Teaching Online Subscription Services in the School Library

Teaching Library Online Subscription Services in the School Library - School Librarians can't expect teachers and students to wade through a long list of online subscription services to find what they need. Here are 3 ways that introduce specific relevant features of subject and grade-level appropriate resources to support classroom content learning. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #techintegration #onlineresourcesAt first glance, a School Library today looks much the same as a century ago: rows and rows of books. However, a second look reveals the influx of technology with desktop, laptop, and tablet computers. By the turn of the millennium, computers and their associated digital applications significantly changed School Libraries. Nowhere is this more visible than with online subscription database services available through the Internet.

Online subscription resources in K-12 schools began as add-ons to familiar print resources—digitized copies of encyclopedias, periodicals, biographies. They were costly, so most schools had only one, or maybe two. As online subscription services proliferated, they became affordable, and now are the primary reference resource in most secondary schools. Eventually service providers combined different types of reference into their own brand-name tools, so now a single resource can provide multiple forms of reference beyond what the tool’s common name would suggest.


In my medium-sized district, our middle schools alone have access to nearly 50 different online subscription databases—4 encyclopedias, 9 periodical databases, and more than 30 specialty reference databases and e-books. Imagine that long list of resource names on a school webpage: teachers and students, pressed for time to find information, are too bewildered to determine which service to use for their information need, and the numerous features of each service make resource selection even more difficult for the intermittent user. It’s no wonder they become discouraged and simply type some search terms into Google.

It’s unrealistic to expect teachers or students to be told about and remember all the online subscription database services—if it isn’t relevant to classroom learning, it’s meaningless and quickly forgotten. These online subscription services do provide online help about the features of each resource, but it’s even more unrealistic to expect teachers or students to examine the ins & outs of these database services in order to use them.

School Librarians are the professionals who are trained in information resources; we are the educators who are familiar with everyone’s curriculum; we are the Future Ready Librarians who curate, manage, and integrate digital resources for our students and teachers. It’s our responsibility as School Librarians to know what each of these online subscription services offer, and to determine when and with whom to use each feature of each resourceThen, rather than telling teachers or students what’s available, our Library Lessons need to integrate specific features of specific tools with classroom activities, progressively building their skills so students become proficient in the use of our online subscription database resources before they leave our campus.


I treat online resources the same as the collection of print materials. I don’t introduce all the Dewey Subject books at once, but rather, each topical group as it applies to a classroom assignment. So also, I introduce online resources during subject area visits, focusing on features that fulfill the purpose of the library visit, avoiding others that do not.

My Library Lesson Curriculum Matrix - Composite example of an older version for the 1st grading period.

Sample Library Lesson Matrix

I use my Library Lesson Matrix to organize online resource lessons. Just as I began with one subject curriculum guide to identify a possible library lesson visit, I pick a single online subscription service for adding to my Matrix. I examine each feature to see how it works and which middle school curriculum need it can satisfy—that is, it provides the subject information needed and is suitable for the grade level. I record brand name and feature into the subject unit, then move on to the next feature. It takes time to go through all the services, but I become comfortable enough with each tool to correctly integrate it and teach it to students.


Carefully crafted Library Lessons, customized for each grade level, scaffolded throughout the school year, and aligned with classroom curriculum activities, help students (and teachers) become familiar with which online subscription resource feature to use for their information need. It takes a lot of time and curriculum savvy to create these lessons, but we can use them year after year for the same online services.


WebQuests are my favorite way to introduce online subscription database services. Using the term “WebQuest” to introduce these online resources emphasizes to students that they are the first, best choice for gathering information online. My WebQuests are designed for a single class period, presenting just 3 different online tools and 1 or 2 features of each. Teachers appreciate this guided introduction to high-quality resources, and, because students respond on a printed or digital worksheet, there’s a visual daily grade for the class period.

I believe an encyclopedia is the best reference tool for students to begin research, so the first WebQuest of the school year introduces a grade-appropriate online encyclopedia, and I use it for that grade’s online lessons throughout the school year. Repeatedly using a familiar tool activates prior knowledge so students become comfortable using the tool, and we develop online browsing and searching skills that they can apply to other online resources.

As an example, my first two 6g WebQuests—one for Science, one for Social Studies—occur about 2 weeks apart. The only difference is in the features I introduce to meet the needs of the two different subjects.

6g Science Biography WebQuest 6g Social Studies Countries WebQuest
  • introduce WebQuest concept
  • introduce WebQuest structure
  • introduce grade-appropriate encyclopedia
  • 2 features of encyclopedia & search strategies
  • biography database
  • periodical database
  • same WebQuest concept
  • same WebQuest structure
  • use same encyclopedia
  • 2 new features of encyclopedia & search strategies
  • countries database
  • map database

Any following 6g WebQuests begin with the same encyclopedia and offer two additional resources that meet the needs of the subject, the project, the research, and the lesson. 6g students learn to locate and use features of all the online tools relevant to their grade-level; I bypass other tools, which they learn about in higher grades.

Bookmarking and Curating

Bookmarking and curating articles into created folders is a feature now offered by most online subscription services, so we can guide students to specific topical information within the limited time frame they are given for an assignment. Once we create a named folder within a service, we can use that same folder and its articles for the same lessons in following years, as long as we have the online service.

