Research can be hard. That’s okay.

Joe Hardenbrook has written a great post on the issue of making (re)search exciting or fun, which you should all read.  It drives home some opinions that I bet a lot of us share, mainly being that research isn’t necessarily exciting.  And that any “excitement potential” held in a research project is dependent more on the subject matter and the researcher than it is in any tool at hand.  Kudos to Joe for speaking plainly and truthfully on this subject.

This “make research fun” issue is something that I often struggle with, especially when reading some LIS blogs and Twitter streams that veer into the subject.  “How do I make research exciting?”  “How can I make this assignment fun?”  “How can I keep them interested enough to see all of ProQuest’s search refinements?”  “Will they pay more attention in my one-shot if I launch into a stand-up comedy routine?”  I don’t buy into the argument underlying questions like those.  I’ll speak candidly here: I do not believe that it’s our job to make research “fun.”

I’m not a killjoy at work, and I promise that Steeleworthy’s Office Hours is not all doom and gloom, but neither am I some one who is going to pretend that research is something it’s not. Research is work.  Research can be frustrating.  Even for the best researchers on the planet, research can be difficult.  The advice and consultation I give can definitely help researchers of all kinds (students, faculty, staff, community members, etc) make their research more efficient by systematizing their work and improving their search precision, and this will make their work easier had they not spoken to me first. If our researcher’s excitement or interest is piqued in the research process – if they found cheap thrills as librarians and archivists do when they’ve found the needle in the haystack – then I’m thrilled and I know I’ve done my job. But “excitement” should not be our primary measure here.  Our main purpose (our main duty) is to collect the best of the world’s information, master its systems, and then help others access this information and master the systems themselves.

What it comes down to for me is how we present ourselves and our work to our users.  Our users don’t expect us to be fun-makers.  Our users come to us because they need help finding stuff.  If we can put a smile on their face along the way, then we’re doing them a service, but only if we’ve helped them find that information in the first place.

I’m going to end this by quoting Joe:

I’m a realist: Will they be excited? Chances are, no. But will they think the research process seems a little more doable and will they be willing to seek help? Yes.

We’re here to help people master research. In many ways, the library is where the job gets done at university. I really do hope that everyone enjoys their work, whatever their work is. And I also hope that everyone enjoys the classes they are enrolled in and the assignments they are working on. But those assignments are still work, and I don’t want to play down the effort required to get the job done.  I have an excellent demeanour with my users and I’m confident that many of them see me as a team player who will help them through their research. But I won’t lie to them. I’m not going to say that some one is going to have a blast writing an essay when really they just want to have watched last night’s season premiere of Revenge.  Instead, I speak honestly to my users. “Is this going to be work?” Yes, probably.  “Is it going to take some time?” Yes, likely.  “Is it going to be the worst thing to ever happen in my life?” Not at all.  “Are there tools and techniques I can use to make my work more efficient?” Yes, definitely.  “Can you help me?” Yes, obviously. I am already.

September Projects, 2013

I’m stating the obvious by telling you that September is a busy month in academics.  The start of the school calendar changes the mood, tempo, and pulse of a university campus, and it shifts things at the library into full gear as we roll out all programming and services. Here are a few of the things I’ve been contributing to lately, which has kept me busy in a good way (as opposed to the bad kind of busy).

Changing liaison duties

I’ve taken on liaison duties in Sociology and Social Work while a colleague is on sabbatical this year, and I’m also part of a group that is expanding the Library’s services to the University’s students who are cross-registered at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.  This has already translated to a large increase in my in-class instruction, especially for Social Work, which is its own Faculty and has its own small library. Taking on these subject-based duties has been a great opportunity since they’ve given me greater everyday contact with faculty and researchers whose work touches on socio-economic data or would benefit from research data management support and consultation.  Simply put, it’s a lot easier to push data management planning when you already have a built-in relationship with the researcher, so I expect my subject-based work in Sociology and Social Work to benefit our RDM programme.

