Running universities like wikipedia?

Asks The Chronicle:

“First, it wouldn’t have formal admissions, said Mr. Staley, director of the Harvey Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching at Ohio State University. People could enter and exit as they wished. It would consist of voluntary and self-organizing associations of teachers and students “not unlike the original idea for the university, in the Middle Ages,” he said. Its curriculum would be intellectually fluid.”

Hm, I don’t know about this… Wikipedia’s purpose is to inform. A university’s purpose is to educate. The two are not synonymous. But I would support increased collaboration, even within the administrative sphere, between faculty and students.

Incidental information acquisition in academic libraries

In her 2006 article, Heinström discusses an event called “incidental information acquisition.” We’ve all experienced it before: while looking for one piece of information, you come across another piece of information the you had unsuccessfully searched for in the past. For example, a while back I remember hearing a review of a book on the radio that caught my interest, but by the time I arrived at work, I’d forgotten the title. I searched unsuccessfully online. NPR hadn’t published its stories for the day on its website yet and so I forgot about it and moved on to other tasks. Until one day a few months later I was in a bookstore and saw the book on a display of new releases and I remembered having searched for book.

Heinström studied 3 groups of users: college students, older adults, and 6th-12th graders. Of those surveyed, 77% claimed they had had similar IIA experiences. Heinström wanted to know if there were any psychological characteristics that predisposed users to IIA. She determined that the following characteristics encourage IIA events:

  • the tendency to regularly and broadly scan information sources
  • having previous knowledge of the subject
  • intrinsic motivation
  • general feelings of confidence, certainty, and satisfaction

Roberts (1989) also looked for similar psychological characteristics and determined that attributes such as sagacity, awareness, curiosity, flexible thinking, and persistence increased the likelihood of IIA.

As librarians, how can we influence and encourage these characteristics to support serendipitous discovery of information? If we are lucky enough to teach semester-long courses or have specific students assigned to us (check out Drexel’s new program), perhaps we may have the opportunity. But between the ready reference questions and the one-off sessions, when do we ever have the chance to help students develop deep, psychological traits such as “curiosity” or “sagacity”?

Perhaps we should look elsewhere. Williamson (1998) examined information seeking, communication behaviors, and telecommunications uses and concluded that personal characteristics, socio-economic circumstances, values, lifestyles and physical environments influence IIA in some way: specifically, those aspects influence how often and effectively people monitor their world. Again, with the exception of physical environments, there seems to be little here librarians can work with to influence the particular factors that affect and increase the potential for IAA.

Nonetheless, librarians are trying and doing what they can given the time and resources they have to increase discoverability. As librarians, we are changing the way we use space and designing libraries that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but that offer a wide range of resources and tools (information commons, media labs, coffee shops, lounges, group study rooms, multi-media classrooms). We are reinterpreting our online catalogs using pre-indexing functions to improve search results and redesigning them to improve their look and feel. Librarians are reaching out to student groups and moving beyond the walls of the library, both physically and virtually, to increase their visibility and let students know that someone is always available to help, even at 4am in the morning. We are changing ourselves and striving to change our environments and transform the context in which users access and seek information.

But is it enough? Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Forecasting aside (as delightful as that diversion is), there is still the issue of how librarians can encourage IIA when so many of factors that encourage it are out of our control. A recent article by Schroeder & Cahoy (2010) may provide an answer. In their analysis and discussion of the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and the AASL Standards for the 21st century Learner, they call upon librarians and educators to pay more attention to affective learning outcomes. In their definition, this includes “a person’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values”: the very same characteristics mentioned above that encourage serendipitous discovery of information! While they recognize the time constraints imposed on most librarian-student interactions, Schroeder & Cahoy provide a conceptual model for encouraging the traits that favor IIA and inspire “positive feelings” in students. Perhaps, we should start here.

What do you think? Is it the goal of an academic library to create an environment that fosters incidental information acquisition and helps students build personal traits that encourage it? If so, how? If not, why?


Heinström, J. (2006). Psychological factors behind incidental information acquisition. Library & Information Science Research, 28(4), 579-594.

