REVIEW: I FOUND IT ON THE INTERNET
Frances Jacobson Harris. I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online. ALA, 2005. 0-8389-0898-5. $35. Reviewed by Marylaine Block
Teens don't use libraries as much as we would like them to, choosing instead to meet their information needs online. According to Harris, who's had 17 years of experience working with teens as a high school librarian, that's as much a fault of librarians' misunderstanding of them as it is of their misunderstanding of libraries and librarians. In this book, she sets out to show what the impediments are in our relationship with teens.
One is that our information systems are formal and difficult to use, and their use is imposed on them by teachers for research that has no intrinsic interest to them. Nor do the contents of our libraries seem to have much relevance to the questions that do interest them. Let's emphasize "seem to," because our libraries may in fact have exactly what teens want, but because they don't understand the structure of the information, they don't know how to ask the questions, or in which systems (catalog? Database A? Database B?).
Another impediment is that we tend to think of our systems as purely information technology, while teens are using it as much for communication as for information -- indeed, says Harris, information-gathering is as much a social process as an intellectual process for teens. "Communication bridges the gap between formal and informal information systems. People find ways to make information systems, whether formal or informal, work for them when they have information needs. The challenge for us is to remove roadblocks..." When we cut off access to instant messaging on our workstations, or bar teens from congregating in (noisy) groups around a computer, we interfere with their search process.
The problem, she says, is that many librarians really don't understand the way teens use information and communication technologies. So she devotes a significant portion of the book to showing us exactly what systems they use and how they use them.
There are pitfalls in their use of those systems -- ethical issues like privacy, bullying, illegal behavior, and intellectual issues like evaluating content -- that teens may not have the knowledge or reasoning ability to deal with. That's where Harris sees librarians having their most important role, helping teens recognize the problems and form an ethical and intellectual framework for approaching the technologies. The book concludes with a series of suggestions for teaching teens evaluation skills and information ethics.
Readers will also be grateful that Harris provides a review of the literature on teens' use of the internet, and librarians' approaches to working with them.
I recommend the book, not only because of the informational content, but also because Harris' respect for teens shines through in everything she says.
And that may be the most important message of all. Too many librarians are in the habit of treating teens as second class citizens whose needs are not as important as those of adults, and whose offenses are jumped on while those of adults are ignored. (I'm reminded of a cartoon showing anxious librarians, watching a teen in band costume with a drum suspended from his neck, saying, "True, he hasn't done anything YET.") These librarians are the people who most need to read this book.
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Today, librarians have the power to make the merger of information and communications technology work for people in ways that are humane and enriching. Teenagers are our partners in this endeavor. They are the innovators whose imaginations we must value. We will not succeed without their vision and energy, and they will not become library users without our skill and passion.
Frances Jacobson Harris. I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online. ALA 2005.
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