Outreach to Faculty and Students

This term, I’m offering a full slate of seminars on research data management, bibliometrics, and data access through the library. I developed these seminars with a graduate student/faculty audience in mind, partly to help the Library increase its presence within graduate programming and in the university’s research enterprise. While I don’t expect large numbers because this is the first time in a few terms that we developed a suite of seminars with graduate or faculty research in mind,  I do hope they begin to build on our growing profile as a center of research facilitation on campus.  (This could be a blog post in its own right; I may have to write more on it in the future.)

Citation management

Our Library has taken a close look at RefWorks and has also considered what kinds of citation management systems our users use.  What we’ve known all along is that many people use RefWorks and many people do not.  We asked ourselves why we commit our support only to one service when our users will always work with their personal preferences in mind, and we decided that giving information and advice on RefWorks alone just doesn’t cut it.  If we are to support or know something about citation management and research management, then we shouldn’t limit ourselves to only one tool.  Going forward, our library is now supporting RefWorks, Zotero, and Mendeley by offering instructional sessions, consultation, and in some cases, even research collaboration between the researcher and the librarian through these tools

Data and Statistics

Don’t think that this project or the next (RDM) are subordinated to the others I’ve mentioned because they’re at the bottom of this list.  That’s far from the truth as both areas have seen significant change in the past few months.  On the Data and Stats side alone, data librarians in Canada are busy dealing with a new EULA for Canada Post postal code products (e.g., the PCCF) and what it means for researcher access and use. This issue alone has eaten up probably half of my time in the past two weeks since the new EULA changes long-standing practices for researchers who use these products, and the library, which administers licences on their behalf. A lot of time has been given to consultation within the data community and within the library to produce new practices, and I’m now rolling out a PR and education campaign.  If you are Laurier faculty and use postal code products, be on the look out for more news on this very shortly.  If you’re faculty at another university in Canada, you may want to contact your own data librarian.

Research data management

RDM has been the largest part of my work at Laurier.  We’ve been developing a research data management programme, based largely on consultative support that helps researchers and research groups learn about and then develop flexible data management plans that speak to their current and future research needs.  Next month, I’ll be attending CASRAI’s ReConnect2013 conference to build upon my current knowledge and to see and learn what others are doing in this area across Canada and in other jurisdictions.  We have a couple of RDM projects on the go already, and I would like to increase that number on campus since the service the Library provides offers clear benefits to the researchers in terms of meeting funding obligations, providing research management planning, and improving access to and citation of produced work after the research has ended.  Laurier researchers: let’s chat.

Recently published : Incorporating Online Instruction in Academic Libraries

Here’s my opportunity to influence all of your summer reading lists. The article that I co–authored with my colleague, Pauline Dewan, Incorporating Online Instruction in Academic Libraries: Getting Ahead of the Curve, has just been published in the Journal of Library & Information Services in Distance Learning.

These children are using a computer to help them solve their homework problems

This (with other reports, presentations, and articles), is the culmination of a large project Pauline and I undertook to assess our Library’s online teaching and learning programme in 2012. During the course of that project, we conducted a thorough literature review and analysis of the state of online instruction in our library, and generally in North America. The recommendations we made regarding goal formation, acquiring stakeholder buy-in, technological formats and delivery, and organizational change, can speak well to many libraries’ online teaching and learning programmes.

We also have an extensive bibliography that touches on policy, analysis, information literacy, and organizational behaviour – check this out because we’ve done a lot of heavy lifting, which may you help you in your own work.

Happy reading,


An Online Instruction manifesto: technological challenges and people-driven solutions

Recently, I’ve joined a small project at my place of work that is considering our online instructional goals and our ability to meet them. The project isn’t large or groundbreaking: it’s an inward-looking analysis of our library’s use of online learning projects and the manner in which they meet the needs of our users, and it’s the sort of analysis that many of us have taken part in over the years. And while the project could more appropriately be considered a “task force” since we’re only a small group and our considerations (I hesitate to call them recommendations) will be written to stimulate debate instead of making transformational change, we’re still taking on the task knowing that our efforts today might facilitate new decisions and perspectives tomorrow.

At issue for me are three things in general: the nature of online instruction, our recent goals in this area, and governance. Our readings and discussion have helped us realize that for too long now, tech-savvy librarians (at libraries in the developed world, generally) have focused too much on the development of online instructional tools at the expense of figuring out how these tools can best work alongside “regular” instructional programming. And perhaps more important, we don’t give enough thought to where online instruction sits within our internal governance structures. In short, for the most part, we’ve built our own online instruction silo.

The academic literature and the blogs show this loud and clear: too much of our scholarships and too many of our conversations are based on “how to” make the greatest tutorial, “how to” use X, Y, or Z software, or “how to” attract our students’ attention by using a particular social tool. There is literature that moves beyond these topics, of course, but I’m not sure if there has been enough. I’d like us to think and debate more about the nature of online instruction and its tools, what it actually means for our users, and what online instruction’s long-term implications (positive and negative) are for libraries. (A good example of what I think we ought to be discussing can be found in this text, which Dean Giustini recent contributed to and mentioned in his blog.)

In the mean time, I’m putting forward 3 contentions about online instruction in academic libraries. They aren’t profound, but they are assertions, nonetheless. Answer them in response to this post or on your own blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Plus streams.  Let’s get a discussion going.

Steeleworthy’s Online Instruction Contentions for 2012:

1. There is no Online Instruction.  There is only Instruction.

  • Online instruction’s tools, aims and media differ drastically from “traditional” instructional methods, but it is instruction nonetheless, and it should be afforded as much importance as all other kinds. It is fair to consider the differences between online instruction and classroom one-shots or integrated term-long coursework, but the time came long ago to normalize it and make it an equal partner in our information literacy programmes. No more adjectives and qualifiers: online instruction is instruction, plain and simple. It can’t only be a special project that is taken on by our adventurous colleagues or offered to our interns and junior librarians to explore. Instead, we must find efficient ways to reduce its learning curve, help train our colleauges, and make it a core part of our IL programming.

2. There can only one instructional group or committee.  

  • This group develops instructional programmes and policies at the library, whether they are online or in print, in the classroom or in a virtual chat room.  Let there be task forces devoted to online or classroom initiatives, but keep them part of the same governance structure. Let’s keep our focus on the means we have at our disposal to improve information literacy levels and critical thinking skills on campus by fully integrating online instruction into our existing instructional framework.

3. There must be an online instruction coordinator.

  • I may have just declared an end to adjectives and qualifiers in Contention No. 1, but on this point, I stand firm: an online instruction coordinator is needed in order for libraries stay ahead of the technological curve.  So much about online work requires specific, technical knowledge and skill sets. Each library should have a coordinator who manages instructional content on the website, promotes web-based instructional tools, liases with university online learning services, and leads training programmes for new technology-based instructional tools. Let this person sit on instructional committees and web committees, and let this person work in concert with the web publisher to seamlessly integrate instructional content with the website’s directional and informational content.

Above all else, online instruction can no longer be the purview of only a few individuals in academic libraries. I speak these words to like-minded librarians who are already tech-savvy and willing to try new projects and ideas: it’s time that we shift our focus from integrating online instructional tools into our individual practice to blending them into the library ethos. We can do this by concentrating not on programmes and apps but on the people we work with and the people we serve. We must find the means to make online instruction accessible not only to our users, but to our fellow librarians and content producers.  What is a technological challenge must have a people-driven solution.


Google Reader Takes a Bow as Google Plus Takes the Stage: the death of critical reading on the Internet

The new Google Reader was released this week.  Its UI changes have streamlined its sharing functions in order to integrate it as easily as possible with Google Plus.  At first, I didn’t mind the changes, mostly because the clean white interface has kept distractions to a minimum on the Reader Interface.

