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 criticathinking.org, 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!

Current research: April 2010

Wakimoto, D.K. (2010). Information literacy instruction assessment and improvement through evidence based practice: a mixed method study. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 5(1), 82-92.

In this study of undergraduates at California State University, East Bay, Wakimoto evaluates student learning and satisfaction among students enrolled in an information literacy course during the 2008-2009 academic year. Using pre- and post-tests, she discovers that students’ understanding of IL increases, especially to the degree to which they view it as personally relevant. Students expanded their definition of IL, recognized that information comes from more than just textual sources and, in some cases, indicated that IL made them feel empowered to help others and their communities. Of particular importance, Wakimoto states that “contrary to anecdotal evidence”, students enjoy learning about information literacy, especially when they perceive it as personally relevant to their own lives. She suggests that more emphasis on this aspect of IL should be made during instruction.

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

In this paper, Schroeder & Cahoy examine the ACRL Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education and the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner and recommend that librarians and educators give more attention to the “affective” learning outcomes of information literacy instruction.  They define the affective domain as comprising “a person’s attitudes, emotions, interests, motivation, self-efficacy, and values.” They recommend adding affective outcomes to the current ACRL standards which would, in effect, “humanize the ACRL standards, reminding academic librarians and educators of the positive feelings that they must continually strive to develop in their students.” They acknowledge that many librarians already address the issue of “library anxiety” and other feelings associated with library research in their classes, but not systematically, “consciously”, or through established professional standards. Schroeder & Cahoy also recommend that instructors discuss the stages of Kuhlthau’s Information Seeking Process with students so that they are more aware of their own feelings and anxieties, but the authors recognize the time constraints that many instructors have, recommending that they ask students to self-report data when possible.

2007 Sanford Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills, CA)

We picked up a bottle of this wine on our trip to Santa Barbara this time last year (where we got engaged!). The bottle has aged nicely since then. On the nose, powerful suggestions of fruit, black cherry, spice (oregano?). On the palette, very smooth with light tannins, smoke, oak, and a bundle of fruit (think grape to the second power). Medium bodied and worth every penny ($40).

Humanism and libraries by A. Cossette

A few weeks ago, Wayne Bivens-Tatum posted his thoughts on André Cossette’s Humanism and Libraries; an essay on the philosophy of librarianship, published by Library Juice Press and translated by Rory Litwin. His remarks prompted me to immediately order the book and read it through. I found Cossette’s discussion of librarianship thought-provoking and, given the work’s historical context, a bit quaint. While I also disagreed with certain claims made in the book, the issues raised are important questions that librarians should occasionally ask themselves as individuals and as institutions: namely, what do I do and why do I do it?

Cossette begins by delineating the difference between librarianship as philosophy and librarianship as science. He makes positive arguments for both perspectives but strongly favors the philosophical approach. He argues that creating a unified philosophy of librarianship will bring “faith and certitude” to our actions, inspire professional unity, and give librarians a raison d’etre, a meta-purpose for what they do.

He argues that up until that point (at the time, he is writing at the University of Montreal in 1976), librarianship, especially in the United States, had been to focused on the pragmatic aspects of the profession and lacked a strong desire for or practice of reflection. As a result, there is no one who could clearly say what a philosophy of librarianship should be. Of course, Cossette provides a response, saying that a unified philosophy should include a definition of librarianship, a statement of its goals, and a study of its relationship to other disciplines.

He defines librarianship as “the art and science of the acquisition, preservation, organization, and retrieval of written and audiovisual records with the aim of assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (p.33). He argues that it is both a science, in that it has both an object of study and a method, and a humanistic endeavor, in that it is artistic at the level of individual execution/expertize. It chooses as its subject human beings, information, and the interaction between them.

