This article originally appeared in the winter 2016 Harker Magazine.
Research is at the core of many academic efforts, and to ensure Harker students have access to the information they need, Harker librarians have curated a world-class collection of databases.
“We teach children as young as 6 to use age-appropriate databases to find information for beginning research projects,” said Sue Smith, Harker’s library director, citing the recent example of first graders accessing reference articles in a database to research animal habitats.
Previously Harker’s archivist and upper school librarian, Smith currently manages the library programs at all four campuses, each grounded in information literacy, pleasure reading, robust resources and curricular collaboration.
With upward of 90 subscription databases from premier publishers like Gale, EBSCO and ProQuest at their fingertips, including ScienceDirect, Project MUSE, ARTstor and Drama Online, upper school students are able to complete elaborate English, science and social studies assignments with greater ease; and to help, they have 2/7 remote access, thanks to EZProxy and Qi Huang, the school’s electronic resources librarian. At the touch of a button, they can use Summon, the school’s web-scale discovery service, nicknamed “Power On” by students, to access the library’s digital collections and electronic resources for credible, citable content.
“While it’s impossible to quantify where our database collection ranks among other schools, we know from talking to colleagues that our offerings exceed those at most secondary schools,” said Smith, who notes the variety of Harker’s information literacy curriculum is just as important as the quality and quantity of its offerings.
Debbie Abilock, a San Francisco Bay Area educational consultant and founding editor of Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians, noted, “In terms of collection size and age, compared to the School Library Program Standards set forth in library standards adopted by the California State Board of Education in 2010, Harker’s collection is on a par with a college collection. Indeed, most independent schools have less than half of these resources – and, more importantly, even fewer subscribe to college-level databases like Project MUSE or ScienceDirect.”
Abilock recently published an open educational resources module for pre-service educators that points to Harker’s “American Decades: 1970s” eighth grade project guide as a prime example of a curation tool. With more than 30 years of experience as a school administrator, curriculum coordinator, teaching librarian and information specialist, Abilock is something of an expert in database curation.
“One could have wonderful resources,” Abilock said, “but without the guides [Harker] created, and the instruction and services they provide, the library resources would simply remain a lovely, inert warehouse. Harker’s librarians are outstanding curators who add value by carefully selecting specific resources and tools for particular projects. It’s an outstanding collection, curated by educators with clearly articulated learning and teaching goals, which creates the unique ‘chemistry’ that results in powerful student learning.”
All of this means students have tremendous resources to call on for their studies. Those taking the College Board’s Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition class tap into JSTOR and Project MUSE as they pen research papers on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Meanwhile, students in Chris Spenner’s Research Methods and Advanced Research classes are conducting college-level science projects on a broad range of scientific disciplines, such as agricultural science, virus geometry, marine biology, microbiology, astrophysics, analytical chemistry, materials science and machine learning, most often turning to ScienceDirect and Nature.
“They need access to peer-reviewed science literature to inform their own procedures and to situate their own work in the larger scientific context,” said Spenner. “I’m a little jealous; I used to spend hours in the science library doing what they can now do much more thoroughly in a matter of minutes.”
Throughout his upper school years, Kai-Siang Ang, grade 12, president of the Math Club and a Stanford University early admission candidate, said he has consulted an abundance of databases for extensive projects on a variety of topics, including Catherine the Great, the Black Death, and the Supreme Court cases of Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, among others. Ang noted he has benefited from Harker’s robust information literacy instruction as a participant in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program for Research in Mathematics, Engineering and Science for High School Students (MIT PRIMES).
Now, Ang has begun paying back into the databases. He co-authored a paper for MIT PRIMES with Laura Schaposnik, an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, titled, “On the Geometry of Regular Icosahedral Capsids Containing Disymmetrons,” and the paper has been uploaded to the arXiv, a repository for physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance and statistics documents, as well as having been submitted to the Siemens Science Competition and sent to the Journal of Structural Biology.
Alumni recognize the value of Harker’s database collection. Zarek Drozda ’16, former John Near Excellence in History Endowment scholar, and Natalie Simonian ’16, former Mitra Family Endowment scholar, know firsthand just how valuable these sophisticated databases can be when pursuing research priorities of the highest caliber. Following a rigorous application process, each conducted yearlong, grant-funded independent research and produced a scholarly paper on a topic of interest to them – the Panic of 1873 for Drozda, and the Russian Revolution for Simonian.
“I feel prepared not only for any assigned research projects but my B.A./B.S. thesis as well,” said Drozda, an economics and public policy studies double major at the University of Chicago, who arrived on that campus this fall with plenty of AP credit and a certificate in technical theater from the Harker Conservatory. “The yearlong project teaches the research process on a level not usually available to high school students, and the librarians, their mentorship and their resources made it possible.”
Simonian, a bioengineering major at the University of California, Berkeley (her team finished second in last year’s Berkeley Bioengineering Honor Society High School Competition), said Harker offers many of the same databases that her college does. “We had a small literature search due for my bioengineering class, and knowing ahead of time which databases I could use to find scientific journals, and that databases that consolidated peer-reviewed journals actually existed, was extremely helpful in making that search much easier and faster,” she noted.
Two of this year’s 10 Near and Mitra scholars are seniors Andrew Rule, co-editor-in-chief of Harker’s Eclectic Literary Magazine and a frequent contributor to the upper school’s library book blog, and Tiffany Zhu, co-assistant conductor of women’s chamber choral ensemble Cantilena. Both have excelled in the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards; he won three National Silver Medals (Short Story) and she received two Honorable Mentions (Dramatic Script and Flash Fiction). Both have used Harker’s databases for more than just coursework and extracurricular research. Rule relishes his ability to retrieve the full texts of every issue of the country’s leading literary magazines since their foundings, while Zhu has stumbled upon the full texts of economics papers quoted in The New York Times as well as population studies of Kiev, Ukraine.
Among this year’s Near and Mitra research topics are artistic innovations during the AIDS epidemic; the lasting repercussions of the Second Chechen War; and Rule’s primary focus, 1970s Native American literature.
“Harker’s databases, especially JSTOR and ebrary, give Near and Mitra scholars access to materials in the country’s best academic journals and university presses,” said Rule. “Just like in college, lack of access to information is never an obstacle we face with all of this scholarship at our fingertips.”
Rule noted the databases are, of course, available to all students seeking information for any reason. “Even better, the databases run from general reference (ABC-CLIO) to in-depth scholarship (ProQuest Research Library), so I’ve been given a stepladder up to college-level resources to prepare me for more advanced research incrementally,” he said.
A Russian culture, history, language, literature and music enthusiast, Zhu has elected to examine Russian and Soviet writer, dramatist and political activist Maxim Gorky’s role in shaping socialist realism literature. Central to her research, she said, have been JSTOR’s resources dating back to the 1950s and ’60s and those on literary theory and philosophy. Through ebrary, an online library of more than 140,000 nonfiction e-books, she has accessed more contemporary English language secondary sources, “a challenge since the majority of scholarship on my topic is in Russian,” she added.
“I know that in college, my Mitra paper, which feels so special now, is likely to become a regular endeavor and will effectively happen again in my senior year of college,” Zhu said. “I love that I can get the process of learning to search databases, figuring out which databases specialize in which fields and so on, out of the way while I’m still in high school. That way, in college, I can dive straight into the actual research and, right off the bat, start asking the important questions, like which articles and books might further or change the direction of my investigations as opposed to how I can find them.”
For Smith, who has been a member of the Harker community since 2002, these and other student and alumni testimonials – she has heard more than a few over the years – serve as the ultimate form of evidence. “It’s a satisfying message that never grows old.”