But I’ve now changed my mind. I’m not sure I like the Google Reader changes. The new interface’s clean lines means that readability has stayed the same, if not improved, i.e., its look and feel seem to promote the act of reading over skimming. But the changes to its sharing function really is an issue. Sure, I can share things to G+, but clicking on the +1 button is akin to shouting into the din of the Internet.  I can share and share and share as much as I like, but I don’t know if people are sharing their own Google Reader items back into my G+ stream. Furthermore, I don’t know what kind of content they’re sharing anymore.  Are the shared items in my Google+ Stream coming from a valued Google Reader store?  Or are these items just clicks and pages found while surfing the net?  At best, the former Google Reader dialogue is now feigned (it’s now a monologue on G+), and the quality of those shared pages on G+ is indeterminable.  I’m now looking for options.

The changes we’ve seen to Google Reader has got me thinking again about the nature of reading, skimming, and sharing on the Internet. What made Google Reader so great (aside from the emphasis on reading, see above) was the assurance of quality that came with its shared items.  Shared Items on Google Reader were posts that came from blogs and websites that people believed were important enough to read regularly as opposed to mere posts and pages found while they or their friends surfed – and skimmed – the Internet.  People who used Google Reader had a better assurance that the content they found in their shared folder was carefully chosen, was fit for consumption, and required some of their time and attention in order to synthesize.

The fact that blog posts and shared items in Google Reader sat in a folder until the user actually read them shows the importance of the items’ content.  Google Reader’s interface – like all RSS interfaces – demanded the user actually read the content he or she saved to the system: content did not disappear until you at least saw that it arrived for you to read. This premise behind Google Reader, i.e., posts are to be saved for later reading, meant that its users selected content that was not merely ephemeral.  By its very nature, Google Reader asked the user to choose only the best content on the web and to store it in a separate space to read at a later time.  By and large, shared items on Google Reader had a quality assurance label stuck to them: these posts were determined to be distinct from the general “of the moment” nature of the web and therefore should be treated with care. Anything shared on Google Reader required special attention because some one said, “This content came from a valued source and ought to be read, and it is not going away until you at least see that I’ve shared it with you.”

Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook, and so many other social sites do not do this.  Social networks promote connections above all else, so the content is almost always “of the moment” (that’s the second time I’ve said that).  Content on social sites is pinned to a moment in time, but the conversation always moves forward. If you log in to Facebook at 2pm, you only see the conversations happening at 2pm; you must look carefully for what your friends shared earlier in the day.  That shared content may have been valuable, but there is no easy way to flag that value on social networks since content is subordinated to relationships and connections as they exist the moment you are online.

I like Google Plus, I really do. But like other social media sites, Google Plus emphasizes shared connections and the constant stream of chatter that arrives on your screen.  Of course, we can stop that stream at any time, click on a link, and fully consume what has been offered to us, but a social site’s design promotes social conversations over thought and analysis. I still believe that the “Internet Age” is an age of skimming. We are living in a time where thorough, critical analysis has been subordinated to the conversation. I’d like to see a balance restored between the two. So long as we aren’t reading well – so long as we aren’t taking the time to think critically about what we visit and read online – we are preventing those conversations from reaching their full potential.

Internet 2.0! Now skim faster and shallower!

Internet 2.0! Now skim faster and shallower!

Research in popular culture and in the classroom

There’s been a great thread on ILI-L this week that lists television programs and films that highlight how messy research can be at times.  A number of interesting clips were suggested, ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Seven to use in our own lessons on information literacy, critical thinking and research.  And hats off to Mollie Freier, who suggested the entire mystery and detective genre – now there’s an academic paper I could sink my teeth into.

This thread got me thinking about how research is presented in popular culture since the Internet and the search engine has become such a dominant part of our everyday lives. Some people feel that the scenes showing Twilight‘s Bella researching on the Internet reinforce the fact that there isn’t always one answer or dominant interpretation (this isn’t necessarily stated in the ILI-L thread – I’m speaking generally), however, I think research as we see it today is still glossed over in pop culture. Television and film don’t have time and space to feature the research process.  The research process is broadly used as a device to push the plot forward, so what we often get are scenes that look like this:

I’m using this clip from Vampire Diaries as an example because it aired just last Thursday, i.e., it’s on television right now and its target demographic is watching it, big-time.  If you don’t care to play the video, then let me tell you that Jeremy is telling Matt that he’s used the Internet to research how to contact his dead girlfriend, Vikki, who happens to be Matt’s dead sister.  And, he’s found out some things, like that fact that he doesn’t need the help of a witch like Bonnie, his current girlfriend to call upon this spirit.   Voila! Research is done!  Thanks, Interweb!

