April 20, 2024

Study Ties College Success to Students’ Exposure to a High School Librarian



Attention, educators: training high school students early in digital research, partnering them with a school librarian, and providing time to practice skills can instill a high level of confidence during college. This triple play of digital literacy education was affirmed by preliminary observations of a study underway by EBSCO Information Services, an online database provider.

“The seeds for researching and training for informational literacy are planted in grade nine,” says Kate Lawrence, EBSCO’s senior director of user research, who is running the study. “There appears to be a relationship between what students were calling research boot camp in grade nine and the confidence they feel in conducting research at a college level.”

Lawrence and her team have run 22 user sessions, interviewing high school, college, and graduate students from the San Francisco Bay Area to Massachusetts, where EBSCO is based, to get a full sense of the literacy training college students receive. EBSCO launched the study to refine its products aimed at college students and make them better dovetail with how students conduct research. Lawrence instead discovered that the training students receive before college can be more crucial than what happens during their university years.

Being prepared as early as their high school freshman year had a positive impact on the higher education experience.When training happened in a partnership with a teacher and a school librarian, the impact was even greater. Sending students to the library to ask their media specialist questions wasn’t as effective as having teachers and librarians working together to instill research skills.

The results of this three-way training are “powerful,” says Lawrence. When the training was repeated, so students could practice their skills, the results were even better.

“You don’t learn how to run the day of a race. You have practice,” says Lawrence. Similarly, “There’s something about learning research skills through a series of exercise and drills… before you apply them to a particular assignment.”

However, a deep seeding of literacy skills in high school won’t necessarily shake students’ reliance on Google. The search giant shapes how high schoolers seek information, even those who’ve had digital research training, Lawrence says, as well as students’ expectations of online research. She adds that kids won’t click to the second page of Google results because they expect the algorithm to place what they need up top.

“Google is their oxygen,” she says. “It’s such a fundamental part of their lives that when we ask what their top five sites are, they don’t even mention Google.”

Students often appear to apply their Google experience to other sources, particularly school library websites. Libraries frequently highlight all their research avenues on the front page: online databases, catalogues, publication finders. But this rich stew of information can confound students who are accustomed to Google’s clean interface.

“They’re overwhelmed by the maze of the library website,” says Lawrence. “They figure out what works. That becomes their pathway and what they will do in the future.”

What can shake this status quo in student research? Having a mentor or teacher whom a student wants to impress, or a subject they’re passionate about, can make them realize that Google isn’t robust enough to serve their needs. Lawrence hopes the study’s findings will lead her research team to craft search products that students can use intuitively.

“We will educate customers about our findings and best practices,” she says. In addition, “We can help students who are on the road to becoming ‘informivores,’ but aren’t quite there.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.


  1. Lori McCall says:

    Great article! As a HS media specialist, I work closely with my 9th ELA team even to the point of attending their weekly planning meetings. In addition to teaching all the students about Galileo (Georgia’s Portal for scholarly databases) and other great online research tools, I show them how to make Google an even more powerful tool by utilizing “string searches” and Google Scholar. Since Google will probably always be their first love for research, directing them to the more scholarly areas is a way to go. Also, they are always surprised when I show them Google News and the old newspaper articles from the 1800s and such. If you can’t beat’em; join ’em. :-)

    • Liza Wardell says:

      Hi Lori,
      Your response caught my attention and was wondering if you could share your information on navigating Google News and old newspapers from the 1800’s. I was not aware that Google could do that. Thank you!
      Burlingame High School
      Burlingame, CA

  2. Jenny Garrett says:

    I too, am a high school librarian and agree wholeheartedly with this article…..except (and you knew that was coming) the statement made by Kate Lawrence, when she stated that “The seeds for researching and training for informational literacy are planted in grade nine,” The seeds are planted far earlier in the spring! High school librarians owe a debt of gratitude to all of the elementary and middle school librarians who begin the process and teach research skills, including bibliographic citation, at a level that is appropriate for their students. It’s all a building process and all librarians, elementary, middle and high school, deserve to be recognized for the part they play in getting students ready for college or the world of work.

  3. Kirsten Pylant says:

    I, too, am a school librarian, and have the privilege of working in a ps-12 environment. As a result, my fellow librarian and I have the opportunity to develop research skills beginning formally in 1st grade with developmentally appropriate curriculum, so thank you, Jenny Garrett, for making observation. I could not agree more with both the article and the comments above. However, I also have an observation regarding “Google is their oxygen,” … “It’s such a fundamental part of their lives that when we ask what their top five sites are, they don’t even mention Google.”
    Part of the disconnect with this question may be in the use of the word “sites”; Google is a search engine, GALILEO is a portal, and EBSCO provides databases. We teach our students the differences between these formats so they might correctly utilize the tools available to them. Thank you for highlighting the contribution librarians make in our students’ life skills.

  4. I am astonished that this article has received so much attention. It is a “preliminary observation of a study underway” and is supported by “an online database provider” with an annual sales of two billion dollars. The article reports the results of 22 interviews.
    The results, of course, make sense. It is likely that a full study will confirm these observations. But we need to see the published study, with all the details, as well as confirmation from a disinterested source. So far, all we have is a PR announcement from the company.
    I think we should be as critical of research that supports our views as research that appears not to.

  5. PS: The article appeared in 2014. Has the full report been completed?