An example of such bookmarking is our English/Language Arts expository text unit across all 3 middle school grade levels. Curated online articles are a perfect match for the unit’s elements:

  • Unit theme (technology & the power of information)
  • Content skills (summarization, inference, and interpretation)
  • Required resources (non-fiction books, newspapers, magazines, memoirs, speeches)
  • Final product (an expository essay).

I progressively build Info-Lit skills using different resource formats to activate prior knowledge and then lead students into new experiences.

6g 1) Examine components of non-fiction print books (table of contents, index, glossary, graphics).
2) Learn how to summarize a print magazine article.
3) Access a librarian-chosen subscription database and read a bookmarked online magazine article for an expository essay poster.
7g 1) Compare non-fiction print books and e-books.
2) Locate and summarize bookmarked online magazine article from a new librarian-chosen subscription database.
3) Access the same subscription database and read at least 2 topical online newspaper or magazine articles for their written essay.
8g 1) Examine print memoirs from the Biography area.
2) Access and compare a topical non-fiction print book, an e-book, and a free Web-based memoir.
3) Access various online services and read bookmarked and self-searched articles to produce an online e-zine.

Resource Lists

Once students have learned how to access and use grade-appropriate online subscription services, I guide them less formally to relevant online resources through customized Resource Lists. Others may call it a Subject Guide, Library Guide, or Pathfinder, but I call it a “Resource List” because it’s a list of resources which support a research assignment. (Academic librarian Patricia Knapp devised and named the “Pathfinder” in the 1960s as course resources for college students.)

I build a Resource List using my Library Lesson Planner, just as I would any library lesson. Why so much work?

  1. I want to be sure the Resource List fulfills subject & information literacy standards and meets research requirements of the final product.
  2. Teachers typically intend a library visit as an introduction to a research project, so I want a short, meaningful lesson to cultivate the requisite Information Literacy skills along with presenting the Resource List.
Resource List Example

LibLessonPlanner example

As I fill out my Library Lesson Planner for “Resources students will use,” I refer to my Library Lesson Matrix to glean print and online resources I’ve already selected as grade and subject appropriate for the assignment. I also enter any guidelines from teachers or subject curriculum guides to help me choose other Web sites that will be helpful for students.

I organize my Resource List according to the problem-solving model I’ve chosen as best for the particular research assignment, and I create it as a webpage so students can access it 24/7 (and so I can make changes or additions without issuing a new handout). Here is a brief enumeration of what I might include on my Resource Lists, as applicable to the project and the problem-solving model:

1. Problem-solving model as organizational structure
2. Recommended resources for background reading/investigation
3. Guidelines for creating questions about the research topic
4. Search strategies for different resources
5. Reminders about citation and creating a bibliography
6. Reminders about paraphrasing and summarizing
7. Resources available in the library (books, reference, other)
8. Recommended online subscription resources
9. Recommended Web sites chosen by the librarian or teachers
10. Reminders about assignment requirements (from the teacher’s checklist)


There’s continuing controversy about requiring students to use print or digital or online sources for assignments. We must help teachers realize that the format of information (print vs digital vs online) is NOT important, but rather the TYPE of resource and its content value:

  • Encyclopedias for general information and overview of topic;
  • Content-specific resources for in-depth information;
  • Periodicals for focused and condensed current information.

Encyclopedias and periodicals, in print, digital, or online versions, are pretty obvious, but content resources aren’t as obvious to students and teachers, so I always include specifics about these:

  • Print content includes all those specialty tomes we have in our reference area or topical books in the Dewey area.
  • Digital includes CDs and DVDs that we got primarily for teachers but students can be using them, too.
  • Online includes e-books, subscription services (like a biography database), and Web-based books (like Google Books, Project Gutenberg, Digital Book Index).

Focus on Content, Not Format, for Information Sources - School Library Lessons that emphasize content type--encyclopedia, topical source, periodical--are more beneficial to students than dwelling on format--print, digital, online. It's an important distinction. Learn more... #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #onlineresources #curation #researchskillsI collaborate with teachers to articulate the different types of resources available and recommend what is best for students to use for the assignment. Through my Library Lesson I then teach students about the types of resources and how to use whichever format is accessible when they are working on the assignment—print version, in-house digital version, or online version. This is especially important in a digitally-divided school where students may or may not have online access from home.

By crafting and scaffolding Library Lessons for online subscription services focused on types rather than format, students and teachers learn that print, digital, and online information sources can all contribute to student success.

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article


Join my mailing list to get a brief email about new posts on library lessons & management . You'll also gain access to my exclusive e-List Library of FREE resources!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “Teaching Online Subscription Services in the School Library

  1. Hi Barupa,

    Thank you so much for this excellent resource! I’m sure it will help many teachers and teacher-librarians.

    As I have a 2yo and 4yo, I have been looking at the online subscriptions that my local library offers in recent years – especially audio books etc. I often tell friends about them and they have no idea what the library offers! I used to try to use various online subscriptions in my classroom too but an effective workflow is needed like you suggest!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *