News databases: Diversity without equity or inclusion

The Problem

Back in September, 2020, I sent out a call for help across AISL and other school librarian-oriented lists in hopes of finding databases that provide “diverse, inclusive, and equitable access to perspectives mirroring the composition of our country in magazines, historical newspapers, and contemporary news.” Generally, database companies sell “core” collections that are positioned as “high quality sources,” comprised almost entirely of white-perspective news outlets. Then they up-sell from a menu of discrete “ethnic” packages to provide “alternate perspectives.” Students deserve better.

Thank you to the many folks who responded hoping to hear of a good database in which to invest. Sadly, the answer is…so far I’ve found no way to buy this unicorn of the database world. Ultimately, I started doing my own diversity audit of our databases and others on the market to try to better articulate the nature of the problem.

I am currently only part way through this process. First semester ended up (happily) being much more crowded with instruction than I had anticipated. Even the terminology I use to think about this set of issues is still in crude form. Here is an update on what I have learned so far, however. To date I have focused on US news, historical and contemporary, and have only been able to compare offerings from two companies. This work has served — at the very least — as evidence that the problem is real and pressing.

Inclusion

In the fall, I had not yet fully realized the insidious nature of the juxtaposition we often attribute to databases: quality sources vs. alternative perspectives. I’ve been sitting with this formulation increasingly in the intervening months, and contemplating how our professional narrative around databases is driven by the marketing efforts of the database companies themselves. Consider the act of marketing a database as “providing researchers access to essential, often overlooked perspectives” that exists because the perspectives have been intentionally overlooked and isolated to sell us another database. So how much does the title list of an intentionally curated “ethnic” database (which mysteriously includes the LGBTQ+ collection, by the way) overlap with a product intended for high school?

ProQuest: Compared title lists for Research Library Prep and Ethnic Newswatch databases.

Please note that the “Overlap (%)” column conveys how many of the “specialized” Ethnic Newswatch titles also appear in “general” Research Library Prep. It does not convey the percentage of Research Library Prep that are/are not white perspective — those numbers would apparently be vanishingly small. 

An issue that struck me immediately as I got started was that scholarly journals comprise, by far, the largest mass of content in Ethnic Newswatch that is also available in Research Library Prep. These sources differ distinctly from newspapers or popular magazines; academic discourse may well be quite removed from the community it studies. That is, a large percentage of the authorial and editorial work is carried out within a realm of authority modeled on European institutions and constructed in our academic halls of privilege. To put it plainly: the perspectives appearing in the University of Pennsylvania Press’ Hispanic Review may not reflect community voices in the same way that those appearing in La Prensa Texas newspaper do. Both source types provide important points of view; their creation does not serve the same purpose.

Important as it is to have a diversity of voices in our scholarly works, they provide fundamentally different types of evidence from newspapers. Not to mention, they are not accessible to most K-12 students.

Gale: General OneFile, In Context: High School, OneFile: High School Edition, OneFile: News, In Context: US History

It has been challenging to figure out how to do a diversity audit, but since many database companies seem to start monetizing diversity with Black American newspapers, I decided to work from lists of existing and historical Black papers, including: National Newspaper Publishers Association Current Members and Princeton University Library – African-American Newspapers (1829-present). I used titles from these lists to search within Gale’s title lists, and found:

Checking Black American newspaper titles against Gale title lists yielded vanishingly few overlaps.

In the process of looking at the titles that are listed, the Atlanta Daily World and the Chicago Defender — historically both very important publications in the 20th Century United States — only had coverage from 2014-present, with exceptions from 2015/16 to the present. Meaning, in fact, they only have a handful of issues of each paper.

Once again, these databases provide news sources that almost entirely reside within historically white readerships.

Equity

In another sense, it does not functionally matter if a database includes sources from diverse sets of communities. When the algorithm privileges white perspective publications, searchers may never encounter other points of view.

Spot checks of ProQuest’s ranking of newspaper results in Research Library Prep confirmed that their methods for ranking heavily favored specific titles. Specifically, the New York Times dominated results, with a smattering of hits from the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, US Fed News Service and Targeted News Service

I ran a series of searches, noting how many unique titles were returned for each search, as well as those titles’ spreads across the top 100 results. In essence, how many pages would I need to scroll through to access more than a few titles? I searched for [ the ] — as a word that appears universally in English-language newspapers — and also for words like [ miami ], [ skagit ], and [governor] — each of which strongly suggest local news. In every case, the results looked something like the results for [ the ]:

  • Returned 81 unique titles
  • Top 100 results:
    • 95 results from the NYT
    • Other titles ranked: #37, 41, 71, 91, 95
    • Other publications in the top 100 results: Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Targeted News Service 

Progress!

