that would have already been vetted by the database company, but I think that requiring students to use only library databases is antiproductive and outdated.

Whenever I have needed to find information for a paper, I have first gone to Google to do some preliminary, high level research on the topic so that I know something about it. From there I would either continue searching through Google or make my way over to the library's database. When I use Google, I almost immediately get great information that I can use to build my paper. When I search in the database, I struggle to find anything of value at all. What would take me just minutes on Google takes several hours on the research database.

Why would it be beneficial to take more time to do something than it needs to take? That is just choosing to be inefficient. If schools and colleges are trying to train people to be successful in the world of work, then in this particular way they are failing. Try to complete a task or project at work for an employer and explain that you are going to use a method that takes hours when one is available that takes just minutes. You will be scolded and told to do it the faster way. You might even get punished or fired.

Not only does it take longer to find the information in sources available on the library database, but often times I would be totally unable to find the information I was looking for. I might read through a source I found on Google, decide that the information would be useful in my paper, but then need to find an approved source through a database that would say the same thing. Sometimes I would be unable to find any sources that said that thing, so I would need to change the direction of my paper because of a lack of appropriate sources.

The sources were often also very difficult to parse and read. An article available through Google has the intent of being useful, user-friendly, and readable. The stuff you often find through research databases is very long, uses difficult language, and does not lend itself to speedy consumption of information. In order to find a sentence or two of information that would support something I was trying to say in my paper, I might have to read a chapter or two of some e-version of a book. For a sentence worth of facts. That is far from useful and helpful.

One thing that I ran into regularly was the short length of time a restricted database (one the college pays for) allowed a student to stay logged in for. If I logged in using my student credentials, I might only have 15-30 minutes before I would automatically be logged out. When I would be sorting through the potential resources and then reading massive amounts of text to find nuggets of useful information, I would regularly run past that time limit and find myself logged out. That would not be so bad if all that needed to happen would be my re-entering my credentials and returning to the place I left of. Unfortunately that is not what happens. You log back in and are taken to the main home page and then need to re-search to find the resource you were reading and then re-navigate to the page you were reading. Sometimes I would not be able to re-find a resource and would just give up on that and have to find a new resource, having totally wasted the time I spent reading the first resource.

I felt like library research databases were a huge waste of my time and made school projects more difficult and stressful than they needed to be. There might be people who found them very useful, and there might have been topics that would have been much easier to research using a scholarly database than using Google web search, but from my personal experience, the databases were always more difficult to use. I would have preferred to not use them. I read in one place that a large reason why databases are required is because of the extensive number of filters they give users access to so that they can narrow down the options to just the types of sources they want to use. The filters offered in databases may at one time have been much better than those offered by Google, but now Google has every sort of filter you can imagine, and they even have Google Scholar that pre-screens out everything that is not a scholarly source. I trust Google completely when looking for resources to make citations.

As I understand it, schools and universities are paying these database companies for access to the databases. It would make sense then that schools would want to push students to make use of the premium resource they are paying to make available. But if they are not that useful and students dislike them, why are schools still paying for these databases? Is there some sort of reason they are being forced to pay for these resources? Is there a law that requires it?

One thing that I felt should have been provided by schools, but never was, so I had to find free versions on the internet, was citation generators. Every student writes research papers and needs to create citations, so it only seems reasonable that schools would have some kind of free-to-use software that would allow students to easily create citations. They didn't, so I would have to use the ones created by Chegg, such as Citation Machine or EasyBib.

I am very grateful to have found any sort of automatic citation generating website or software, because despite any of their flaws, it was way easier than typing out every citation by hand using the formatting handbooks for MLA or APA. But they did have big flaws. They stuffed every page with huge numbers of ads that changed frequently and used so much of your computer's processing resources that it would noticeably slow your computer down and sometimes even cause it to crash. They made you click through unnecessary pages to complete your citation to be able to show you more ads and increase their website pageviews. They were as spammy as Forbes and Entrepreneur have become. They offered you a way to avoid all of those ads and that terrible user experience - you could pay them each month for their premium ad-free version. I found a decent solution to needing free citation help without an offensive number of advertisements too late in my college career. During the process of writing my last research paper before I graduated with a bachelor's degree I found a Chrome browser extension from MyBib that would allow you to generate citations of the pages you navigated to without showing you any ads. That was super pleasant and easy to use.

I thought each time I was cultivating resources for a research paper that the college should have been paying for me to have access to a citation generator ad-free instead of paying for me to have access to a crappy version of Google. I would have gotten much more value from the citation generator. And it is something so simple to create that I am honestly shocked that college library websites do not have this form already included. You just ask students for information in text fields, then place the entered text into the right spot in a citation template. So simple.

So while I understand the spirit behind providing the databases for students and requiring that they use these very expensive resources, I do not understand why they persist while Google and other search engines get so incredibly good. It might be one of the excesses of the university system that causes tuition to be so high. Students continue to pay more and more for the same or even less and less. Where does that money go to? These outdated databases are one culprit that needs looking into.

What do you think? Am I way off? Are research databases much more useful than I give them credit for? Would you rather have the university provide something else to you instead of access to a private database? What are your experiences with citation generator websites or with websites that serve objectively too many advertisements? What do universities spend too much money on that could be cut back and nobody paying tuition would even notice? Let me know in the comments!

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