Learner's Library Dumbs Down
By Mick O'Leary
You've heard about the dumbing down of America: the decline of thought, knowledge,
and education. Well, I'm afraid it's true. My evidence is Learner's Library
(LL; http://www.learnerslibrary.com). Yes, the name sounds good, but in fact
the Learner's Library does just the opposite: It provides a pretense of research
while "saving" you the nasty work of actually learning. In an educational environment
beset by grade inflation and rampant cheating, LL fits right in.
This fee-based research service for students is a dumbed-down, error-ridden
product that offers both haphazard content and inferior searching. Its
greatest disservice is distracting students from their institutions'
legitimate online libraries.
Knowledge Ventures, Inc., 2338 Immokalee Road, #113, Naples, FL 34110,
Learner's Library is produced by Knowledge Ventures, Inc., a self-described "educational
tools software company." It's a database of multidisciplinary, full-text journal
articles intended primarily for college students. To this extent, it's similar
to products from EBSCO, Thomson Gale, ProQuest, and H.W. Wilson. However, it's
hardly fair to compare these excellent resources to LL. Actually, LL bears
a closer resemblance to Questia (remember Questia?), another ragtag collection
of dubious content intended to lure shortcut seekers from the genuine riches
of libraries while charging them for it. LL's content is inferior in both the
quality and number of its sources. For searching, it offers one (!) option.
Users have to pay for it, and although the price is almost nominal, they are
still overpaying. As for LL's advantages, well, I can't find any.
Learner's Library 'Content'
The LL database contains several hundred journals and magazines. You can't
tell exactly how many, because LL puts out different numbers. There's a list
of 200 source publications, but it's "partial." Yes, that's right, a "research" database
that doesn't list its entire content and instead puts out an incomplete list
of periodicals that lacks start dates, extent of full-text coverage, update
LL's journal collection is indeed multidisciplinary. Social science has the
largest number of titles, with approximately 80. Arts and humanities, science,
and current events each have about 50, and business has about 20. (These counts
are based on the published Source List.) Most of the titles are academic journals,
with a small number of general interest magazines, including Harper's Magazine, New
Statesman, and U.S. News & World Report. The content appears
to be provided by Thomson Gale, which is listed as an LL partner.
LL's collection is OK as far as it goesit just doesn't go very far.
With 400 titles (or whatever) representing the entire sweep of business, the
liberal arts, and current events, LL's search results are often thin and spotty,
with the same few periodicals providing the bulk of the retrieval in a given
search. Some of the journals, like the Journal of English and Germanic Philology and
the Review of Metaphysics, are quite technical and therefore not a good
match for LL's intended audience.
Single Search Option (Really)
LL uses relevance searching, only no Boolean or proximity operators, phrase
searching, truncation, wild cards, or nesting. There's no field limiting or
date searching. In 20 years of reviewing databases, LL is the only service
I've ever seen that has only one search method. It's true that the point of
relevance searching is to avoid complicated Boolean searching, but no date
Go into LL (searching is available without registration or payment) and search
on "tax cuts and federal budget deficit." You'll get hits that are several
years old. Let me point out that information on this subject has changed since
the last century. Yes, you can scan through mostly obsolete citations for those
from this year, but wait a minute: Analyzing citations goes against the LL
philosophy of avoiding as much brain work as possible. It's also a heavy strain
on LL's purportedly citation-challenged users. (See the discussion below on
LL's Citation Check.)
An LL search identifies the passage within the individual document that has
the highest occurrence of search terms, and it sorts results accordingly. The
idea is that you don't have to (horrors!) read through a lengthy and difficult
article. Instead, you just cut LL's preselected quote and paste it into your "research" paper.
The relevance mechanism works well enough. It's LL's premise that's bogus.
A search-term-laden passage is not necessarily the most meaningful section
of an entire article. Furthermore, extracting a short section without regard
for the whole is intellectually illegitimate. Not that this bothers LL: Its
FAQ brags about how the service can help you avoid reading entire articles
or weighing both sides of a topic. "The Learner's Library helps address the
critical need of students and researchers everywhere: 'I need a quote that
says X in order to support my position.'"
There are two other major faults with LL's searching. First, searches are
full of duplicates. Moreover, documents are provided in HTML or LL-generated
PDF but lack original graphics such as tables, charts, illustrations, etc.
And what does LL advise when you need these things? In a demonstration of over-the-top
chutzpah, LL suggests that you try your local brick-and-mortar library.
Citation Check (Is in the Mail)
LL makes much of its Citation Check, a feature that allows you to generate
citations of articles you've "used" in your paper. You paste the text of your
paper into Citation Check, and it returns a list of MLA-formatted citations.
There are two little problems with Citation Check: It's intellectually dishonest,
and it doesn't work. Identifying and attributing your sources are important
and essential parts of research, not only for term papers but in any serious,
real-world use of information. Also, I tested Citation Check several dozen
times and found that it often did not recognize citations from its own database.
LL is a subscription service that's sold to individuals. The cost is low:
$9.95/week, $24.95/month, $49.95/6 months, $74.95/year. This seems like quite
a bargain, except that most potential users can get superior services for free
from their academic, school, or public libraries. However, avoiding librariesand
conscientious researchis the subtext of LL's message. (It's the same
bypass-the-library marketing plan that Questia has.)
In the LL site's "about" section, the introduction is addressed to teachers
and coaches: "The Learner's Library takes the hassle out of term papers and
reports to help keep your students and athletes on the fast track." It's a
cynical message that legitimate research is a "hassle" to be avoided and is
especially demeaning to athletes, who are identified as a group that should
be provided with shortcuts.
A Distressing Irony
The irony in LL's message would be mildly amusing if it weren't so potentially
damaging to its intended audience. LL implies that libraries are too hard and
complicated to use and that it provides an alternative with good content and
easy searching at a low cost. In fact, most libraries, especially those used
by school and college students, do everything well that LL does poorly by providing
Multiple full-text image databases, with content selected to
meet user needs for level and topic
Easy relevance searching, with numerous other search options
at hand if needed
Library Web portals with research assistance and 24/7 remote
No direct cost to users
In other words, students who turn to LL are using a dumbed-down product that
will subtly subvert their education. So if you encounter misguided students
who are using LL, gently direct them to superior alternatives. And if you encounter
teachers or coaches who are pushing LL on their students or athletes, firmly
instruct them in the errors of their ways.
Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Md., and a principal
in The Data Brokers. His e-mail address is email@example.com.