Searching, Synthesizing, Analyzing in the 21st Century ‘Stacks’

by Mark Gordon, Librarian, Oceana High School, Pacifica, California

For his Senior Exhibition, Oleg wanted to explore the ethical and practical issues surrounding the privacy issue on the Internet. He realized after a talk with me that this was a fast-breaking, currently evolving issue. It was likely that there would be few books on it, because of the typical long lag time from writing to publication involved in book publishing. Likewise for reference books.

He decided to check the periodicals indexes to try to find background information, and he found many references. He was able to use our back files of magazines, and also our online cd-rom full-text magazine index. It seemed to him, though, that the best information on this topic might be located on the Internet itself. So he logged on to the World Wide Web. He did a search using a service called “Web Crawler.” This “search engine” actually examines the text of all items stored on all computers currently connected to the World Wide Web and seeks matches to the words entered for searching. The term “privacy” yielded a vast list of items. >From the list it was not immediately possible to evaluate the merits of each listing, but eventually Oleg found the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). He also found government documents examining privacy versus legitimate investigative work in criminal cases.

Next, he found the address of a leading commentator in computer magazines on the issue of privacy. Oleg was able to arrange an interview with this person (who was based, luckily, in a large city near our school). The interview was thrilling for him. The writer was very opinionated and gave him a lens through which to look at the information he was finding on-line and in the periodicals.

The problem Oleg was facing as he developed his exhibition was the classic problem all scholars face. How could he tell the validity of the information he was encountering? Was it harebrained or reasonable? What was the point of view of the various authors? Did they have an axe to grind? How could he link the current controversy with similar issues in the past involving, for example, government eavesdropping? These concerns led Oleg deeper into his research.

The exhibition was a great success. In the end Oleg was able to come to his own conclusion: encryption to prevent access should be supported, even though the government would be somewhat hampered when investigating criminal activities. He defended his ideas based on real understanding of the issues. He was able to represent the contending positions and the tradeoffs implicit in the resolution of the controversy one way or the other.

Oleg’s exhibition demonstrated some of the strengths of merging traditional with new library activities. The librarian’s role was key from the beginning of the project. He or she is an information manager, selecting and organizing materials and providing access. He or she empowers students to design a strategy for locating information they need based on the type of query they have. The librarian and the teachers both assist in the development of habits of mind the student can use in determining the value of the information they uncover. Finally, the librarian supports the student’s use of the Internet to locate people knowledgable about something of value to the student, and then allowing an exchange between the student and this individual. Powerful stuff!

Oleg left the process pleased with himself. He learned a tremendous amount about Constitutional protections and about the issues surrounding this particular controversy. He has confidence that he can tackle any query with the structure for inquiry he has developed. He is aware that he can begin to uncover the hidden “stuff” behind an idea, because he knows the questions he should be asking himself.

Without the librarian in the school serving as information manager and information mentor, could Oleg’s triumph have occurred?