It’s so dead

The act of pronouncing things dead is SO dead! Harry McCracken of Technologizer looks at all the technologies we’ve collectively declared as “dead” over the last few years. Vinyls, however, still keep truckin’ 😉

What is information?

If you are a MLIS student, at some point during the process of your degree you will be asked: what is information? You will be referred to Shannon & Weaver (1973), expected to elaborate on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom quadrivium, and inevitably questioned whether it is possible for anything to NOT be information. It’s a philosophical and often semantically-rich game we all play at some point and, for some, the conversation stops there: a topic left in the classroom and hastily replaced by the daily service needs of patrons.

But for those who specialize in the science of information, the question is a research cornerstone. That an answer exists (whatever it may be) is the raison d’etre for the field. Personally, the distinction between the LS field and the IS field is one that I never gave much thought to until I began reading for my Human Information Interactions course. For me and with my hopes of eventually working in public services, the question of what is information has always been a theoretical question, interesting in its own light, but not much use on the floor or at the reference desk. Nonetheless, the question is an essential one and thinking about it can be useful for serving the daily information literacy needs of our patrons.

Defining Information

How one defines information depends heavily on how one defines data and, moreover, whether data is defined as being known subjectively or objectively. Definitions of data range from the entirely concrete (e.g. data is binary code) to the entirely abstract (e.g. data is “raw” fact). For more information on how current scholars of information science define data, information, and knowledge, see Zins (2005). As to my definition…

Data. I define data as “a symbolic representation of an object or event.” The choice of  representation is often conventional and usually quantifiable. The object or event itself has no inherent meaning and it cannot be effectively communicated without giving it context.

Information. I define information as an imposition of meaning onto data for the purpose of communication or creating context, i.e. to make it possible to be perceived, usually in a particular way. Data, in a sense, is anything capable of carrying meaning and information is both the act of carrying meaning (information-as-process) and the meaning implied by that act (information-as-thing) (see Buckland, 1991). Information requires an intelligent agent and cannot exist outside the scope of perception. Recorded information, which does not have an agent acting upon it, is a fossil of data-once-perceived.

Relevance for Information Literacy

What then is the relationship of this type of theoretical discussion to information literacy? From day to day, librarians and information professionals work with students to help them make the move from the museum of data to the playground of information. We give them the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the vocabulary of data, its symbols and common representations, and how it is created, organized, and retrieved. We encourage them to explore and even question how data is used in the creation of information (i.e. of meaning) and what this says both about the data itself and the people (or machines) who create it.

If we are successful in that endeavor, we may see the ultimate fruits of our labor: the creation of knowledge. Students who gain the necessary information literacy skills move on to create knowledge, explore its depths, and broaden the horizons of human experience. It’s a self-enriching feedback loop that continues to till the intellectual soil of both the individual and her community. How lucky are librarians and educators to be prime movers in that cycle!


Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information as thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 42(2), 351-360.

Schramm, W. (1973). Channels and audiences. In Pool, I., Schramm, W., Maccoby, N., & Parker, E. (eds.), Handbook of Communication. Chicago: Rand McNally, 116-140.

Zins, C. (2007). Conceptual approaches for defining data, information, and knowledge. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 58(4), 479-493. doi:10.1002/asi.20508

The transformation toward information science

“People who come into this field [library and information science], whether formally educated in it or who drift in through a job, sooner or later go through a transformation, wherein they shift their primary focus of attention from the information content to the information form, organization, and structure. The Ph.D. art historian who gets a job working with art history information out of a love of the subject matter eventually finds him- or herself working with the core questions of information science, not of art history.”

Bates, M. (1999). The invisible substrate of information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 50(12), 1043-1050.

10 years of information literacy standards

It’s been over 10 years since the ACRL adopted the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. If at some point during the last decade you have been enrolled in an MLIS program, it is likely that you’ve spent at least one class period discussing the merits of The Standards and debating whether or not they are necessary, complete, relevant, etc. This week, I had that class period. As expected, most students were in favor of The Standards, some with reservations.

