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Authority in undergraduate research

As a student of medieval studies, the concept of authority is never far from my thoughts; it pervades every decision I make from choosing the next book to read to deciding which recipe to use for goulash. Add to that a year+ of MLIS education and I can follow the footprints of auctoritas with eyes closed. However, for many undergraduates, the concept of authority is more fleeting, more difficult to put a finger on; or, at least, it seems that way to us (the “professionals”). How do undergraduates approach the concept of authority in research? As I’ve been looking over the literature, this is what I’ve found:

Observations:

1. Authority matters but ease of access matters even more

Metz (2006) points out that students easily recognize the difference between using scholarly and non-scholarly resources. McClure & Kellian (2009) also found that students recognize that certain sources of information are more authoritative that others. So why, as they also show, do students have a tendency to miss important indicators of bias and lack of objectivity in [primarily web-based] sources and use them in their research? As both Metz and McClure & Kellian conclude, ease of access trumps the more authoritative source. Resources that are easy to use and easy to find, as long as they meet certain minimum requirements (see Tsai-Youn), are far preferable to more authoritative resources.

2. Scope is not as important as coverage
 
In much the same vein, resources that have a dense coverage of a particular topic as opposed to a broad coverage, are considered by undergraduates to be more authoritative (Tsai-Youn, 2004). For example, a web site that has graphical or statistical data, a list of external websites that also cover the subject, or other additional information that continues to narrow in on the topic is often considered by undergraduates to be a better resource than a web site that covers a wide range of issues or discussions about the topic. In short, density wins over breadth.
3. Authority doesn’t mean what it used to when you’re on the web
 
When students examine web resources for authority, they look at a number of aspects including top-level domain (.edu vs. .com) and web site design. If a web site doesn’t look professional, if it looks like something created in the late 1990s, students consider this to be less authoritative. Some undergraduates have difficulty articulating authority (at least in their papers) in the traditional sense and often misinterpret advocacy sites as authoritative sources (McClure & Kellian, 2009). In one example from Tsai-Youn’s research, students examined a site that “looked” like a scholarly article but did not list an author. They deemed this to be an authoritative source. If a website has citations or links to fact-checking resources, this also increases the students’ perception of a site’s authority.
4. We need a new way to evaluate authority

Dahl (2009) calls for new methods for evaluating resources on the web. The metrics for determining authority (as well as accuracy, coverage, and objectivity) simply do not apply in the same way as they do for print materials. This is not to say that they matter less, only that we cannot use the same lens through which to examine them. We need to teach students how to understand sources in the context with which they appear (as best as possible) and how to use critical thinking skills to evaluate authority.

Recommendations:

1. Teach students to “follow the links”. Aggregated information obscures the source and authority/bias can be hard to determine if you don’t know where information originated. There’s nothing wrong with using web resources and finding the source is usually only a few clicks away.

2. Use aspects that are already important (web site design, top-level domain) to explore issues of authority and bias. If we know that students are already attuned to these, use them as springboards for examining what makes a site more authoritative or what aspects betray an author’s bias.

3. Illustrate how some sources of information are more efficient or higher quality than others. Teach students to instinctively click over to the “about” page of any web site and examine how information for the site was gathered. Talk with students about how articles are selected for journals, how journals are selected for databases, how databases are selected by the library and compare that to other aggregating services.

4. Reevaluate student perception and interpretations of print resources. Is it merely convenience and deadlines that keep them away from the stacks? We know that ease of access is a significant factor in student selection of resources, but is it the only factor? Has our approach to information on the web changed the way we perceive and interpret information in print? For example, a web site with too many ads can lower its perceived level of authority. Does the same apply to a magazine or journal? (American Libraries has a lot of ads but I still consider it to be a valid authority)

Some thoughts as I wander through these materials. As a student in an MLIS program, I am in the unique position to both consider and use these practices in my daily research. Any conclusions I come to affect my own interpretation of authority, especially in regard to web-based resources.

