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The Problem of “Print” Resources in Research Assignments

We’ve all heard it before. A student comes to the desk and announces that although she already has almost all the sources she needs for a paper, her assignment specifies that she must include at least one “print” source.

In an interesting twist, I’m starting to hear this from students who’ve done everything right. They’ve consulted our databases and found the full text of scholarly articles online. But they get very nervous when I tell them that these full text articles online “count” as “print” sources. How in the world could they have known? It makes perfect sense to me and to their professors, but there’s no way a student could know that “print” simply means “formally published” in all but a small minority of cases.

So I’ve begun to teach Ulrich’s whenever I think this might come up. So far I’ve only done it twice, but each time was completely surprised by the reaction I got. The students ate it up, and of all the things we went over in class, this was the thing they’d come up afterwards to get even more information about. Finally, there’s a way for them to tell without a shadow of a doubt if the PDF they found on Google or via one of our databases is a “print source” or just some paper up online. Here’s the rule: if it’s in Ulrich’s, it’s a “print” source, even if it’s an e-only publication. As an added bonus, you can also tell right off the bat if a source is refereed, knew or established, some places it’s indexed, and whether or not it’s an e-only publication. (Added bonus for me, in order to teach Ulrich’s I have to check to make sure students are adept at finding the periodical’s name, which I always like to squeeze into library sessions.)

So that’s all well and good as a stop-gap measure, but what I’d really like to do is get away from requiring “at least three print sources.” Why not require at least three “formally published” sources, or ask students to determine if their sources were scholarly or not and then justify their choice? “Print” sources will only make less sense as we go along, not more.

Published inIn My Classroom


  1. Meredith Meredith

    I know at my school, some of our faculty actually want students to find a print resource that is physically located in the library and not something from an online database. They actually want them to xerox a page from the journal to show that they actually used a real physical journal. So this usually means that we search the databases on their topic, find something good, and then check to see if we physically have it in the library. Sigh…

    I often wonder if they do this because they want students to become familiar with what a print journal looks like or if they don’t know much about what is available through the databases. Maybe a little of both?

    We had another assignment where students each had to use two books from the library in their research and the class was only allowed to choose from 4 topics, so you had 10 or more students looking for 20 or more books on a specific topic in which we had at most 5 books in the library (and by the time we heard about the assignment, the books had already been taken out). Double sigh…

  2. Iris Iris

    I agree. That’s really frustrating. I’ve heard of one assignment that actually required real print sources, but this particular assignment was set up to be exploratory and highly dependent on browsing, so that wasn’t so frustrating.

    But this will become harder and harder as more and more of our periodical collections go digital.

  3. Roger Hiles Roger Hiles

    Even worse are the assignments that specify “use microfilm”. I understand the reasons (not everything has been digitized, builds character, etc.), but I’m not sure it works with students.

    I once spent 10 minutes showing a student how to find a citation, locate the reel, find the reader/printer, load the film and spool to the article, only to have her say, “Why would anyone ever invent something like this?”

    It wasn’t just cumbersome, it was completely beyond what she’d do for research.

    Our collections may not have gone digital yet, but our users sure have.

  4. Iris Iris

    Hi Roger. Yeah, I don’t really like specifying format over content. I don’t like doing that when we buy for our collections, and I don’t like forcing students to do it for their research projects.

    In my ideal world, students would engage in research where they would naturally be exposed to multiple formats because those were the formats housing their ideal content. … I just wish real life mirrored my ideal world more often…

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