The Standards were approved by the ACRL Board of Directors in January 2000 at the ALA Midwinter conference. They were developed to help individuals deal with the increasingly data-rich information environment of the 21st century and to provide guidelines for developing the skills necessary for lifelong learning. One might even suggest that they were developed in reaction to the digital age. The document itself contains a definition of Information Literacy (IL), a description of its contexts (technological, institutional, pedagogical), a standard of use, assessment methods, performance indicators, and expected learning outcomes. It is a thorough examination of the skills necessary for IL and the ways in which those skills may be assessed.

So what are the benefits of having The Standards and how do they continue to be relevant a decade after their introduction?

They provide a common language. What do we mean when we say students should be able to “effectively use” information? How does one have an understanding of the “economic, legal, and social issues” surrounding information? Having The Standards puts librarians and instructors on the same page so that when we discuss the IL needs of our users, we understand each others’ prior knowledge and expectations.

They provide a framework for assessment. The Standards provide a series of performance indicators for each standard that are broad enough to apply to any academic setting. For example, in order to evaluate a student’s ability to determine the nature of her information need (Standard 1), we can develop measures to assess her ability to identify types and formats of potential information sources (1.2). This could be as simple as asking first-years to decide between journal articles or newspapers as an information source or as complex as asking graduate students to compare the different ways in which research is disseminated in different disciplines (e.g. sciences vs. humanities).

They provide an artifact of our understanding. If we recognize the need to develop information literacy skills in our users, we also recognize the need to work with university faculty and administrators in order to develop IL-rich curricula. Having The Standards provides us with documentation for our methods. Additionally, if it is adapted for local use, it provides an important artifact for accreditation purposes.

They provide a source for individual reflection. Personally, The Standards have helped me to assess my own skills and shortcomings. They provide a rubric that can be used by instructors and students alike in order to reflect on personal and professional information needs or the research process.

They provide ready-made expected learning outcomes (ELO). For each standard and performance indicator, The Standards provide a list of ELOs. For example, in order to determine if a student possesses the ability to synthesize main ideas and construct new concepts (3.3), the instructor would develop activities that could show the student’s ability to “recognize interrelationships among concepts” and “extend an initial synthesis into a higher level of abstraction” (3.3a-b).

They provide a sounding-board for other organizations interested in IL. Academic librarians are not the only people interested in developing information literate citizens. School librarians, teachers, even the U.S. Government are concerned with people’s ability to locate, evaluate and use information. The Standards provides a useful set of benchmarks for developing additional standards for specific groups or contexts.

There are some shortcomings.

They lack affective learning outcomes. As Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) point out, IL instructors should consider a student’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values in relationship to the information search process. They argue for adding affective learning outcomes that would “humanize the ACRL standards, reminding academic librarians and educators of the positive feelings that they must continually strive to develop in their students.”

They are platform agnostic. While The Standards require that students be able to move information between formats (4.1.d) and be able to use various technologies in order to create or use information (4.3.b), they do not require that students understand the technology behind platforms  through which they access or use information. However, this may simply be a matter of degree: we teach the basic concepts without getting bogged down in the technical details. We could teach the technical details if we had the time.

The Standards are a vital source of inspiration for librarians and they provide a glimpse into our professional values. They continue to be useful for developing IL policies and integrating IL into the curriculum. Perhaps at some point in the next decade, they will require revision. But for the time being, they continue to be useful blueprints for instructors.


ALA. ACRL. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved August 4, 2010, from

Schroeder, R., & Cahoy, E. S. (2010). Valuing information literacy: affective learning and the ACRL standards. portal: Libraries and the Academy, 10(2), 127-146.

Current research: July 2010

Allow me to share with you some recent research on information literacy that I’ve come across in the last month.

Armstrong, J. (2010). Designing a writing intensive course with information literacy and critical thinking learning outcomes. Reference Services Review, 38(3).

In this article, Armstrong describes her attempt to incorporate information literacy (IL) learning outcomes and critical thinking (CT) skills into a quarter-long capstone course in American Cultural Studies. After students choose their research project in the second class session, the librarian-professor spends three class days covering research methods. In general, the way in which the assignments are organized throughout the course are “designed to move students through the logical stages of the research and writing process and also to engage them in the dialectical relationship between research and critical thinking.” Students are expected to exhibit a variety of IL and CT skills throughout the course, culminating in their final research paper. Since IL and CT skills are viewed on a learning continuum, a variety of assessments are used: qualitative and quantitative examination of citations used; a research methods questionnaire (e.g. “How did you do your research”, etc.); pre- and post-course student evaluations; and overall course grading. The article provides a thoughtful source of inspiration for librarians planning semester-long IL-based courses.

