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Magazines > Information Today > June 2004
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Information Today

Vol. 21 No. 6 — June 2004

Database Review
Learner's Library Dumbs Down
By Mick O'Leary

Learner's Library

SYNOPSIS

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.

PRODUCER

Knowledge Ventures, Inc., 2338 Immokalee Road, #113, Naples, FL 34110, 305/513-5658; http://www.learnerslibrary.com.

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.

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 schedules, etc.

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 goes—it 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 limiting?

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 libraries—and conscientious research—is 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 the following:

• 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 access

• 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 71735.2041@compuserve.com.
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