Yesterday, Henry Jenkins posted a follow-up to his Comic-Con discussion of transmedia storytelling (video above), which he defines as: “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.” He differentiates this from other transmedia activities like transmedia branding or transmedia activism. “Ideally,” he says, “each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.”

This immediately reminded me of something we do in libraries, museums and archives (LAM) all the time: the exhibit. The LAM exhibit can exist across multiple platforms (display case, print publication, website) and utilizes a variety of formats (books, artifacts, still and moving images, digital interactive maps). Back in 2003, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society created a project entitled “Worklore: Brooklyn Voices Speak,” an exploration of the working class in Brooklyn from the 18th to 20th century. The collaboration included a traveling exhibit, public program and lectures, curriculum guides for elementary students, an online exhibit that included narratives and oral histories, and an online game called “Can You Make Ends Meet in Brooklyn” in the Early 1990s?” that allowed players to choose a type of work and see how those consequences played out in terms of personal finances (unfortunately, the website does not appear to be active any longer).

Creating a LAM exhibit that exists across different media is a similar activity to transmedia storytelling, but it comes at the story from a different angle. Rather than creating or extending a story, LAM exhibits attempt to recreate a narrative of cultural experience told through the perspective of people and objects that made up that narrative. The content of these exhibits serve some of the same functions outlined by Jenkins by offering a backstory, mapping a world, providing other character’s perspectives on the action, and by deepening audience engagement.

For librarians and instructors, the discourse surrounding transmedia could not be more relevant to the work we do. We seek to engage students in thinking about the ways in which the nature of information is changed as it moves from one platform to the next, how the choice to present information in one medium to the exclusion of others affects how we interpret it, and how we can convey meaning through these actions.

It doesn’t appear that we’ve fully agreed upon a definition for transmedia, but that shouldn’t stop us from using the term and discussing it. I recommend following Jenkins’s writings if you are interested in such things. His posts never disappoint.

What are your thoughts on transmedia storytelling? How do we do it? Are we doing it right? I’m especially interested in hearing about ways you’ve integrated it into instruction… but it’s the comments so do what you will 😉

This morning, the USC librarians had an all-hands-on-deck meeting to discuss the results of a recent survey and our new strategic plan. Toward the end, one of our Library IT staff (who, let me tell you, is the coolest guy) said he had seen the Libraries mentioned in the platform statements of the Student Government candidates. Moreover, he had noticed that the students wanted more 2-credit courses and he said this would be a great opportunity for the Libraries to create semester-long Information Literacy course.

I couldn’t agree more. And this got me thinking: what would this course look like? Would it be interdisciplinary or a broad overview? How would it differ from a full, 3-credit course? I haven’t completely fleshed out these thoughts but I wanted to get some of them out there and hear what you think.

The course that I have in mind would be called “Information Architecture.” The objective of the course would be to introduce students to the information ecosystem of the 21st century and teach them the skills necessary to succeed (however we choose to define that) in an information-rich environment. Here’s a basic breakdown of the course:

Unit 1: Introduction. Covers: what we define as information, how we encounter it in daily life, how we choose to divide it (work vs. play), and the importance of access.

Unit 2: Information Organization and Structure. Covers: Types of information systems, how to navigate specific systems, how info is organized in these systems and implications of such organization.

Unit 3: Basic research skills. Covers: Types of information sources, database searching, using controlled vocabulary and folksonomies, personal information management.

Unit 4: Production of Information. Covers: history of publishing and dissemination, current formal and informal methods of production.

Unit 5: Medium and Message. Covers: how medium affects message, politics of choosing one over another, implication of transferring between media.

Unit 6: Ethics of Information. Covers: Proprietary information, open access, copyright, intellectual property, and proper vs. improper use of information. (big section!)

Unit 7: Advanced research skills. Covers:  Types of information resources for specific subjects, human and institutional resources, archives.

Unit 8: Final project focus.

The course would offer students (undergraduates) two tracks: (1) general research skills and (2) topic-specific skills. Depending on the student’s major and academic year, she could be assigned (or choose) either Track 1 or Track 2. Track 1 (general research skills) would be geared toward undeclared majors and 1st-2nd years. Track 2 (topic-specific skills) would be geared toward declared majors and 3rd-4th years.

Both tracks would require keeping a weekly log (written, typed, blogged, recorded, etc.) of experiences (problems, feelings, successes) encountered while doing research. The final project would include a reflection paper (or other format) and a brief annotated bibliography consisting of a variety of sources. Those on Track 1 would select a topic of their choice on which to focus their research. Track 2 students would connect their research to their declared major. Both tracks would be encouraged to use coursework in another class as a guide (per instructor’s approval).