References:

Dahl, Candice. (2009). Undergraduate research in the public domain: the evaluation of non-academic sources online. Reference Services Review, 37(2), 155-163.

McClure, R., & Kellian, C. (2009). How do you know that? An investigation of student research practices in the digital age. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 9(1), 115-133.

Metz, R.M. (2006), “Conducting online research: undergraduate preferences of source”, MSLS thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC.

Tsai-Youn, Hung. (2004). Undergraduate students’ evaluation criteria when using web resources for class papers. Journal of Educational Media & Library Science, 42(1), 1-12.

My information management

During the week, I spend approximately 13 hours online each day. On the weekends, it’s slightly less than that. Being a full time library cataloger and a full time graduate student in an online program comes with some considerable drawbacks, not the least of which is finding ways to organize all the data that I collect and interact with on a daily basis. Here’s how I do it:

Online Storage

Since most of my digital experiences happen online, I store most of my data in the cloud.

Bookmarks (Websites)

Anything I come across online that I think is worthy of coming back to later is stored using Delicious. This usually includes root level domains of websites or major directories within websites. Rarely, I will save blog posts or articles here, though the more “academic” in nature, the more likely I am to save it in Zotero instead (see below). I’ve synced my Delicious bookmarks with all my Firefox browsers so they are immediately accessible and a new site can be added and tagged in seconds.

Contacts

I’ve migrated all my contact information to Google contacts: phone numbers, emails, mailing addresses. With the exception of mailing out wedding invites, every time I need an address or phone number, I’m usually out of the house. So I’ve synced my Google contacts to my ipod touch and stored them locally so they are always available even without a connection.

Email

I practice a mix of GTD and Inbox Zero methodologies. This requires (1) action-based labels and (2) smart use of filters. Basically, everything that comes into my mailbox is tagged and marked for (a) needs action, (b) read and review, © notifications, or (d) trash. So depending on who the email comes from, whether or not I’m the only person in the To: line, what words are in the subject, etc., each email gets moved to a certain place and I deal with each batch as time permits. By the end of every day, my email box is always empty. I save whatever I would be sad to loose and delete everything else (which makes future searching much more efficient).

Current Notes

I just started using Evernote to collect my ideas, clippings, and drafts for blogging projects (for this site and my library blog). Evernote allows you to import any type of note (text, image, pdf, whatever) and it will index any text (even text in images). I then tag all my notes based on the context in which I want to consider it in the future (e.g. read and review, potential posts, reading notes, tumblr blog, iav blog, etc.). Essentially, this is my pile of research notes, ideas, drafts.

Citations

For any article that I plan to cite in future writings or research, I store the citation in Zotero, a Firefox plugin that will store all the bibliographic data locally and on a server. I can then cut and paste the citations into documents using any of the usual formats (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.). Keeping all these together and separate from my delicious bookmarks lets me know what I’ve cited in other papers, when I accessed the articles, and in what context I used them (based on any tags or notes I added).

Tasks

I’m a huge fan of the GTD methodology which stresses the importance of context over priority when deciding on task management. I use Remember the Milk to create lists of tasks based on project-type (research paper, home repair, blog work) and context (online, errand, at work, at home). RTM also allows me to assign due dates, repeating tasks, durations, and more. Using these tags, I can create smart lists such as: a list of any tasks that are time sensitive, can be done at home, and in under 20 minutes… a great way to decide what to do when you’ve got a few minutes to waste before going to see a movie.

Lists

I also use RTM to store all my simple lists such as: (1) CDs I want to check out, (2) things I need to buy, (3) gift ideas, etc.

Local Storage

Most of the files I store on my local drives are archived items: things I don’t plan to access anytime in the 6-12 months (or ever again). This includes old research papers, pictures, raw data from financial statements, etc. Nonetheless, the information is important, so I have a regular backup schedule that utilizes SyncBack to save specific folders to an external drive and Dropbox to save specific folders to a server.