However, there is good news. A Gale sales rep who is on one or more school library lists began wondering about this issue themselves, and carried out an independent audit that they then presented to their acquisitions department. As a result, when I last checked in this past November, Gale publisher relations personnel have identified:

  • Licensed periodicals where the issues aren’t current
    • Updates are in various states of progress 
  • Important periodicals with lapsed agreements 
    • Updates are in various states of progress  
  • Over 140 new periodicals from the following communities:  “African Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans/ Latinx, Native Americans, Ability Diverse, LGBTQ+, Women, & more”
    • Requests have been sent to publisher relations to pursue license agreements

Though not within the scope of my current work, Gale has also taken a look at their reference overviews and biographies and have made efforts to offer more coverage, as well.

The solution?

Does this issue interest you? Would you like to join me in fighting for single databases that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive? Whether you would like to audit a database you have, suggest a consistent method for auditing, share findings at your state conference, or talk to your database companies once we have a clear report — kindly reach out. If the idea is that we are better together, let’s unite and make a difference!

I am deeply grateful to my director, Jole Seroff, for being so invested in and supportive of this exploration, and colleague Sara Kelley-Mudie for helping me focus my thinking.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

Saturday is the last day of fall term. I’m teaching two sections of New Student Seminar (NSS)—a semester-long signature program covering academic orientation and study and research skills here at Kent. Due to our new block rotation schedule, yesterday was the last day one of my classes met, and although I gave my students the option of going to the library and studying for finals or working on projects for other classes, all but one chose to stay in the classroom. We’re a cozy group—quite comfortable with each other. Like with most teens this age, quite a bit of joking and good-natured razzing goes on during unstructured (sometimes even structured) time. Today was no exception. Talk turned to travels home and the anticipation of life without masks, surrounded by family and friends most haven’t seen in person since school started due to COVID-19 restrictions.

I don’t know how it is for you, but I have a hard time letting go at the end of a term, especially with a class that clicks and is just genuinely fun to be around. So instead of getting melancholy, I’ll use the next few days to look over my curriculum and make notes on lessons I think I should expand upon, and those I should streamline or get rid of altogether. This year, with the move to a hybrid teaching model, just about every lesson incorporated an element to encourage engagement or reflection prior to practice and demonstration of mastery. I’ll save what I’d like to streamline for another time and focus on a few things that worked well this term.

Screencasting is Key to Remote Learning:

Repeat after me: “Screencasting is my friend!” Although I used the Swivl robot, iPad, laptop, Zoom combination every class, it mostly benefited my in-person and remote students joining synchronously so they could connect with me and each other. When reviewing the recordings, I often found conversations weren’t loud enough or clear enough for my asynchronous students to hear what was going on. When I asked my remote students, they shared that discussions were hard to understand, even when four remote mics were placed around the room. Following that feedback, I started importing the Zoom recording into iMovie and slogged through 45 minutes of video—an uplifting experience if ever there was one—increasing the volume of student comments and discussion. My voice was fine since I wore a mic, but even when I amplified students’ voices 400%, you could barely hear what was being said. The best solution I was able to come up with was to record a separate lesson using Screencastify to post on PowerSchool, our LMS. This was a much better solution and took less than half the time I spent editing the Zoom recording, especially after I made peace with imperfect videos. In addition to the overview screencasts, I created videos introducing each unit to explain what would be covered in the next few lessons. Tutorials were recorded to explain individual skills and paired with an activity to practice/ master the skill. Below you’ll see the unit introduction and a tutorial and activity for finding an eBook on EBSCO or ProQuest Ebook Central and adding it to NoodleTools.

Flipgrid for Engagement, Student Voice, and Assessment

Flipgrid is such a versatile tool that I found myself turning to it often as it is easy to use and gives students a number of options for recording responses that takes their personal comfort level into consideration. For my introductory lesson, I used one of the conversations in the Discovery section asking students to share five items that showcase who they are. This was a great icebreaker—not too intrusive—and was fun to see what items each person chose that reflected who they were. There was a dog pillow and Shakespeare, hockey and lax sticks, a digital camera and a cheeseburger, a copy of Catcher in the Rye and a pair of Vans to name just a few. I wish I could list everything because they’re completely smile-worthy.

What’s in Your Bag?

When we started our unit on Growth Mindset, I asked my students to share something they worked really hard to master. Their responses were fascinating to watch as they shared everything from mastering Latin to a tennis backhand to performing card tricks and overcoming laziness. I loved that overcoming laziness was viewed as a skill that could be mastered—see, there is hope for all you parents with children with messy rooms! Nestled in their dorm rooms, my students shared their pride in an accomplishment—something they may not have felt comfortable doing in person or over Zoom. This platform also leveled the playing field and offered an equitable assignment for all of my students regardless of how they were attending class.

Keeping a Growth Mindset

Finally, when I introduced NoodleTools and asked them to find a source and add it to their project, I used Flipgrid to assess their understanding of the process by asking them to use the screen share feature to record their screen and walk through the steps to find and add a source to NoodleTools. It was really interesting to see how each student interpreted the instructions – I got everything from students looking directly into the camera and telling me how they did it step-by-step, to the silent film version accompanied by exaggerated clicking to a tutorial that I would have been proud to claim as my own!

NoodleTools Tutorial

Padlet for Playlists, Brainstorming, Critical Thinking

Padlets are interactive bulletin boards that can be used for a variety of activities. I used them frequently as they are simple to create, encourage collaboration, and are easily embedded in my LMS. For my unit on time management, I created a playlist and students chose one video, one article written by a Kent graduate, and one additional article or video. I then asked them to add a discussion post with this prompt: Thinking about the articles/ blog post that you read and the video you watched, what are three things that impressed you or stood out about the author’s approach to time management and how might you work that into your own time management routine? For annotation and note taking, I provided samples and students were then asked to choose one system, use it for a week, and post a picture of their best work. Finally, when a college counselor visited to talk about the college application process, he brought along cards of the factors colleges use to evaluate applicants. Students then discussed and rank ordered them in terms of importance. Since my remote students wouldn’t be able to read the cards, I needed to ensure an equitable learning environment for them. I created a Padlet with the 13 items and shared my screen over Zoom so they were able to take part in the discussion as the cards were moved into the order discussed.

Our students are leaving campus on Monday and all of us are looking forward to a well-deserved rest. Following Thanksgiving Break, we enter our remote learning stretch, then break again and return to campus in early February, starting classes remotely until everyone quarantines to ensure a safe return to life on campus. During the remote period, I look forward to collaborating on research projects with our APUSH classes and an opportunity to work with students to hone their research skills. Whether we are planning lessons for remote, in-person, or asynchronous learning, the right tech tool for the right job increases the opportunity for engagement and gives students a platform to share their voice with others.

Ah, Research Season …

This week, our 5th formers will be completing their U.S. History research papers in lieu of a mid-term exam. As they scramble to finish their product—find one last piece of evidence to support a claim, format their manuscript in Chicago Style, insert footnotes, polish their thesis statement—I find myself with the opportunity to look back over these past two months and reflect on the process. While it takes a village to shepherd and support our students through the process, our work moves them toward what is ultimately a uniquely solitary activity, the act of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, one that requires they bring together all of the skills and pieces of information covered over the course of this semester that hopefully will result in one cohesive work.

“It’s only a high school research paper.”
—astute APUSH student

In much the same way my students need to grapple with and master the specific skills research requires of them, it’s also necessary for me to think about how I can help them with that process. As educators of secondary school students, I don’t think many of us are under the illusion that our students are truly finding a research gap and entering into the scholarly conversation in a way that will be acknowledged by the academic community at large. This is in no way discounting the fine work many of our students do in their research/writing, but as one of my APUSH students so aptly stated when a colleague was doing the classic deep dive we all do when creating a properly formatted citation, “it’s only a high school research paper.” Yes, yes it is. Somehow looking at it from that perspective has been wonderfully liberating. While my students may not have their work published in peer-reviewed journals (yet!), they do need to be able to read and think deeply and critically about any number of issues throughout their academic career and in their personal life. So, how do we maintain high standards yet keep the paper in its proper perspective and what exactly does keep me up at night thinking about all things research?

Make the Process Visible

Image Credit: University Library System, University of Pittsburgh

The Research Process is one that’s familiar to us all—an iterative process with students moving through the steps on the infographic above until they (finally!) reach the citing, reviewing, and editing finish line. If you’re like me, you probably see at least six or more points when it would be helpful to meet with a class to provide instruction. Depending on a myriad of factors unique to each school, we might have one “boot camp” style instructional session or we might be fortunate enough to meet on a regular basis with a given class.

Flip the Class

Regardless of how much instructional time we have with students, it’s never enough. Our general research LibGuide establishes a common language for students and faculty and provides a general overview of the research process. With links to available resources and the flexibility to embed these in our PowerSchool LMS, flipping lessons can make the instructional time I do have more productive.

