Coffee with Mimi, Aug. 5

BY MIMI BECKER

If I was still in the classroom, the earth would possibly be rumbling and students would be looking at each other in surprise as I relay to them what I recently learned from a credible source: a reference librarian.

A brief history of my relationship with information sourcing is needed.

In the course of the year, my students were often asked to research a particular topic. These could be lengthy assignments or a quick fact gathering mission to set up further discussion. There was a required process for this fact gathering.

First, open the actual textbook. Go to the index and use reasonable logic and skill to find the page(s) with introductory information. Next, back in the day when actual encyclopedias were available, go there. Following that step, I usually had a collection of books which could be helpful. Scan through those sources. If the issue was a current one, I had newspapers which covered the ongoing events.

And, last, finally, go to the Internet. But, not just the first source that pops up. That source was usually one which rose in popularity, (that should give you a clue), because individuals could add to entries on a topic. The premise of the site was that lots of brains are better than a few brains. The site developers/owners believed that incorrect information posted would be corrected in due time by someone who may know more.

That is a good idea in theory. The fault in the system became an issue when unsuspecting and young users encountered “facts” of which they were unfamiliar and then incorporated those “facts” into their knowledge. How were they to know what information would momentarily be corrected? Hence, the procedure and hierarchy for gathering information in advance.

The point was beautifully illustrated during a project introducing the history leading to issues and conflict in the Middle East. Students had read the text, looked through other sources and then been granted the rights to go to the computer.

Low and behold, smack dab in the first paragraph was a mistake as judged by a 7th Grade student. The word spread. It was great! A highlight of my teaching career on so many levels. As a major source of information, in my classroom and many others, that site was deemed not necessarily reliable and material should be further verified, requiring more work on the part of students.

As it turns out, big web sites do respond to realities if they want to be taken seriously and that web site changed some protocols and is now considered to be a better bet for the neophyte researcher.

Times have changed swiftly. Encyclopedias collect dust and are packed away, or recycled. It seems such a shame, all that knowledge just thrown away. I loved encyclopedias. If someone donated a set to my classroom, I was happy to accept. I had a cart with three sets, only one of which was missing a volume. I was careful in assigning research groups to avoid topics I knew required that letter of the alphabet. It slowed the process. One of my favorite answers to a question was “look it up”. Off to the cart.

I accepted the beginning of the end of an era when students were asked to research an individual artist and then make a short oral presentation on his/her life. The basic biographical information was required; birth date, date of death, home, education, major works, etc. This was an assignment using only the encyclopedias.

We worked our way through the presentations to Picasso. The student did a fine job. Pertinent information was quite nicely put forth. At the conclusion of the performance, thinking he had been too nervous and forgotten to mention it, I asked when Picasso died. He isn’t dead. Set aside the logic in that calculation, we are talking about Middle School, the great artist was old, but not immortal. Are you sure, I gently inquired. Absolutely, it is in the encyclopedia.

I was beginning to doubt my own reasonable base of education and common sense. Go get the encyclopedia you used. Sure enough, there it was. Picasso (1881 – ). The man died in 1973. The precious encyclopedia was so old, Picasso was still alive.

In my defense, I would never have assigned a research topic using encyclopedias on topics such as scientific study, for example. The speed of medical and scientific advancements were clearly out dated in encyclopedic currency practically upon printing. But, basic biographical data? The encyclopedias had to go; fortunately, the set was also the one missing a volume.

The Internet is a gift to fact driven people. When is the next solar eclipse? Google it. August 21, 2017. How far is it to the Outer Banks? 727.9 miles and I don’t even have to tell it where I’m starting my drive.

The Internet knows me.

I thought the story about the adorable little Princess Charlotte curtsying at the age of two was cute. I opened it up, watched the video. It was cute. Next thing I know, I am informed I have shown an interest in the Princess Charlotte and my news feed automatically gives me more pictures of adorable princess Charlotte; sniffing her presentation bouquet, shaking hands with foreign dignitaries, throwing a temper tantrum on the airport runway.

The news feed on my cell phone is a handy feature. I like that I can check up on current events from a variety of sources. I usually use up those with free allotment early in the month. But, beware, if you are not careful, you will be fed the oddest assortment of “news”. A local student competed in the Miss Teen USA contest. I clicked on an article to follow the young lady. Now, until the pageant and its coverage runs its course, a story pops up.

The Internet is the encyclopedia cart of today. It is improbable to find that Picasso is still alive if researching using the Internet. However, encyclopedias didn’t automatically open themselves to the royal succession chart or fashion trends established by the Duchess if I had previously queried the last name of the current monarch.

Some conveniences require monitoring to be most efficient. A casual question asked can result in a torrent of tangential information.