Monthly: music and pictures. These items don’t change often and I rarely add a lot of new content to their folders so at worst if I loose a month of data, it isn’t that much. These files are backed up to the external drive.

Weekly: archived documents. I set up a document folder for any files I am no longer working on or don’t plan to work on in the next 6 months. These are backed up to the external drive.

Daily: Anything I am currently working on is stored in my DropBox folder which instantaneously syncs those files anytime a change is made to the file (i.e. you hit the save button). So all of my current school projects are stored here. These files are synced to a server online so I can access them from any computer.

Online data: Additionally, there is some online data that I save to my local drive, such as financial statements and my blog XML files. These files are archived in my documents folder and are additionally backed up to the external drive weekly.

You gotta have a system and this is mine. What’s your system for managing all your data?

Current research: March 2010

Luo, Lili. (2010). Web 2.0 integration in information literacy instruction: an overview. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(1), 32-40.

Dr. Luo, assistant professor at San Jose State University, examines the ways in which librarians employ Web 2.0 technologies in instruction courses. Using survey results from 50 respondents, she identified three primary uses: (1) to organize and manage course-related materials for personal use; (2) to facilitate the delivery of content to students; and (3) to illustrate information literacy concepts. Luo additionally discusses how librarians use blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, YouTube, and bibliographic tools. There were two examples of Web 2.0 uses that struck me as innovative. In one example, a librarian developed a wiki for each instruction session. Students were able to log in throughout the semester to access handouts, powerpoints, and find contact info for the librarian that taught the class. In the other example, the photo tagging feature of Facebook was used to illustrate subject headings in the catalog. I find this to be a brilliant way of illustrating how to effectively search a catalog with controlled vocabulary and to explore some of the advantages and disadvantages of arranging information in this way. Of particular note for those who think all millennials are technophiles, Luo notes that some students see these tools as “toys” and either don’t take them seriously or don’t possess the technical knowledge to use them.

Smith, Debbi & Oliva, Victor. (2010). Becoming a renaissance reference librarian in academe : attitudes toward generalist and subject specific reference and related profession development. Reference Services Review, 38(1), 125-151.

Smith & Oliva surveyed reference librarians from institutions ranging in size, location, and budget. Some of those surveyed were full-time reference librarians and others did reference part-time or in addition to their primary duties. Smith & Oliva found that overall, reference librarians prefer being generalists rather than specialists and that the skills associated with reference interviews are more important than specific subject knowledge. Most surveyed feel that advanced degrees are not helpful and there is a distinct difference between getting an advanced degree to deepen subject knowledge and getting training for reference in a particular subject area. Regarding professional development, most librarians self-educate by reading news, professional journals, browsing reference collection, meeting with teaching faculty, reading core journals, watching educational TV programs, etc. Those who did these things more frequently were more comfortable at the reference desk.

Prescott, M.K. & Veldof, J. (2010). A process approach to defining services for undergraduates. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(1), 29-56.

Focus groups and surveys were used to determine what services were most important to users. The responses focused on access: namely, that is should be centralized, convenient, personalized, and easy to use. What was most interesting to me was the fact that the biggest challenges for undergraduates are: (1) work/life/school balance; (2) lack of study space; (3) lack of awareness of services available to them. Knowing this, how can academic libraries adapt their services to meet the needs of their users (especially with #1)? The most important take-away from this study is the strategic process the authors describe: it is iterative, reflective, and cautious. There is a constant give and take between the priorities as determined by the planning group and the priorities determined by surveying users and stakeholders. It shows the benefits of constant reassessment at each stage of the strategic planning process.

