In this season of gift giving, let's take a moment to unwrap some awesome "presents" from our U.S. state and city library systems. Due to the economy of scale, these organizations can afford to buy for each of their citizens some "big ticket" information tools and resources. But like so many gifts, they only get used if you take them out of the box and read the instructions. The accompanying chart lists URLs for each state’s electronic library portal.
Most states provide a blend of various types of resources such as online encyclopedias, databases, and language learning software or support for English Language Learners. Almost all provide a portal to geographic, political, and historical information about that state.
If your state doesn’t provide access to one or more of these enormous products, you probably have access through your county or city library or school system. The days are gone when a student would begin a research project by going to the library to look up an article using the index to a 24-volume encyclopedia. Now, these behemoths aren’t even available in print! Tertiary background information (what a savvy student uses to build background knowledge at the beginning of the research process) is now constantly updated. Dictionary support for single word look-ups is only a click away, and students with learning differences can listen to the articles read aloud. Differentiation is also supported with articles at a variety of reading levels on the same topic. Links to carefully selected websites and magazine articles are packaged with most articles.
Some of the most frequently offered suites of encyclopedias include Grolier Online, Encyclopedia Britannica, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall’s. Unwrapping these gifts will involve becoming familiar with the specific services provided by the encyclopedia available to you! I can guarantee it will be worth the effort.
The research begun with a tertiary resource such as an encyclopedia can continue with the secondary resources found in a database. In books and articles, authors make particular points about the topic. An online database provides the same type of information you gleaned from the magazines stacked neatly (or not) in the back rooms of your local library. The giant multi-volume indexes are now mostly replaced by the search boxes of the databases. Make sure you and your students learn to look for and include in their notes the stable URL, sometimes referred to as a permalink. That way, the effort they put into research won’t get lost in a cloud of indecipherable links to searches, the electronic equivalent of a jumble of unlabeled note cards.
Online databases can also be accessible to diverse learners. Students with vision impairment can display the articles in large print or read with a screen reader. And most database entries allow you to download an MP3 of the screen reader to store with your electronic notes. Definitions are available with a mouse click. And for teachers, the readability score or Lexile level is also easily available. Many student databases even allow teachers to filter their search by Lexile level!
Students may debate with their teachers about requirements to use sources from a "real" book or magazine. I wouldn’t argue that nothing of value is ever free … but if an article is actually published, it's more likely to have been checked for facts. It's also more likely to have that important "statement of responsibility," the byline that makes a bibliography possible. Speaking of bibliographies and note-taking, most databases include citation tools and pre-made citations. Many even include note-taking software!
Many states and almost all county and city library systems include access to ebooks. This is usually provided through one or two large vendors that "check out" the electronic book to a specific library card. Some systems, including those most frequently used by schools, include note-taking software that allow the student to keep his or her notes online even after the book is "returned." However, most electronic books are only available to one borrower at a time, so just as with brick-and-mortar research, time can be of the essence!
Following this research thread to its natural conclusion, we end with primary resources, the smoking gun of research. Almost all state libraries curate a collection of primary resource documents that may include written documents as well as photographs, videos, and sound recordings. But nothing can match the immensity of our national library, the Library of Congress, with American Memory as the mother lode of primary source material. You should also check out the Student Discovery sets from the LOC that are now also available as free iBooks.
There are other goodies waiting to be discovered through state and local libraries. Language learning software such as Mango and Powerspeak, other educational tools such as High Tech Academy, A+ Research and Writing, testing supports such as Testing and Educational Research Center and the Learning Express Library, and even music databases, such as Freegal, which allows a library card holder to legally download music.
So, with the holidays upon us, now is the time to unwrap, explore, and make good use of these tools, and remember to say thank you for those awesome presents.