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Laying the foundation for lifelong learning by building essential research skills begins in library databases and extends beyond the classroom

Beyond simple search: The benefits of topic browsing in library databases

Laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning by building essential research skills begins in the library and extends to the classroom and beyond

Key points:

Library databases, packed with rich and reliable content, are more than simply resources for students to reference when a research paper is due. They are also valuable teaching tools.

Databases are essential for helping middle and high school students understand the value of research, appreciate the importance of validating sources, and make connections between different topics — all of which are necessary for building information literacy skills. Databases provide full-text access to a wide range of content, including books, magazines, primary sources, images, charts, and peer-reviewed articles by credible authors representing diverse perspectives. They serve as trustworthy alternatives to internet searches, where the information surfaced can be unreliable, untrue, and unsafe. While traditional single-search functions are efficient, databases with topic browsing capabilities offer additional benefits for novice researchers and educators alike.

Topic browsing offers students a more logical and intuitive way to explore a database. When a database keyword search turns up an overwhelming number of results, students can quickly become frustrated and give up. Alternatively, topic browsing enables students to navigate through various subjects (or themes) to explore and gather information resources related to popular, colloquial, or curriculum-based topics. In addition, topic browsing allows students to easily toggle between topics, narrowing their focus or broadening their scope as they go. Using this approach, students can locate the information they need more effectively.

Topic browsing offers a contextual perspective that simple search often lacks. For example, a keyword search on “climate change” results in thousands of articles that discuss climate change or global warming, but a student might not immediately see articles about the increase in extreme wildfires or the impact of melting sea ice on polar bears. By exploring related categories, subcategories, or topics, students can develop a broader understanding of the larger information landscape and make connections between topics and ideas, which boosts their critical thinking skills and can help them refine their thesis.

Browsing a library database by category or topic also introduces an element of surprise to the research experience. When students navigate a database through categories, tags, or hierarchical structures, they can stumble upon relevant content that they might not have initially considered. For example, a high school student exploring topics related to climate change could navigate to an interesting article about the pros and cons of Daylight-Saving Time that leads them to write a persuasive essay arguing for a nationwide Sunshine Protection Act. A middle school student interested in researching animals navigates to a subcategory about circus and performance animals and ends up writing a paper on the hidden cruelty behind wildlife selfies. This serendipitous information discovery can inspire students’ curiosity and encourage them to explore the available knowledge more deeply.

Browsing can be a less stressful activity than searching and a more suitable approach to research for visual learners or researchers without a specific topic in mind. A visual browsing feature, such as one that includes colorful images, can be effective in drawing students into the research process. Students who learn best through visual categorization would be presented with new avenues for exploring a topic in ways that they can appreciate and more easily comprehend. More importantly, all topic browsing occurs in a safe, trusted and carefully curated environment.

Library databases are also powerful tools for educators. The ability to browse content by category or topic can save educators time as they build class reading lists and select supplementary materials to support curriculum delivery and develop lesson plans. They can also be confident that the materials are trustworthy. When selecting content for databases, information aggregators and developers rely on publication subscription information, title level reviews, notable rankings, reading level measures, and staff review of each publication. They also conduct broad market research and discuss content needs with those directly teaching and assisting students as well as customer focus groups and advisory boards. Because vetted publications still contain vast amounts of information, database developers also employ human curation and technology such as algorithms to inform their decisions. Educators can rest assured that the materials selected for inclusion in school databases are educational, age-relevant (in reading level and context), support curriculum requirements, and are applicable to the subjects taught at specific grade levels.

When library databases allow users to browse by topic, in addition to searching by keyword, the overall research experience is significantly enriched. The benefits of topic browsing include simplified navigation, contextual understanding, increased user engagement, serendipitous discovery, optimal support for visual learners and accommodation of diverse user needs. Laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning by building essential research skills begins in the library and extends to the classroom and beyond. Library databases with topic browsing capabilities empower more young researchers — and their teachers — to achieve success.

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