Keeping up to date

One of the ways I keep myself up to date with research in academic libraries and reference services is by regularly browsing over the articles published in a handful of journals. If something catches my eye, I download a copy to my “read and review” file in Evernote (or just the link) to look over when I have a free moment during breaks at work or on the weekends. There are eight journals that I regularly peruse, including:

Reference Services Review
College & Research Libraries
American Libraries
Journal of Academic Librarianship
The Library Quarterly
portal: Libraries & the Academy
First Monday
New Review of Academic Librarianship

Not all of these are published monthly, so in any given month there are usually only 2-4 that have new issues. I don’t always get around to reading everything that I download, but browsing over the headlines at least keeps me in the loop. It’s a good practice develop. To wit, in a recent Reference Services Review article on the practices of reference librarians,  Smith & Oliva (2010) point out that while habitually reading professional journals does not necessarily make one a better librarian, it does increase one’s level of comfort when dealing with reference questions (see what I did there? =). I’m sure these findings are applicable to most areas of librarianship.

All this leads me to say: I’m going to make it a point to regularly post comments/synopses of my readings partly as a self-motivator but also in an attempt to share with others what I find to be the most valuable pieces of current research. I hope you, dear reader, will find the information useful as well.

Smith, D. & Oliva, V. (2010). Becoming a renaissance reference librarian in academe : attitudes toward generalist and subject specific reference and related profession development. Reference Services Review 38(1), 125-151.

The web is not a library

Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen has a post this morning on Google’s business model and its influence on the web as an organizer of information. He brings up a number of important questions that deserve rumination, including: is Google’s ad-based business model really the most natural model for the web? are digital [organizing] systems sufficient compared to more intuitive human models?

I allowed Kent to lead me until I can to this paragraph:

Because Google’s reputation is that it has been able to organize the world’s information, it’s tempting to think there’s a system in the digital realm that can actually do this. But the fact is, Google is a pretty limited organizational system. For instance, I can’t drag all the files I find in a search onto my hard drive. I can’t be sure the search results a week from now will be the same as those I’ll get today. I can’t compare one page to another within the system.

There are two inherent biases present in these statements that I often hear in speaking with people in the print publishing field. First, that one would WANT to drag all the files in a search to one’s hard-drive is a ridiculous scenario given the amount of information on the web. But let’s assume you queried the web so succinctly that you found 30 perfect results, you COULD get those to your hard drive via RSS or “save page”, but that’s not the point. Information on the web is more fluid than print media, it can change, grow, adapt, and improve itself (or fizzle away). Its complex structure exists thinly spread across space and time and is affected by those two forces.

Second, considering the billions of web pages that exist on the internet, Google does a pretty good job of using what metadata exists to organize item in terms of search query. And that’s where it’s strength lies: not in organizing the web from the top down (like Yahoo directories), but from the bottom up. The web, in its amorphous state, remains so until acted upon by your query and Google’s (or any search engine’s) algorithm. It is organization, just not the type that people of the old media are used to (some librarians included).

Otherwise, it’s an article worth reading if you have a moment.

F.W. Langguth Black Slate pinot noir (Rheinhessen)

Have you ever come across a bottle of wine in your collection and not been able to remember where you got it from? I can’t think of where I picked this up. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of German reds (and the Rheinhessen region, especially, tends to produce generic wines) and the label is nothing worth looking twice at… yes, I sometimes buy based on label. Deal with it. This bottle, however, was worth the momentary memory lapse.

This non-vintage red is 90% pinot and 10% regent. Burnished red color with crystal clear complexion. Cranberry on the nose, sour fruit on the palette, with a sweet strawberry finish. It reminds me of one of my favorite candies. Light bodied and low tannins make this a delicate sipping wine that won’t interfere with dinner.

Undergraduate research: knowing where to start

Determining the extent of one’s information need can be the most difficult aspect of research for college students. Despite the welcoming atmosphere many academic libraries strive to provide, despite the resource guides and even the more than adequate signage, undergraduates students (especially first-years) have tremendous difficulty knowing where to begin their research. Combine this with a certain level of “library anxiety” (Barrett, 2005; Keefer, 1993; Mellon, 1986) and you have one very aimless, sometimes haphazard user-in-need. One of our responsibilities as academic librarians is to help mitigate this anxiety by teaching students how conduct scholarly research at a level appropriate to their needs; and so understanding these needs is oftentimes the first obstacle we must overcome.

