Electronic Eye April 2017

Defining Moments by Omnigraphics

Kathleen Meulen

Documentary season is upon my freshmen students. This yearly spring English project sees my ninth graders identifying a topic of personal interest, researching it, and then crafting a product that furthers understanding of their topic. The final projects are frequently electronic in form; sometimes students create videos, podcasts, and screencasts. It is meant to be an engaging unit for our ninth graders.

It is also the first time where there is an expectation from the teachers that all students use our most robust academic online database for some of their sources. For my school, this is ProQuest. I think of this as an opportunity for students to dip their feet into these more scholarly sources without becoming overwhelmed. Hopefully, my students walk away with a feeling of accomplishment and success that we can build upon when we return to these databases with greater frequency in later grades.

Through experience, I have learned to proceed very carefully when teaching the use of ProQuest to freshmen. It is my feeling that it must be timed perfectly in terms of the student’s research timeframe. If one tries to encourage academic database use before a student has a strong enough understanding of their topic, one risks overwhelming them with search results that are not on topic. Students might not even be able to identify which search results are germane and which ones are not. The results may also be too far off their subject because they might not yet have the ability to construct the strong keyword strategies that these databases require.

If one tries to encourage use too late in the process, however, one runs the risk of the student having a closed mindset which won’t allow new ideas and sources to enter. There’s nothing worse than leaving it too late and having a student go through the motions of finding a useful resource that they have no intention of using in their project because it is their perception that they have already found all the sources that they need.

Lately, I’ve been considering the role that a collection of smaller, targeted online resources can play in helping my students gain an introduction to the topic while also gathering deeper, more specific information. I’ve been looking around for smaller databases and considering how I might curate a collection of carefully chosen resources that students could be directed to, especially ones that will help them to achieve quick research success. Defining Moments by Omnigraphics, hosted by Lincoln Library’s “FactCite” interface, is a good example of the kind of product I’m considering.

Defining Moments is the online version of a reference book series that focuses on important events in American history.  This series currently covers thirty-five historical moments but more get added on a yearly basis. The series features better-known events such as World War I and September 11 and also events that deserve more coverage in history such as the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, McCarthyism, and the Integration of Baseball.

Many of these Moments have something to do with a group’s struggle to achieve rights and recognition. Women’s suffrage, the labor movement, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north, and the Stonewall Riots all find a place in this collection. When viewed as a whole, the inclusion of these defining events helps the collection to paint a strong portrait of a multicultural United States that has often struggled with how to value diversity.

Each one of the thirty-five moments has several different components: Topic in Depth; Timeline; Topic Spotlights; Primary Sources; Biography; Glossary of People, Places, and Terms; Research Topics; and Resources. The Topic in Depth section breaks the information into chapters chronologically and generally starts with a prolog to the defining moment and ends with a reflection of the legacy of the event.  There are around 7 to 9 chapters for each moment. The Timeline is very clear and offers hyperlinks to the longer text.  Topic Spotlights are shorter essays that focus on individuals and their stories. Primary Sources contain the full-text of sources that are important to study as a part of that defining moment. The Biography section generally contains the life stories of a dozen figures important to that event.  The Glossary of People, Places, and Terms offers brief definitions.  Finally, the Research Topics offer about ten questions for study.

I have found the text to be written in a clear and accessible manner. In some cases, the Lexile score is presented at the bottom of the essay.  In other cases, this reading score is presented as a grade-based reading level. The word count is also listed at the bottom as well as an MLA 8 citation for the article.

A strong hallmark of the entire series is the level to which the writers have integrated personal histories to illuminate the moment in history.  Quotations from individuals abound in all areas of the text. These real-life stories are compelling and do much to help the reader to understand the significance of the moment in history. Most of these quotations seem to be mined from oral histories, some of which are available as full text on the Web. What the writers of Defining Moments have done is to select the most compelling quotations from these histories and have provided context for understanding them.

I am intrigued by the thoughtful choices of individuals that Omnigraphics chose to include in this series. For instance, coverage of Japanese Internment benefits from the personal histories of author Yoshiko Uchida, who was interned in Topaz; former United States Senator Daniel Inouye, who experienced discrimination against Japanese-Americans in Hawaii; and also Dillon S. Myer, who was the director of the War Relocation Authority from 1942 to 1946. It is a well-rounded collection of voices.

Every oral history is clearly cited and I could see where this citation might allow a young researcher the opportunity to extend their learning by accessing the fuller work. The only thing that would make the inclusion of these personal histories stronger would be to include more images of individuals.

This online product is still relatively new on the market and the Interface is still somewhat basic.  A narrow blue and green bar at the top of the screen features an owl icon that occasionally winks at the user. The search box is also at the top. As the user goes further into the product, a hyperlinked breadcrumb trail follows them at the top bar. The home screen lists the Defining Moments in two ways. They are listed alphabetically at the top and then organized by timeline below. The timeline is enhanced with images.

The black on white text of the essays is not overly broken up by headings, quotations or images, which can sometimes help young adult researchers make sense of the text. Some Moments do this more effectively than others. The “Lewis and Clark Expedition” may be the Moment that does this with the most success. I’m assuming that the appearance of the essays will improve as the product grows.

There are not a lot of functions other than a basic search box, an embedded text reader from “Read Speaker” and the ability to export bibliographic citations into “NoodleTools.” But I have also found that extra functions such as the ability for users to create accounts and save articles in research folders are not often utilized by young adults.

The content is allowed to shine in this product and I could see my students and teachers utilizing this product in several different ways. It could definitely be a supplement to an American history class as well as a resource for students to use when researching independently. I would say that students as young as grade 5 or 6 might be able to use the product and that the database can also be used for initial research by students in grades 11 or 12. The price point for this product is also quite easy to fit into a budget.

In sum, Defining Moments is a useful new entry into the online resource marketplace and I look forward to seeing how the product evolves.

Defining Momentshttps://omnigraphics.com/shop/defining-moments-online/#description

Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher-librarian for over two decades both in New York City and in the Pacific Northwest.  She currently works at Bainbridge High School on Bainbridge Island in Washington and can be reached at kellison@bisd303.org. She was the 2013 recipient of the New York Times/Carnegie Corporation’s “I Love My Librarian” award.  Electronic Eye gives in-depth reviews of online databases and other resources for school and public libraries and reports on trends in the world of information.



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