Green, R. (2010). Information illiteracy: examining our assumptions. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(4), 313-319.

Based on her research, Green advocates a move away from the binary view of information literacy: those who have skills and those who don’t. IL instruction, according to the author, tends to take the approach in which we as librarians and IL professions attempt to instill IL skills in students with the assumption that they need to be “retaught” everything they think they know about the information universe. Green’s research, which examines doctoral dissertations of American and Australian students, suggests that through the process of developing a literature review students pick up IL skills, though they do not name them as such. She advocates seeking the learner’s perspective and “taking up critical questions of how people become information literate and whether direct information literacy interventions are necessary in order to prevent information illiteracy.” See also the “Notes and Resources” section for a great bibliography.

Su, S.-F. & Kuo, J. (2010). Design and development of web-based information literacy tutorials. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(4), 320-328.

Su & Kuo used ACRL’s PRIMO database, a collection of peer-reviewed online tutorials, to examine 37 of  154 tutorials and determine common factors such as objectives and teaching strategies, tutorial content, estimated browsing time, and visibility on university websites. Their findings summarize the “best of the best” and provide useful benchmarks for librarians developing web-based IL tutorials.

Using Flickr to build critical thinking skills

I’m currently taking a course on Library Instruction as part of my MLIS work. The following is an exercise I developed for one of my assignments: using tagging to help students think critically about information organization and retrieval. The idea is based on a similar lesson developed by Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker (2009) in which they use the concept of tagging to illustrate MeSH. As a premise, both lessons attempt to capitalize on knowledge that students may already possess before the session begins. What do you think? Have you used similar lessons in your instruction sessions? How do you teach students about subject headings?


Grassian & Kaplowitz (2009) suggest that librarians should teach two types of critical thinking: (1) critical thinking about information researching tools and (2) critical thinking about materials received. The following exercise attempts to address the first of these by asking students to reflect upon how information is organized in both formal and informal systems using the popular photo sharing website Flickr and academic databases such as Proquest and Academic OneFile. Maggio, Bresnahan, Flynn & Harzbecker, in their 2009 study, used the concept of social tagging to illustrate the benefits of controlled vocabulary in the MEDLINE database. Based on pre-class and post-class evaluations, the students’ ability to recognize and select MeSH related to a specified article increased from 9.2% to 78.2%. The exercise below is adapted from this case study and utilizes social tagging to improve students’ ability to think critically about database searching and subject classification.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the instruction session, students should understand how subject headings affect the organization and retrieval of information. Specifically, the following two ACRL Information Literacy Standards apply:

3.2.d: Recognizes the cultural, physical, or other context within which the information was created and understands the impact of context on interpreting the information

2.2.c: Selects controlled vocabulary specific to the discipline or information retrieval source
Students will demonstrate learning through their ability to discuss the social, political, and/or contextual implications of tagging and controlled vocabulary. They will also be able to locate and evaluate subject thesauri in specific databases and compare subject headings between various databases.

Instruction and Activities

Pre-class Prep: Select a number of photos from Flickr that could generate interesting discussions about classification (images from current events, popular landmarks, famous individuals, etc.). Print two copies of each of these images so that there are enough for the expected number of students. Images could also be saved to PC desktops or flash-drives if that is more convenient. Assign two databases to each image that students will use for searching later in the session. Include either a link or a step-by-step guide to navigating to the database homepage.

Social Tagging in Flickr (20 min): Begin the session by briefly discussing the concept of tagging (in case anyone is unfamiliar with the practice) and showing the benefits of searching by assigned tags rather than searching by keyword. Hand out the images printed before class to the students and ask them to assign 3-5 tags to the photo. Have the students find the other person who has their same image and ask them to discuss the tags they chose. Did they choose the same tags? Different ones? Ask 1-2 of the groups to present their findings and, as a class, discuss any biases or assumptions made when assigning certain tags (e.g. perspective, focus, gender, cognitive domain, synonymy).