How do students initially define their information need?

Knowing where to start in an information search process depends heavily on how aware the user is of his/her need. In some cases, the knowledge gap may only manifest itself as a vague impulse to learn more about a particular topic and, depending on factors such as time, energy, and available resources, may adversely affect the search process, as Bodoff’s (2006) study of search relevance and browsing vs. focused searching behavior illustrates. Yet, in their encounters with academic librarians, most students are quite aware that they need information, the details of such defined by course assignments; the extant and nature of that information however may be a bit fuzzy. This is especially true for undergraduates who are less likely than graduate students or faculty to be familiar with the topic of their research. As one study of the undergraduate research process discovers (Leckie, 1996), undergraduates typically only have lectures and assigned course readings available to give them any immediate sense of context and they will cling to these resources relentlessly, coming back to them again and again, even if they are not the best resources for the assignment at hand.

Some students may begin with general subject resources in order to get  an idea of what’s “hot” in the current field, using available resources such as Wikipedia and popular search engines (if course textbooks and lectures do not provide enough information). Graduate students, at least those in the humanities, will often consult project advisers or instructors to “feel out” what research directions may be appropriate for a particular assignment (Barret, 2005). A more common practice, however, is citation following: students start with a few general resources and follow the citation trail until they have a better idea of current discussions surrounding a subject and the major names in the field. In lieu of not having direct access to the “invisible college”, the networks of scholarly communication, this isn’t necessarily a bad tactic, but it can be problematic for assignments that are not clearly defined or ask the student to speak generally about a subject.

Why do students struggle to define the topic?

Many undergraduates have a great deal of difficulty narrowing a research topic to a level appropriate for their assignments. Fister’s (1992) study of undergraduates provides a useful characterization of the research process. On the one hand (and as I just noted), students are unfamiliar with the subject landscape. Students often browse widely in a particular field, choose a topic and then come back to some of the same material they located before, having discarded the items that do not fit the new perspective. Many students will approach their instructor with a broad topic and rely on him/her to recommend topical issues. On the other hand, undergraduates are often unsure of which type of information sources are the best and, as Leckie (1996) points out, will resort back to sources with which they are already familiar. With both hands tied behind their backs, students have to resort to acrobatics to accomplish their research goals.

Knowing when to stop

Knowing then to stop searching is also problematic for undergraduates. Prabha, Connaway, Olszewski & Jenkins (2007) examine the practice of “satisficing” information needs in the context of undergraduate and graduate research. Satisficing, in short, is the act of “settling” for the information we have when the cost of searching for more information exceeds the value of obtaining more information. In other words, the information already obtained is enough to cover the information need. Prabha et al surveyed current research on satisficing and determined that there were common quantitative and qualitative criteria among students that determined when the research process stopped. Quantitative reasons for stopping include: reaching the required number of citations, reaching the required number of pages, answering all the research questions, and running out of prep time. Qualitative reasons for stopping include: locating accurate information, locating the same information in several sources, gathering sufficient information, and understanding the concept. Prabha et al go on to state that most students stay within the minimum research requirements of the assignment.

Recommendations

The most important observation to take away from all the research on undergraduate information seeking methods is this: students rarely predetermine an end point to their research. As educators and librarians, this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, part of the academic experience is learning how to navigate the scholarly information landscape, something which many first-years have never been required to do before. But knowing this should influence our approach to instruction in two ways:

1) We need to work past the “compromised need”. Even when students come to the library seeking help with a specific question ready, there is a good chance that there is more going on behind the immediate information need. There is a long and rich history of research on how to navigate the field of an individual’s extended information need, from the immediate question all the way back to the sometimes unconsciously determined knowledge gap (see Taylor, 1968; Dervin, 1992; Kuhlthau, 1994; Dewdney & Michell, 1997), and it is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that we should focus our efforts on working toward that essential information need, filling in the gaps and potholes along the way, but always focusing on what Taylor calls the “visceral” information need.