The Class-Specific LibGuide

This year I worked with five sections of U.S. History and two sections of APUSH, all writing a long-form paper. My collaboration with these classes ranged from an average of two-three instructional sessions to a high of ten. While more is always better from my vantage point, I work hard to be flexible and adapt to the needs of each faculty. This means I have to plan well in advance to cover essential skills during my face-to-face instructional time. For each research project I collaborate on, I create a unique guide that serves as a home base for students and supports what I cover in class. The U.S. History guide has subject-specific curated resources for primary, secondary, and tertiary sources and additional information on writing process skills. I’m also working on an exciting new project with the AP AB Calculus class on symmetry in nature and their guide supports the exploration of academic as well as online sources. These guides make it possible to curate available resources that help our students develop familiarity with scholarly and trustworthy sources.

Embrace the Basics

Although our incoming 3rd and 4th formers take a semester-long New Student Seminar course which covers study and research skills, I find I still need to stress the basics to our 5th and 6th formers. What is a tertiary source and why can you use it for background information but not quote it or include it in the bibliography? How can a book and journal both be secondary sources, but only one is peer-reviewed? How do you use social media in a scholarly paper? How are we to think about an author’s bias/ point-of-view or their authority? I do use handouts that when finished resemble an annotated bibliography and find they help students record basic bibliographic information with space for relevant quotes and why they support their claims. I try to not overestimate their ability to locate and evaluate information and plan lessons that focus on meta-cognition—encouraging them to think about thinking.

NoodleTools

Oh, where would we be without NoodleTools? Even my most reluctant students eventually come to see the benefit of organizing their research on this platform. The inbox feature allows me to have access to all my students’ projects and be able to work side-by-side with them as they add or evaluate sources. While students love the export to NoodleTools feature on most databases, I see great value in thinking about what goes into the creation of a citation: what type of source is it, where was it found, who is the author, what is the title of the journal, when was it published, etc.—all the questions students need to answer as they add sources manually. With the notecard feature, I see a range of requirements from faculty for students to create notecards on NoodleTools, but I find those students who use the notecard feature generally have a much easier time organizing their outline and keeping quotes and paraphrases attributed to the proper source. Whether required by their teacher or not, I encourage all my students to use the notecard and outline features.

Images showing a student’s exemplary use of the notecard feature

Make Personal Connections

One of the best changes to this year’s instruction has been the addition of conferencing thanks to two faculty who required their students meet with me to discuss their papers. To organize this as simply as possible, students signed up “old school” for a time to meet via a clipboard at the front desk. We have other sign-up clipboards, so this made the most sense for the sake of consistency. These reference interviews were an opportunity for me to connect with students on a personal basis, ask questions that encouraged critical thinking and helped them to clarify their topic or thesis. It was also a time to offer them support on anything they requested from finding sources to formatting their manuscript. Asking students how I might help them encourages them to think more critically about where they are in the process and identify what they need to move forward. I see these conversations as a way to model how they might enter into the larger research conversation.

Our “old school” sign-up sheet gets the job done!

The Research Process is Messy

Another benefit of these one-on-one sessions is for me to be able to share the messiness of the whole process. Whether searching for sources, developing a thesis, or finding that right piece of evidence to support a claim, my experience has been that students generally believe research is a librarian’s superpower, not something we ever fail at or struggle with. So when I meet with students, it’s not to impress them with finding the “just right” source, it’s to show them the search process can be totally frustrating and you constantly have to regroup and refine search terms. To help them develop their search muscle, we identify basic search terms together and then brainstorm how to expand or limit our search depending on the results. Because I have a large monitor, these one-on-one sessions allow students to easily see and follow along as we work through advanced search strategies – something not easily accomplished with group instruction. Since mid-December, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with over 70 students, many of those repeat visits with no mandate from the teacher. Connecting with students at this level has enriched my experience as their research librarian and I hope it has enriched their research experience, as well.

Rethinking Your Digital Presence

In one of my favorite chapters from Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things, a kid from his neighborhood has hidden so well in a game of hide-and-seek that he’s still under Fulgham’s window long after the other kids have been found and are just about ready to give up on him. Fulgham, in his wisdom, leans out the window and yells, “GET FOUND, KID!” Sage advice.

This year, in my position as research librarian at the John Gray Park ’28 Library at Kent School, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of helping students find the information they need and what contributes to a successful learning experience. How we organize and provide access to our resources can make the difference between our students developing into independent learners and those who constantly need us to navigate the process for them. There is a fine line between an appropriate amount of struggle that leads to a successful learning experience and an overwhelming amount that can frustrate and ultimately hinder the learning process. There probably isn’t a quick and easy solution to this challenge, but I do know our resources shouldn’t be hidden so well our students give up trying to find them. Seems like someone needs to yell, “GET FOUND, KID!” to our digital resources.