Locating Database Thesauri (20 min): While still in pairs, have the students find subject headings similar to the tags they assigned using the two databases indicated on their handouts. Ask the students to compare how similar concepts are described in the two different databases (e.g. “Exxon Valdez disaster” vs. “Exxon Valdez oil spill”) and present their findings to the class. Use this time to discuss the biases and assumptions made in assigning subject headings.

Conclusion (10 min): Using Flickr’s website, locate the images that you used for their assignments and show them the actual tags assigned to each image. Discuss any lingering questions about the benefits and drawbacks of using controlled vocabulary to search for articles.


ALA. ACRL. (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Association of College & Research Libraries. Retrieved June 18, 2010, from

Grassian, E.S. & Kaplowitz, J.R. (2009). Information literacy instruction: theory and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Maggio, L.A., Besnahan, M., Flynn, D.B., & Harzbecker, J. (2009). A case study: using social tagging to engage students in learning Medical Subject Headings. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 97(2), 77-83.

2008 Tamayo Red (Contra Costa County)

I have no reservations against red blends: I love them unashamedly. Each sip provides a guided tour from one varietal to the next. This particular blend has seven: Petite Sirah, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Tinta Cao, Malbec, Alicante Bouschet, and Carmeniere. The 2008 Red has a clean, blackish purple color. Blackberries and vanilla glide in through the nose. On the mouth, you will detect subtle hints of oak, blueberry skin, and spice. Tarteness lingers on the side palette while blueberries continue to dance on the tip of your tongue. Hold this wine in your mouth for just a few seconds to get the full effect.

For $15 a bottle, this is a high-value wine. According to the vineyard’s website, 825 cases were produced. The wine was aged 10 months in French, American and Hungarian oak barrels.

Bubble trouble in academia

Always providing high-quality food for thought, Steven Bell writes for  the Library Journal about the “higher education bubble”. The rising cost of tuition, the availability of open education resources, and the economic crisis are widening the divide between the actual cost of education and its perceived value. Though studies continue to show the value of a degree and its long-term impact on an individual’s net worth, these numbers have been falling as people begin to acquire more and more debt in order to pay for that degree.

Some may take the warning signs as a foreshadowing of events sure to come while others may brush them off as mere apocalyptic hysteria. I imagine many academics far somewhere in the middle: recognizing the fact that it’s coming but not making much effort to understand or prepare for what could dramatically change the landscape of higher ed.

Let’s not make the mistake that newspapers made.

Newspapers provide a useful model for thinking about a potential burst in the academic market. Before the networked, internet-based economy began to rise in the late 1990s, newspapers ruled the landscape of news media. Their business model was one of risk aggregation and hierarchical efficiency. Large numbers of journalists could be employed to produce a single, high-quality product that people could not get otherwise. The internet changed that landscape by providing an essentially no-risk, no-cost environment in which anyone could produce news and, through the currency of the link, could become a news provider. Combine that with the individual’s ability to filter (to essentially be their own editor-in-chief) and anyone could have their own, personalized New York Times for a much lower cost. Granted, it may not be the same level of quality, but at a certain point, people are willing to settle (cf. satisficing).

That’s a messy summary, but it quickly gets to my point: the system of delivery changed while the value of the product dropped just enough to where consumers defaulted to the cheaper option. Sure, there are choirs of  humanists, scientists, and public intellectuals who will sing the glories of academia all day long (just listen to any of the commencement speeches currently taking place across the country). But like newspapers, content matters little when you have a business model that no longer works.

What would happen to academic libraries if the higher education bubble burst? Is there anything we can do to prevent it? The newspapers tried and failed (are still failing). Instead, maybe we should ask, how can we begin making steps to transition to a new existence when that day comes?

We need to start continue doing more with less. The economic crisis of the last two years has forced us to cut budgets and staff. We need to reflect on what we learned during that process and take that with us as we move forward.

We need to get our users more involved. We won’t be able to carry the organization on our own. If value comes from sharing, collaboration, use, and links, then we need to build up our user base before we can take advantage of their trading power.

We have to market harder. People need to know our value if we expect them to carry us forward into the future. We should be seeking out new ways to extend our services, even if it falls outside the typical job description of academic librarians. We have resources. Let’s use them!