2) We need to work more on helping students, especially undergraduates, to narrow their topic, rather than to narrow search results. As database search engines continue to become more user-friendly, intuitive, and better at ranking results by relevance, the need for highly technical search skills decreases. What does not change, however, is the need for a user to search with narrowly defined search terms (or combination thereof). We could do much more for our users by working with them to narrow their topics and, in effect, shorten the amount of time they spend searching for relevant data.

Navigating the landscape of scholarly research in no easy task for someone unfamiliar with the terrain. As reference and instruction librarians, we are there to help and acclimate new arrivals (and long-time residents!) to the surprisingly complex methodologies that come second-nature to faculty and advanced graduate students. To some extent, it is our purpose of being. Taylor (1968), speaking about one particular reference transaction, notes that a student approached hesitantly and begged forgiveness for interrupting but needed some help finding a particular resources. In reply, the librarian said “If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d be out of a job.”

Resources

Barrett, A. (2005). The information-seeking habits of graduate student researchers in the humanities. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 31(4), 324-331.

Bates, M. (2002). Toward an integrated model of information seeking and searching: studies of information seeking in context. New Review of Information Behavior Research, 3, 1-16.

Belkin, N.J. (1984). Cognitive models and information transfer. Social Science Information Studies, 4, 111-129.

Belkin, N.J., Oddy, R.N., & Brooks, H.M. (1982). ASK for information retrieval: part 1. Background and theory. Journal of Documentation, 38(2), 61-71.

Case, D. O. (2002). Looking for information: a survey of research on information seeking, needs, and behavior. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Dervin, B. (1992). From the mind’s eye of the ‘user’: the sense-making qualitative-quantitative methodology. In Glazier, J.D. & Powell, R.R. (Eds.), Qualitative research in information management (pp. 61-84). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Fister, B. (1992). The research process of undergraduate students. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 18(3), 163–169.

Ingwersen, P. (1999). Cognitive information retrieval. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 34, 3-52.

Keefer, J. (1993). The hungry rats syndrome: library anxiety, information literacy and the academic reference process. Reference Quarterly, 32, 333-339.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1993). A principle of uncertainty for information seeking. Journal of Documentation, 49(4), 339-355.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (1994). Students and the information search process: zones of intervention for librarians. Advances in Librarianship, 18, 57–72.

Leckie, G.L. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22(3), 201–208.

Mellon, C. (1986). Library anxiety: a grounded theory and its development. College & Research Libraries, 47, 160-165.

Prabha, C., Connaway, L., Olszewski, L., & Jenkins, L. (2007). What is enough? Satisficing information needs. Journal of Documentation, 63(1), 74-89.

Taylor, R.S. (1968). Question-negotiation and information seeking in libraries. College and Research Libraries, 29, 178-194.

Vakkari, P. (1999). Task complexity, problem structure and information actions: integrating studies on information seeking and retrieval. Information Processing & Management, 35(6), 819-837.

Wilson, T.D. (2000). Human information behavior. Informing Science, 3(2), 49-55.

Wilson, T. D. (1981). On user studies and information needs. Journal of Documentation, 37(1), 3-15.

Jeffrey Cole on the digital future

Recently, USC professor Dr. Jeffrey Cole spoke to a group of librarians, faculty, students and staff on campus. Dr. Cole has been analyzing mass media since the early 1990s when he was Principal Investigator of the Network Television Violence Monitoring Project. His initial interest in the internet came from a 1998 study which showed that for the first time since the birth of television, the hours children spent watching TV dropped: the internet had became a competitor for the hearts and minds of the younger generation.