Cossette calls for a move from subordination to autonomy, especially in the realm of academic and school libraries. On the one hand, he states that the perception of libraries as “services” has hindered their ability to define what they do and why. On the other hand, he acknowledges that libraries are part of the community which they support, though not epistemologically determined by them. This part was particularly salient:

“The educational sphere does not determine the aims of academic libraries, but does exercise a certain influence on many of its processes. The academic or school library pursues the common goals of all libraries: the maximal diffusion of bibliographic resources; in the educational sphere, these resources are selected and dealt with according to the needs of a specific scholarly clientele, which has their own specific information needs”(p.53).

And here is where Cossette tells us what he really feels. He argues that the primary aims of libraries is not preservation and is certainly not education. He even goes so far as to say that the main reason why academic librarians think of themselves as educators is due to a sense of inferiority in relation to faculty (or, in the least, a realization of who gets paid more). I cannot speak for what the situation was in the late 1970s, but in our post-internet era, I would argue that Cossette would have a very different view in 2010.

For one, technology has created a void where there was once a select few who could effectively navigate the information pathways of indexes, bibliographies, and publication lists. Simply put, it is much easier to find some information on a subject these days. Fact-finding in particular is a much easier, more accessible task. But with this ease and influx of information comes the difficulty of wading through the flood and of determining what information is valid. The void created by the introduction of the internet and automation needs to be filled with educators who specialize in information literacy and critical skills. While the role of educator may have been debatable at one time, it is no longer. It is essential.

Essential to what? In the definition of librarianship presented above, I believe Cossette neglects one important aspect: our moral obligation to help information seekers find the best ways to use the information they need. This requires knowing how to discuss and illustrate information literacy and critical thinking skills. It does not require that we be “elitists” of information; we can acknowledge that all information is useful in some way, regardless of its source. But we should be able to show users how certain types or sources of information may be better suited to their specific tasks. This is our moral obligation, the human side to our science and art.

Perhaps one of the main reasons there isn’t a unified philosophy of librarianship is the need for uniformity itself. Is it really possible to define all libraries according to a single idea? Is there something essential about libraries that cuts across all types of libraries from public to academic, from school to special? Personally, I much prefer the idea of having a shared set of values, like those defined by ALA, which vary in importance from one institution to another but are nonetheless an essential part of their reason for being. Preservation may very well be one library’s primary purpose, that doesn’t mean they possess less “library-ness” than a public library who’s primary purpose is to provide access.

I recommend reading Cossette’s work. It is brief and thought provoking and despite some shortcomings (see Wayne’s post for more information), reflecting upon the ideas expressed therein would be worth the time of any librarian (or, like me, librarian-to-be).

Innovative info-lit instruction

For one of my MLIS courses, I’ve been researching information literacy instruction methods. I’ve come across a number of activities that I found to be unique, inspiring, or innovative (even thrilling!). Here is a summary of the practical approaches to IL that caught my eye. If you have any “tricks of the trade” that you think are unique or worthy of note, please share in the comments!

Social Tagging as Metaphor for Subject Headings

Both Luo (2010) and Maggio (2010) discuss using social tagging practices to illustrate the concept of subject headings in library catalogs and databases. By illustrating how tagging structures work and how using them can be beneficial to research, instructors can show students how to use subject headings in the library catalog. Even though the formation of a controlled vocabulary for a database differs from the way folksonomies are created, instructors can use this difference to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each system.

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

Maggio, L. A., Bresnahan, 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.

Collaboration and Reflection

Jacobs & Jacobs (2009) discuss a concept that is not new but deeply effective and deserves mentioning. As part of a collaboration between an information literacy librarian and a professor of composition and rhetoric, the Composition Program at University of Windsor developed a writing project that built the research and reflection aspects of writing a paper into the requirements of the assignment. As a result, more emphasis was shifted toward the process of research as opposed to the results. Constant feedback from the writing instructor and the librarian enriched the process.

Jacobs, H., & Jacobs, D. (2009). Transforming  the one-shot library session into pedagogical collaboration: information literacy and the English composition class. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 49(1), 72-82.

Related: Christopher C. & Cmor, D. (2009). Blogging toward information literacy: engaging students and facilitating peer learning. Reference Services Review, 37(4), 395-407.


