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.


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.”


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:

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

-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.


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.