Dr. Cole is the director of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. According the Center’s website, it is “committed to work that has a real and beneficial effect on people’s lives, while seeking to maximize the positive potential of the mass media and our rapidly evolving communication technologies.” The Center recently produced two reports: the Digital Future Report 2009 and the World Internet Project International Report 2009. Both are available for purchase on the Center’s website (highlights are also available).

In anticipation of future discussions on information access, some of the claims made during the presentation may be of interest to librarians and educators. Dr. Cole spoke at length on the future of newspapers and the digital life of the younger (12-24 yrs) generation. Some notes:

-Despite claims about the “death of X” (where X equals any media format), mass media will survive (even thrive!) but it will get smaller. The exception to this is television, which will escape from the home and the clock to find increased life on mobile and asynchronous platforms.
-Newspapers, perhaps the poster child of “dying” media, are missing out on the fact that the younger generation is more interested in the news than it has been in the last 70 years.
-In order to be considered “up-to-date”, newspapers need to publish within 30-60 seconds of an event.

Concerning the Center’s study of 12-24 year-olds’ habits:

Fewer:
-wear watches each year
-read magazines each year
-schedule TV viewing and are dominated by it

More:
-trust peers over experts
-use mobile devices
-are willing to pay for digital content
-see community as the center of their internet experience
-think they are not interested in or affected by advertising (but they are)
-prefer IM to email
-want content to move freely between platforms

If you have the chance to see Dr. Cole speak, I highly recommend it. He is engaging, charismatic, and obviously passionate about his research. For more information, please visit the Center’s website.

Surveying the landscape

Librarians and educators have been discussing the tenets of  information literacy for over a decade. The conversation was compounded by the introduction of the internet into day-to-day life and, especially, into the research process. A recent report from Project Information Literacy, an influential study of adults enrolled in higher education and directed by Alison Head and Michael Eisenberg of the University of Washington iSchool, shows that most students use Google as their entry point for daily information seeking tasks (“everyday life research”). While students tend to consult course material and library databases first when it comes to class projects, Google (metonymically standing in for all search engines) is not far behind. Badke (2009) says we dropped the ball a long time ago: that we failed to show users how to understand information they retrieve on the web and let them become alienated from the library as an authoritative source of information. Perhaps we did. Perhaps technology moved faster and more pervasively than we anticipated, but in our hearts as educators and information professionals we intuitively know that there is always a better way to “do” research.

There are many questions that repeatedly need to be reexamined and answered. What is missing when working with first year undergraduates? Is it something lacking in our instruction? or in their learning capability? or in their previous education? And what does it mean to be information literate? If I were to say that student X was a product of successful information literacy instruction, what would that mean? What skills would that student possess and how would those manifest themselves in her academic and non-curricular information pursuits?

In 1989, the Association of College & Research Libraries stated that information literacy was the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information”. The ACRL further defined IL with six characteristics. In an effort to explore recent research, I want to briefly examine each of these six concepts.

  1. Determine the extend of information need

It does not help that one of the most difficult aspects of student research, namely, narrowing the topic, is one of the first steps in the information seeking process. While examining how students operationalize research, Head (2008) determined that even though students are eager to begin a project they often have difficulty narrowing the topic to an appropriate level of focus. Part of the problem stems from information overload, but also from not understanding the assignment. To make matters worse, students are often reluctant to ask for help either settling for the convenience of a single search box or feeling overwhelmed by the resources the library offers, unsure of their efficacy. It’s a problem we’ve always had to deal with (see Clay Shirky on filter-failure), so it’s no surprise that it comes up and again in the research literature.

  1. Access the needed information effectively and efficiently

Students recognize how helpful face-to-face research consultation can be, especially help from librarians and professors (Head, 2008), but there is still a disconnect between what students understand and what they practice. Maybe this is due in part to the way in which they seek information for non-research purposes, preferring the convenience of Google (or any single-box search engine). Yet, we know from studies such as Kellers, Watters, & Shephard (2007) that students interact with browsers differently depending on what their information seeking task entails.  Ineffective and inefficient use of information may also be due to the fact that many students admittedly procrastinate on assignments (either intentionally or due to a heavy course-load) to a point when their information need is so constrained by deadlines, access trumps effective analysis. Whatever the cause(s), students often need significant help in this area (and it is the point of need that we most often address when sitting at the reference desk).

