Allow Students to Pursue their Interests in the Library Databases

My college recently acquired access to tens of thousands of new journals and books via the online databases. The idealists among us would expect droves of students to have raced from their Xboxes and their vehicles to begin sifting through the over a million new pages now awaiting their keyword searches. But alas, no great spike in database access manifested in the online traffic logs. It would seem that access to gigantic bodies of information does not generate much enthusiasm or curiosity in the hearts of students. The idealists among us blink in the harsh light of this realization and wonder: how can we can get students through the library portal and into the uncharted wilds of interesting new knowledge? One possible answer is for teachers to share with students what they love about libraries.

I remember when I saw the library through the same eyes our students see it: a great torture box in which we endured various punishments. I was an English major and this feeling was particularly acute for students in my discipline–having to face Beowulf in the original was a special kind of punishment. 

I remember when my feelings about the library began to change. It happened when I realized that all the books and journal articles housed there were simply part of an ongoing conversation about questions that have not really been answered to everyone’s satisfaction. This was my own personal paradigm shift. I had previously thought of every word in that enormous building as being a fact that I needed to remember. When I realized that books and articles were filled with more opinions than facts, a door opened within me. There was no need to feel chastened by all these tomes of wisdom. I might even begin to see that some of them were none too wise. The library was no longer just an archive but a place that invited me to join the conversation. And so my adventure with the library began.

I try to show my students that while there are advanced conversations happening in every discipline, there are also simple exchanges that they can participate in immediately. The Sun Magazine is a popular literary monthly (subscribed to by our library) that asks readers and students “to write about subjects on which they are the only authorities.” After twelve years of mostly hearing about all they don’t know, how refreshing it is for students to meet a magazine that is suddenly asking for their opinions. 

Although The Sun Magazine offers an invitation to students in my discipline, there are journals and magazines that will be inviting to students in every department of our college. Nursing students might find something that sparks their interests in American Nurse, Nurse Practitioner, Registered Nurse, or Men in Nursing. Music majors can dive into Rolling Stone, Music Quarterly, or perhaps the Music Educators Journal. For engineers, there’s Popular Mechanics; for those interested in design, Architectural Digest. 

I encourage my students to poke around the “Journals List” link of our library’s website until they find a magazine or journal they think they may actually like. Then I create assignments that ask students to scan article titles and the first paragraphs of stories until they find articles that they want to read. Sure, some of them come back raving about what they’ve discovered in The Saturday Evening Post and Outdoor Life; magazines not exactly at the heart of my discipline, but I console myself that some reading for pleasure is better than no reading for pleasure. Other students find periodicals on the cutting edge. They come raving about what they’ve discovered in Fem Spec and the Antioch Review. 

Simply being shown how to explore the databases after having been given the permission to pursue their interests can make students who once hated or felt ambivalent about the library feel differently about what it has to offer. And once the library starts feeling like a friend, a lifelong friendship can ensue.

Chris Riseley (, is a faculty at Linn-Benton Community College, Oregon.

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