See You Online! Tips for Using College Library Resources and the Web

by Sylvia DeSantis

My mother forgets her e-mail password, giggles when she says “Google” and believes SPAM is meat in a tin. Sound familiar? Like many adult students who are returning to college in an innovative technological age, she’s a bright and well read individual whose combination of basic confusion, vague distrust and wary unfamiliarity with the Web and online academic resources in general make researching and using information an overwhelming task. As she likes to remind me, computers didn’t even exist when she was in college. I often encounter individuals like my mother during the course of my work at a large university library where I design educational materials and teach students of all ages how to navigate the huge amounts of online academic resources available to them as students and patrons. These returning adults—women and men with incredible expertise at whatever they have done for the past twenty or thirty years—often appear scared and tentative when faced with using online resources for their academic research. One recent student, back in the country for the first time in twenty years, couldn’t understand how to make a Web page scroll.

I abandoned my lesson on university resources in exchange for a simple computer “how to.” As she struggled with the mouse, she shook her head and declared that she “knew nothing, absolutely nothing.” In response to my questions, she explained her ongoing role as a teacher in the African Sahara in Association with the Center for Disease Control to lessen the African AIDS crisis. Somehow at that moment, because she couldn’t manipulate a mouse well, this woman believed she knew nothing.

While this case is extreme in its demonstration of the lack of technology access in certain countries, it also demonstrates the pervasive mindset of adult students who often feel inadequate in their new roles as learners faced with a frightening array of computer technologies like online reference databases, electronic college catalogs, search engines and even computers themselves. These technologies’ pervasive presence, coupled with the popular view that these simple tools make work more efficient and information more accessible, often reinforce a lack of confidence. Many of the barriers you encounter as a returning adult student in relation to computer technology has nothing to do your intelligence and everything to do with practice. How can you know how to use technology without regularly using it? Feel proud about the amazing step you’ve taken to continue your education and realize that the hurdles will lower with practice.

I’ve often told fearful freshmen that their college writing skills would improve with practice. Inevitably, by the end of the semester their grades reflect commitment and perseverance (well, usually). Just as importantly, they understand that their writing improved…with practice! Whether you attend a four-year institution or community college and no matter what kind of degree or certificate you’re pursuing, the Web holds something for you and practice in using it in conjunction with your school’s library resources will benefit your academic career.

College and University Online Databases
Does your university or college subscribe to paid databases? If so, then most of your academic research needs have already been met. Databases are part of the “invisible Web” because the free use of these resources will only be available to individuals at your academic institution who are affiliated with it, like faculty, staff and students. Databases range from specific to general and serve every major. These “collection points” hold online articles and abstracts from many different journals. This information is considered “academic” from having already passed the rigors of being published in a journal. Many college databases also offer “full text” capabilities which means that entire articles are available to you online at no charge. If your library subscribes to databases, then almost certainly there are library professionals at public service desks able to help you conduct the best databases searches in order to generate the most efficient and useful research results.