  1. Evaluate information and its sources critically

McClure & Kellian (2009) studied how students evaluated authority and bias by examining the sources they used in research papers and following up with students and teachers on their research process. They found that many students struggle with finding authoritative, unbiased sources. This is nothing new. More importantly though, students struggle with defining authority and explaining biases that may be present in sources. As McClure & Kellian point out, it is an aspect of information literacy on which students AND instructors need to focus.

  1. Incorporate selected information into one’s knowledge base

This aspect of information literacy is often missing from librarian-student interactions. Our usual modus operandi, perhaps due to the brevity of our interactions with students, is assisting them in accomplishing a specific task: find sources for a writing assignment, find specific data sets, etc. Only in special moments (or in uniquely-designed programs) do we have the chance to continue instruction beyond the initial and often only encounter. Students recognize the benefit of working with information professionals and perform better research when they understand information literacy as a specific, internalized skill set (Bowler & Street, 2008). How can we use this to our advantage?

  1. Use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose

This aspect of IL ties in closely with critical thinking: being able to move beyond the information and recognize its potential as a tool for accomplishing both specific and more broadly defined purposes. As Rollins & Hutchings (2009) point out in their survey of IL programs in Louisiana, faculty and administrators often have difficulty realizing the impact of IL instruction on the critical-thinking aspect of a college education. It is not enough for students to conduct a library scavenger hunt or meet for an hour with a reference librarian once during a Writing 101 course. Developing critical thinking skills for college-level research requires more time and more intimate instruction. As Rollins & Hutchings also note, it’s about more than technological know-how, “it is about lifelong learning and those pivotal concepts that enable students to do research as independently as possible.” It may not be our responsibility as librarians to teach critical thinking skills, but without them, how can we develop information literacy?

  1. Understand the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information, and access and use information ethically and legally

In my opinion, this is the most difficult of all six competencies. It requires both competencies #3 and #5 and also insists students reach beyond the current assignment and examine their own practices and bias. O’Conner (2009) discusses this in her call to reconceptualize IL (interestingly, she uses this competency to deconstruct the assumptions of IL theory itself!) and concludes with a statement extolling the civic virtues of IL: “information literacy has the potential to help citizens become critically aware-a condition that will lead to increased agency. This empowerment is desperately needed by the citizens in the modern mass society.” I couldn’t agree more.

There is more to information literacy than what is expressed in these six concepts, so over the next few weeks, I want to explore each of them in more detail: seeking out current discussions, examining strengths and shortcomings, and coming to a better understanding of what it means to be information literate.

References

Badke, W. (2009). How we failed the net generation. Online, 33(4), 47-49.

Bowler, M. & Street, K. (2008). Inves­ti­gat­ing the effi­cacy of embed­ment: exper­i­ments in infor­ma­tion lit­er­acy inte­gra­tion. Ref­er­ence Ser­vices Review, 36(4), 439–449.

Head, A.J. (2008). Information literacy from the trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research? College & Research Libraries, 69(5), 427-445.

Kellar, M., Watters, C. & Shepherd, M. (2007). A field study characterizing web-based information-seeking tasks. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(7): 999–1018.

McClure, R. & Kellian, C. (2009). How do you know that? An investigation of student research practices in the digital age. Portal : Libraries and the Academy, 9(1), 115-133.

O’Connor, L. (2009). Information literacy as professional legitimation: a critical analysis. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 50(2), 79-89.

Rollins, D.C & Hutchings, J. (2009). Are we there yet? The difficult road to re-create information literacy.  Portal : Libraries and the Academy 9(4), 453-473.