Roberts, R.M. (1989) Serendipity: Accidental discoveries in science, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

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

Williamson, K. (1998). Discovered by chance: the role of incidental information acquisition in an ecological model of information use. Library & Information Science Research, 20(1), 23-40.

Quote of the day: The Librarian edition

[setting: job interview at library]

Administrator: What makes you think you could be the librarian?

Flynn: I know the Dewey Decimal System, Library of Congress, research paper orthodoxy, web searching, I can set up an RSS feed…

Administrator: Everybody knows that. They’re librarians.

Unbalanced questions

Can friendly circulation staff inspire curiosity? Does redesigning a search interface build confidence? Can virtual chat reference change someone’s economic circumstances? Do RSS feeds in the OPAC promote critical thinking skills? Can a collection development policy inspire lifelong learning? Can a coffee shop increase the equitability of access? Can metadata teach users about confidentiality?

Rampant, mercurial self-portrayal

“We live in a time of rampant, mercurial self-portrayal. We can, if we wish, post, profile, tag, chat, friend, transform, lie, project, stalk, date, connect, complicate, simplify, vex, blog, tumble, and identify ourselves with dazzling velocity through a protean real-time landscape of social networks […] That poetry continues to explore human consciousness in its slippery, manifest, and veiled complexity binds me to its emerging voices and embodiments.”

Lisa Russ Spaar, writing for The Chronicle.

Just don’t go over budget

Librarian: I’m trying to save the world here.

Administrator: Just don’t go over budget.

The Librarian: Curse of the Judas Chalice

Current research: September 2010

The upcoming issue of Reference Services Review has a great collection of information literacy and instruction articles. Here are three that caught my attention:

Johnson, A.M., Sproles, C., & Detmering, R. (2010). Library instruction and information literacy 2009. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

Every year, the Reference Services Review publishes a bibliography of Library Instruction and Information Literacy research. This year’s collection includes open access journals (such as the  Journal of Information Literacy and Communications in Information Literacy), blog posts (notably In the Library with the Lead Pipe), and a number of monograph titles. The authors also broadened the international scope of the bibliography to include reports of IL efforts in many areas outside the United States. Of particular note, the authors indicate that approximately 20% of the publications listed this year concern collaboration, especially with writing instructors at universities.

Mizrachi, D. (2010). Undergraduates’ academic information and library behaviors: preliminary results. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

In this preliminary stage of a larger study on the “information ecologies” of undergraduates in situ (i.e. their dorm rooms), Mizrachi examines the information seeking habits of students at the University of California, Los Angeles. Two of the results should not be surprising given similar research: (1) that the majority of students did not begin with library resources in their research but rather turned to publicly available websites and course-related materials; and (2), as at least one student noted, that going to the library wasn’t seen as necessary for passing the course. However, Mizrachi highlights two findings that are contrary to popular beliefs about “digital natives” and could be useful for librarians trying to convince administrators of the myth of the all-digital future of libraries. She finds that for many of the students, the library is important as a physical place and is viewed positively by most of the students. Mizrachi also found that many students preferred to read articles and resources on paper, rather than on the screen, and that many do not take their laptops to class.

Mizrachi offers a number of recommendations that are worth contemplating, including: (1) not discouraging the use of public resources but rather highlighting the richness of library resources; (2) recognizing students’ awareness of their need to focus; (3) promoting critical thinking skills; and (4) using library student workers to create “positive interactions” with their peers using library resources.

Miller, I.R. (2010). Turning the tables: a faculty-centered approach to integrating information literacy. Reference Services Review, 38(4).

In this study, Miller (Eastern Washington University) describes a three-year “student research skills initiative” that sought to improve information literacy skills among undergraduates by working with faculty to redesign the curriculum and integrate IL skill building activities. What is particularly striking about this study is the high level of buy-in and engagement from faculty and university departments. Grant funding was used to pay faculty members a stipend to participate in a multi-day workshop at the beginning of the semester, integrate IL standards into their course assignments across the curriculum, and provide quarterly feedback. Faculty valued the experience and recognized the importance of IL skills and librarians’ expertise.

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.