on “just” browsing …

A cross post from the Association of Independent School Librarians: Independent Ideas Blog.

Image of periodicalsIn one of my favorite movies, 1989’s Raising Arizona, Holly Hunter’s character tells Nicholas Cage’s character, “We have a baby now, everything’s chaaaaaanged!!!” What does this have to do with life in our library? Well … While working on our EBSCO periodical renewal list recently, it occurred to me that when it comes to periodical browsing, indeed, “Everything’s chaaaaaanged!!!” as well!

Katie Archambault launched us into a really interesting discussion on periodicals with her Staging My Own Intervention post from January which I recently revisited.  It made me realize that when I first started working as a librarian here 14 years ago, we subscribed to just about 100 periodicals.  In the coming school year, that number will probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of just about 40.  My recent and completely un-scientific survey via the AISL listserv two days ago indicated that at 40 titles, we are fairly typical.  22 respondents indicated that they subscribe to 0-39 titles and 20 respondents indicated that they subscribed to 40 or more titles.

In evaluating how our periodicals get used (or more realistically, don’t get used), I came to the realization that even perennially favorite titles like Sports Illustrated, People, and Teen Vogue just aren’t attracting middle school eyeballs like they used to.  Interestingly, Mad, Mental Floss, Mac World, Make, and Surfer’s Journal seem to continue to attract their niche audiences based on how often I find myself picking those magazines up from around the building and on the physical condition of the magazines themselves.  Overall, however, periodicals just don’t seem to play the same role in the lives of the well-informed student that they used to.

As a child, I had the great fortune of growing up in a print-rich home.  We had subscriptions to both of the city’s dailies–The Honolulu Star-Bulletin and The Honolulu Advertiser.  We also had subscriptions to Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, Ranger Rick, Sports Illustrated, People, TV Guide, and … Soap Opera Digest (LOL!).  Even as a young child, I remember flipping through the news weeklies and reading headlines.  I also remember flipping through National Geographic and trying to read the captions on pictures that captured my fancy.  Looking back on the habits of mind that grew out of those experiences, I have really come to appreciate how browsing of all of that curated content helped to bring shape and structure to the way that I interact with information and the way that I attempt to try to understand my world.

My middle schoolers spend a lot of time online.  We are a 1:1 BYOLaptop school and just about all of our students have smartphones which they are allowed to use in school during the school day. I have grown concerned that even with all of this connectivity, many of our students don’t seem to be developing information habits that promote the serendipitous discovery of seemingly random stuff that might possibly come in handy some day.  This was the role that Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic played for me back in the day.  I remember, for example, seeing pictures and reading about the Buddhas of Bamiyan in one of these publications long before they came back into the news when they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. I didn’t learn about the Buddhas of Bamiyan as part of a course curriculum, as much as they were artifacts that lived in my consciousness simply because they looked neat in pictures that I had seen in a magazine edited for a general audience. In a world where students don’t seem very inclined to pick up print magazines, what plays that role in the lives our students today?

School information services can’t just be about searching. Database searching is a valuable skill, but I would argue that even in a world as abundant with information as our world is today, there is a really important role that is played by regularly browsing well curated content. As a middle school librarian, much of my energy goes into looking for ways to help students be better searchers.  I’ve realized recently, however, that we also need to be focusing more of our energy on how we might better promote the regular browsing of high-quality curated content.

So … Here are my driving questions:

  • In an information landscape increasingly populated by personalized search algorithms, how do we help students to escape their filter bubbles?
  • How do we introduce students to online tools and help them to develop information habits that can help bring them into regular contact with high quality curated content?

And … Here are some of the tools and strategies we’re considering employing:

  • RSS Feeds and Feedly–I’d like to try to get Feedly (or some other browser-based RSS reader) in place, then get content area teachers to recommend carefully selected feeds (Scientific American, Los Angeles Times editorials, or Wired Magazine for example) to which we could have students subscribe.
  • Scoop.it or Pinterest–Scoop.it and Pinterest are content curation services with image-based interfaces that allow users to create a “topic” then curate content on it.  Scoop.it and Pinterest both automatically generate a RSS feeds to which students can subscribe.  Ambitious teachers might like the ability to curate their own course appropriate content that would then be pushed out to student RSS readers. In case you’re interested here lives my Libraries in the Middle Scoop.it page.
  • Introduce Them to Good Old Print!–I still believe that there is a role to be played for print periodicals.  I teach a debate class for 8th graders and we bring students into the library and have them browse a topic as it is covered in the Economist, Mother Jones, the Weekly Standard, and Reason.  Students are typically intrigued at the way that subtle choices of semantics and word choice change the color and tone of coverage and therefore the perspective one takes away from the reading of an article.  Our science teachers also bring kids in and have them browse some of our science oriented titles.  We find that even after the assignment concludes, a small, but persistent percentage of kids will continue to pick-up and browse some of the titles.
  • Flipboard and Zite–We aren’t an iPad or tablet site, but for those of you who are, you might consider working use of Flipboard or Zite into you curriculum.  I find great content on Zite for my personal use, but Flipboard allows users to subscribe to specific RSS feeds which is probably a distinct advantage over Zite for employment as a curricular tool. A note for those who may be interested, Flipboard recently purchased Zite from CNN so you may want to keep an eye on on both tools to see how they are further developed and supported–or aren’t.  As a fan of Zite, I’m hoping for the best, but as a bit of a cynic, I tend to expect the worst.

Well … Those are some of the things tumbling about in my head on browsing.  How are you promoting browsing?  I’d love to hear what you’re doing!

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