We need to open up our catalogs and make the data more accessible on the web. If users don’t find us in a Google Search, then we’re already one step behind everyone else. If we haven’t learned it by now, we have to come to where are users are at. There is a rule of thumb that I learned from a recent web design teacher: 30 seconds, 3 clicks. If users can’t get what they need in 30 seconds or in 3 clicks of the mouse, they will go elsewhere. (Of course, the 64 million dollar question is: how can we get them there in 1 click?)

…and related to that…

We need to enrich our digital materials (online exhibits, scanned books, the catalog). Metadata is king. Without a strong infrastructure, it will be increasingly more difficult for other services to integrate with ours. That’s one of the wonderful things about this new open and digital environment: if people like you, they will develop for you. iPhone users crack their devices not because they hate Apple (though I’m sure some do), but because they love Apple and want to make their devices more useful.

How can we get to the point where our users work for us?

Current research: May 2010

Not much has come across the wire this month, but here is one article that caught my attention:

Samson, S. (2010). Information literacy learning outcomes and student success. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(3), 2002-210.

While the results of this article are, for the most part, only applicable to the university setting in which they were developed, the methodology is elegant and viably reproducible by any other university seeking to analyze its  instruction services in terms of information literacy standards. The University of Montana, a mid-size doctoral university, identified learning initiatives and outcomes for its students and integrated information literacy practices based on those initiatives/outcomes throughout the curriculum. Basic IL instruction is provided to first-years while advanced IL instruction is offered to upper-division students in the area of their major.

Samson, the Head of Information and research Services at Mansfield Library, then compared the final projects of randomly selected English Composition students to the portfolio projects of randomly selected capstone courses. The analysis compares evidence (or lack thereof) of effective IL techniques in relation to five of ACRL’s IL standards. Samson notes that evidence of the fourth standard (“use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose”) was the most difficult to quantify.

Given that a university has a solid, across-the-board IL policy, this methodology could be an effective and illuminating way to build a general picture of IL effectiveness.

Critical thinking resources

I’ve sidetracked my usual information literacy research to spend some time examining how critical thinking relates to what librarians do. Still being somewhat green-thumbed in all this, I had never considered critical thinking skills in their own light, outside of IL instruction and assessment; indeed, as ITLWTLP explained not too long ago, the two are closely related. So I wanted to share some of the resources I’ve come across recently, both online and in print. While not all of these resources are specific to academic libraries, they provide provoking ways for thinking about CT.

  • Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills report : this particular report outlines the role of libraries and museums in promoting “21st century skills” and provides a number of case studies and tools for assessing or developing CT practices.
  • Critical Literacy? Information! : the post I mentioned above from a truly spectacular blog, In the Library With the Lead Pipe. This post discusses the relationship between information literacy and CT.
  • The Elements of Reasoning and Intellectual Standards : an interactive guide to the “elements of thought” (e.g. point-of-view, assumptions, purpose, etc.) and CT standards (e.g. clarity, logic, fairness, etc.). Very useful for students and educators alike to quickly assess CT. This site is a co-operative effort between the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique and the Foundation for Critical Thinking.
  • Critical Thinking for College and University Students : also from, this is a useful guide for students that explores the basics of CT and its importance. It provides an overview, glossary, standards, study tips, close reading tutorials and more.
  • Partnership for 21st Century Skills : provides a very brief overview of critical thinking and a list of additional resources

I’ve also picked up the following three publications:

Budd, J. (2009). Framing Library Instruction. Chicago : Association of College and Research Libraries.

There is a chapter entitled “Cognition and clear thinking” which discusses various cognitive models for understanding how people learn and process information.

Nosich, G.M. (2009). Learning to Think Things Through : a guide to critical thinking across the curriculum. Upper Saddle River, NJ : Pearson Prentice Hall.

Provides a concise and rich introduction to CT for instructors.

Leicester, M. (2010). Teaching Critical Thinking Skills. New York : Continuum.

I was particular excited to have come across this book while looking for something else. Each page presents a single critical thinking aspect, followed up with questions and ideas for reflection. The work is geared toward instructors but the format provides a useful mechanism for evaluating one’s own CT skills.

I’ll be posting my thoughts as I work through these materials. If you have any critical thinking resources that you  recommend, please share them in the comments!