The University of Michigan developed a game, The Defense of Hidgeon, that tested the information retrieval skills of student players. The game is set in the 14th century and players had to use their knowledge of library resources and searching skills to navigate through a plague-ridden landscape. The object of the game is to become the “Lord Researcher” for Duke Jerome. The overarching storyline kept students engaged and the repetitive nature of some of the tasks reinforced good info seeking habits.

Markey, K., Swanson, F., Jenkins, A., Jennings, B., St. Jean, B., Rosenberg, V., Yao, X., et al. (2008). Engaging undergraduates in research through storytelling and gaming strategy : final report to the Delmas Foundation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, School of Information. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/58630

Related: Clyde, J. & Thomas, C. (2008). Building an information literacy first-person shooter. Reference Services Review, 36(4), 366-380.

Research Project Survival

Librarians at the University of Purdue worked with Resident Assistants to bring instruction classes into the dormitories in an informal, nonthreatening way. RAs helped to promote the sessions and food was provided. The 45 minutes sessions centered around “5 tips for better research.” The weekend sessions (held when the dining halls were closed) were some the most popular sessions. RAs turned out to be a great resource for marketing the sessions.

Riehle, C. F. (2009). Librarians in the hall: instructional outreach in campus residences. College & Undergraduate Libraries, 16(2/3), 107-21.

One-Off Games

The following ideas come from a book that I was lucky to come across while searching for something else. The Library Instruction Cookbook is published by ACRL and provides a rich source of IL activities. (Be warned, the book is hokey… nonetheless, it’s a resource I wouldn’t want to be without if I’m ever at a loss for ideas.)

Boolean Simon Says

The concept is simple: use participants to physically illustrate concepts of Boolean operators. For example, ask all the students with brown hair to stand. Then ask all students with brown hair AND brown eyes to stand. So and and so forth with OR and NOT. It’s a simple and easy way to “wake people up” early in the morning. (Note: as an instructor, be aware of any students with physical disabilities and adapt accordingly)

Search Engines in a Can

Gather a set of cans of varying sizes and label them with the names of difference databases or search engines according to relative size. For example, the largest one could be Google and the smaller ones could be Proquest, Factiva, etc. Put items in the cans representative of the types of documents/artifacts that you would find by searching those databases. Have fun with the Google can by including a LOT of various items (“porn” is a popular artifact). The idea is to illustrate the concepts of recall and precision in information retrieval.


Just like the board game of the same name, illustrate the technique of keyword mapping by having students locate articles on a particular topic but restrict them from using the words used to describe the topic. For example, if a student is assigned “rates of obesity among adolescents”, they have to use search terms other than those in the description. This can help students understand that the search process is just as organic and iterative as the writing process itself.

Sittler, R. L., & Cook, D. (Eds.). (2009). The Library Instruction Cookbook. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

So what are your ideas?

(UPDATE: I just came across the latest post from In the Library with the Lead Pipe which discusses integrating critical thinking into the instruction process. I recommend reading that post as well.)

Robert Pinsky on poetry

In Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky posits that poetry, namely of the American poet, exists and struggles between the polarities of total undifferentiation and total fragmentation, between the colon (as in “colonial”) and the cult, between the social experiences of embarrassment and abandonment, and between the individual and the masses. Toward the middle of this tiny treatise, he brings it all together to say the following. I was struck by the simple beauty of this line:

“Poetry as breath penetrates to where the body recognizes the stirring of meaning.” (p.45)

I love the idea of poetry as existing on the cusp of something even more intangible than meaning itself: an awareness of possibility. I’ve been working on a research guide for a presentation that Pinsky will be making at USC next month, hence the reason for picking up this book (but do I need a reason?). I’ve also been reading Thousand of Broadways: Dreams and Nightmare of the American Small Town, which I recommend, if anything, for its discussion of American cinema.

Browsing the stacks is myth

“Although today’s academic library users may feel that browsing is an ancient scholarly right, the practice is in fact no older than the baby-boomer faculty who so often lead the charge to keep books on campus.”

Source: American Libraries

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:


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.


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.


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.