I won’t go into more detail than that. I’m still trying to work out what is the essential content of the course (so much to teach and the time so precious!). Of course, I would work in digital technologies, collaborative work, self-assessment and peer-feedback, but the critical thing is that it integrates with other courses. What do you think? Does your university teach a semester-long IL course? Is it successful? Tell me about it in the comments!

The discussion surrounding the definition of transliteracy has been sending waves throughout the internets this morning. David Rothman took the concept to task in yesterday’s post, “Commensurable Nonesense (Transliteracy),” responding partially to a post by Lane Wilkinson.* David brings up a few good points about transliteracy, most notably:

  1. its lack of a definition
  2. its unoriginality

The first of these has been dealt with extensively, so I won’t do into it here. The lack of a concise definition is certainly problematic and, until one such is developed, it will difficult to bring the concept into the academic arena, much more so to the desks of administrators and policy makers. The second point, I think, deserves more attention. The ideas that make up the amorphous concept of transliteracy may not be anything that hasn’t already been discussed, but they may be beneficial to libraries and their users if the ways in which they are discussed (either conceptually or practically or as a methodology) provide unique perspectives.

So does transliteracy give us a unique perspective? Rotham asks this and essentially concludes that the levels of discourse that transliteracy provides can already be attained through discussion of information literacy. He also compares attempted definitions of transliteracy to more established definitions of other literacies.

We’ve come to a point in the discourse where the term “literacy” is used in far too many ways. One can be information literate, health literate, financially literate, digitally literate, statistically literate, or emotionally literate. How do all of these relate to the broader concept of literacy? As I was reading over these, I started thinking about this and discovered two predominant approaches: metaphorical and metonymical.

Let’s begin with a literal approach to the definition. The OED defines literate as “acquainted with letters or literature; educated, instructed, learned; a liberally educated or learned person; one who can read and write.” Webster’s Third defines it as “characterized by or possessed of learning; able to read and write; well executed or technically proficient.” Literacy is defined as the characteristic of possessing any of these traits. So a strict definition focuses on either “learning” or “reading” and this is generally how the term is used in everyday conversation. A somewhat broader definition implies understanding and comprehension, not just the ability to read and write but the ability to do it well. From here, the splintering of definitions takes off.

Literacy is then extended metaphorically to mean an understanding or comprehension of other subjects beyond written text (most of which require reading and writing): being health literate  is the ability to understand health issues and read medical documents; being financially literate is the ability to understand markets, economies, and fiscal concerns.  These “other” literacies require many of the same skills (ability to read and write, most notably, but also the ability to seek and retrieve documents) but do so in entirely different contexts. They require a specific domain knowledge which adds value to the understanding gained through simple reading comprehension.

Literacy can also be extended metonymically to mean any of the skills related to or comprising the ability to understand information. This use of the word tends to play on the various meaning of “reading” and “writing” to included activities such as choosing the right font for a business letter, evaluating a website or editorial for bias, or deconstructing body language. One is digitally literate if they have the skills necessary to navigate online or use electronic databases. One is orally literate if they have the ability to interpret the subtleties of human communication or understand the complexities of storytelling. While domain knowledge still plays a significant part, the focus here is on the ability to “read” signs (e.g. verbal, written, performed) and “write” effectively (e.g. compose, format, design)

Transliteracy seems to straddle the fence between these two uses (hence, its prefix kinda works in this regard). It attempts to encompass both the skills necessary for understanding “texts” in a [mostly digital] environment (metonymical) and the understanding of how different contexts require different domains of knowledge (metaphorical). Herein lies the problem: Which connotation of literacy are we using when we say someone is “transliterate?” Is it problematic to imply both?  And most importantly: if we imply both, how is that different from the all-inclusive term “literacy” defined in a less-than-strict way, i.e. the ability to understand and comprehend “texts” and to do it well?

Perhaps the answers to these questions could be the foundation for further development of a definition of transliteracy. Or they could be its negation. Whatever the outcome, the discussion will continue into the near future and it will be defined by its ability to add value to our understanding of how individuals interact with the world around them, one which is increasingly becoming more digital.


*As a side note, I didn’t find Lane’s post to be either inaccessible or “needlessly” linguistically elite, as David suggested. It is academically sterile, perhaps, but I don’t think anyone should be faulted for trying to use language specifically and intentionally, in a way that suggests the style of scholarly communication. It deserves its place just as much as the more casual or snarky language that comprises most of internet. But then, I’m biased given that I spend most of my day in an academic library.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.