The Library Brand

I was fortunate to be able to attend this year’s AISL Conference in Boston, which meant I got to visit a number of other school libraries – something I love to do, but rarely have the time because I’m, well, working in a school library. Even though each library we visited was unique, they all could be identified by what I think of as the “library brand.” The library brand’s superpowers can be credited with creating a sense of place and helping users find what they need. As librarians, we’re pretty adept at marketing that brand. We post our hours so everyone knows when we’re open. Our circulation desks are staffed with friendly librarians. Book groups, displays, reviews, and booktalks are just a few of the ways we encourage reading. We offer a variety of seating ranging from traditional library tables to comfy chairs with ottomans, and group study rooms if we’re fortunate enough to have the space. Letting our community know what’s available just makes good sense. We want to be found—and it works!

Milton Academy (left), Nobles (center), Beaver Country Day (right) – AISL 2019

At Kent, our library has a steady flow of students throughout the day and into the evening. Our circulation spikes when we send emails about new additions to our collection. Our group study rooms are at full capacity during evening study hall. Close to 100 students participated in our most recent Poetry Month event, which we advertised with posters, emails, and on Instagram and Twitter. Getting found is a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Reordering of Ranganathan’s Five Laws

Regardless of how many hours we’re open, our doors eventually have to close. I recently re-read “Reordering Ranganathan: Shifting User Behaviours, Shifting Priorities” by Lynn Silipigni Connaway, Ph.D. and Ixchel M. Faniel, Ph.D. Although the article was published in 2015, I still find it relevant in the way they have reinterpreted Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Library Science for the digital age. Connaway and Faniel’s take on the Five Laws are user-focused yet also incorporate a systems approach to resource delivery. In place of solely addressing how to get a book into the hands of the individual user, their chart incorporates access to digital as well as print resources for each of the original concepts by recommending you analyze your community needs, know your users well enough to understand how they access information, create or use platforms to curate resources, and finally, make sure those resources get found by the users.

My main takeaway from this article? The library is still a growing organism and if you want all of your resources to be discoverable and accessible, in other words, to “get found,” you’ll need a digital presence that is as well-defined and user-friendly as your physical space.

Source: Connaway, Lynn Silipigni, and Ixchel M. Faniel. “Reordering of Ranganathan’s Five Laws.” OCLC Research, OCLC, 2015, Chart.

Your Website: A Portal to Your Digital Resources

If your library is like ours, you subscribe to a significant number of databases and digital resources to support scholarly inquiry and prepare your students for the rigor of college-level research. Regardless of the type of resources you offer, whether it’s eBooks, streaming videos, databases, or a content management system like LibGuides, your students, faculty and staff can’t use those resources if they can’t readily find them, or worse, don’t even know they exist. How many of us, at one time or another, have lamented our database usage statistics come renewal time and wonder what can be done to increase their use and justify their expense? Return on investment is always on our minds this time of year. Check out David Wee’s March 24th post, “on databases that spark joy (and some that don’t) …” and see how he’s trying to make sure his library’s get found – his ideas might help as you evaluate your own databases.

Your Web Presence

Today, your library’s presence on the web is as important as its physical one, and if you’re like most librarians, it’s probably up to you to design and promote it in much the same way you promote and market your physical space. You see when your library is being used, books checked out, research support accepted. It’s more difficult to tell if you’re hitting the mark with digital resources. Are the members of your community aware of the library resources available to them 24/7 from their home or dorm room? If a faculty needs an article to support a lesson, does she know where to find your databases? If a student needs a book for class tomorrow, does he know how to find your OPAC and place the book on hold? Same for citing sources for a paper due first period. Will your students know where to find your citation guide?

If you want to make sure your digital resources are found, it’s important to focus on access and get the design of your website right. You don’t want your resources hidden behind a myriad of clicks and language only another librarian would understand (I’m looking at you discoverable and accessible). Much like the players in that game of hide-and-seek who scatter when they hide, databases and electronic resources are “hidden” across the internet on their own sites, so users need us to create a portal through which those resources can be found.

So Where Do You Start?

Whether you currently have a library website you’re happy with, are looking to update your site to increase its usability, or are starting from scratch, the steps to design a user-friendly site follow the same process. In my next blog post, I’ll walk through the five steps to follow when creating or updating a library website or portal keeping usability and user experience (UX) foremost in your planning and implementation.