(Vampire Diaries is actually compelling drama. You should look past my snark and watch it. And in Jeremy’s case, the directors have shown him conducting something closer to “real” research in the past, so he’d a good guy that librarians should appreciate in the end.)

Admittedly, there are better “research clips” than this one. The best clips will spend a lot of time on the research process or even make it the focus of the scene.  But even the clips that show top-rate critical inquiry, evaluative reasoning, and strong synthesis will have to summarize much of this process in the interest of story’s plot and time.  And our students know this already.  So, instead of playing a clip that illustrates what parts of research are shown in the movies, I think it’s better to engage the students personally and research with them, on the spot, so they can learn by doing (which is especially important in a one-shot class).  If films are “show and tell,” then I try to emphasize “do and learn” when I’m working with students.

So much of this comes down to teaching styles and the way we present ourselves to a class. I’m real comfortable interacting closely with students to put the focus on what it means to actually do critical thinking and researching on a topic, first-hand.  Although I do use film clips from time to time, my own preference is to get the students actually “thinking about thinking” or even by doing some research with them in the classroom (or hopefully, in a computer lab).  In the end, I want them to focus on what I’ve got to say and how they are applying this advice to their own work in front of them, so I make sure that I’m animated, personable, and approachable throughout the session.

Research, as we see it in popular culture, is glossed over.  Watching it on film can’t show the full spectrum, so I try not to put too much of my time into these film clips.  In the end, I want to help my students learn real, proven strategies on how to research effectively in their courses, so I prefer to keep my eye on the prize and give them what they’re looking for: lessons, advice, and hints to turn their neat idea for a subject into a well-researched, well-written A-level submission to the prof.


[Post-script:  I’m not saying that I object to using film in class. On the contrary, I think film clips can be a great educational tool.  For example, I’ve used television commercials to great effect when teaching critical thinking in the past.  I played old Axe Bodywash commercials to help students analyze expectations and stereotypes surrounding sex and gender.  By the end of the class, the students had conducted a “close reading” of these commercials and were well on their way to writing an essay on gender stereotypes in popular culture.  But the difference here is that the film clip was the class’s actual object of study.]

Riffing on Seth Godin: Librarians as Data Hounds

Image representing Seth Godin as depicted in C...

Apparently Seth Godin has ideas about libraries

Seth Godin wrote a great post today – I’m sure you’ve read it by now – on the “The Future of the Library.” It’s a future with librarians who serve as catalysts of digital information access and as collaborators with their patrons. Given the state of the economy and the fact that libraries have always used the latest technologies to collect, store, and diffuse information, the “library of the future” is always a favourite blog topic, even outside of librarianship.  But when some one who works in spheres well beyond what we do, some one like Seth Godin, waxes poetic on our profession, we stand up and take notice.

And take notice we did.  Some of the earliest commenters include:

  • Buffy Hamilton, who draws connections to Lankes’ Atlas of New Librarianship, as well as to the unfortunate situation that Los Angeles teacher-librarians find themselves in this month
  • Bobbi Newman, who lays vendor and wikipedia economics out on the line and shows why it’s the libraries and librarians who are pulling more than their weight when it comes to e-resources; Newman also reminds Godin in no uncertain terms that the librarian’s role as educator should never be underestimated (this is where she always excels)
  • Gwyneth Marshman, who considers how information access is just as important to academic and special libraries as the printed word is to public libraries

I held back on my two cents because I had too many demands on my Monday (like a third cup of coffee to make it through the afternoon), but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an opinion.  When it comes down to it, I agree with Seth.  Mind you, Godin isn’t saying anything new or profound either about or to librarians.  Seth is saying all the things that many of have said before, that:

[a] librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Or, when discussing the pedagogical aspect of our work, that any good librarian will take:

responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

Seth likes his animal imagery, for sure:  librarians are data hounds who help our youngsters grow into being data sharks.  I like these metaphors, too, and like them a lot.  What’s there not to like in these statements?  Seth Godin is speaking about the potential and the responsibility that our profession has, and he’s speaking to a general audience.  Godin is speaking to the world and to librarians when he says he foresees a library as a place full of digital and print containers of information, managed by librarians who know where all the information is stored, how to get to it, and how it all fits together.  This is a future where librarians don’t work in dusty offices, don’t work with card catalogues, and don’t shush people.

But wait a second.  Seth has got some great ideas, but I think the future Seth wants is very much here already.  Librarians are at the cutting edge of tech, bringing people and their data and information together.  We help people create knowledge.  Hell, we can make the trains run on time.

Or, that is, a lot of the time, we can help others make the trains run on time.  And here’s my real issue, which doesn’t haven so much to do with Seth as it has to do with ourselves.  I’m glad to see that Seth and I are on the same page and that we both think that librarians need to be tech mavens and data gurus.  But the problem is that a lot of us aren’t. A lot of us are focused squarely on the educational side of the profession.  There is nothing wrong with that.  We are teachers, after all, and we have a crucial role to play in research methods, in critical thinking, and in lifelong learning.  I couldn’t be more serious when I say that since I work in information literacy and know first-hand that some one has got to show these students how to create a research plan, how to mock up a topic and a subject, how to open a database and how to create a hypothesis.  I am dead-serious about this because I’ve met enough students in my short time as a librarian to know that these skills are not taught adequately in all classrooms (this is not the fault of teachers, by the way: it’s symptomatic of poorly funded educational systems at all levels, in my mind).  Indeed, many of us must be focused on our pedagogical role because it is an important and vital part of our professional obligations.  But when so many of us are working in the front of the house on the educational side of things, who is it that’s making sure the gears don’t get gummed up and slow down the system?  Who really is working on information storage, search, retrieval, and organization?

I’m not being willfully ignorant  here.  I know full well that there are plenty of librarians who still work in Tech Services, in Bibliographic Control, and in Systems, and I value their work.  The thing is that I value their so much that I think it’s a subfield of our profession that more of us should be acquainted with.  In my place of work, a mid-sized university with some 600 academic databases from a bevy of vendors, there are very few librarians who know how they all fit together, and there are few others actively working in data collection and storage into local repositories. This is our collective loss and it it’s a disservice to our patrons and to our institutions.  Collectively, we should know more about our systems and our data collection, but we don’t.

Know kung fu: rule The Matrix by understanding its architecture

Dear fellow librarians: don’t take this as a criticism of our work.  Instead, take it as a call to arms.  The world has gone digital, and we were there to guide it through its growing pains.  MARC long ago taught us a lot about systems, authorities, and control, and this is an area we still have strong expertise in.  So, let’s not sit by the wayside as the world steams ahead of us on account of the knowledge we developed and then shared in information systems and retrieval.  It has become more and more apparent that the Internet really does need a strong cadre of “editors” and “curators” who truly understand how to select, store, and retrieve the best information out there;  there is no single search bar to rule them all, but there are librarians who can help others find and then use the information they’re looking for.  Seth Godin is right on the money in his post only because he’s seen the writing on the wall and is parroting what we know already: that the world’s gone digital and it needs some help figuring out what do with all this data.  Let’s use our skills in information literacy, yes, but let’s also use our skills in information organization to fine-tune the systems already.  We can’t be the best teachers of information retrieval, of information literacy and of research skills unless we understand the systems which house the information in the first place.


Further Reading: Tim Fedak on literacies in higher ed

Happy Monday.   This week, I’m pointing you all to an insightful post by Tim Fedak, director of Distributed Medical Education at Dalhousie University.   Tim has written a great post on the nature of technology, literacies, and instruction in higher education.  I especially like his closing remarks:

There is a serious challenge facing the delivery of education in today’s technologically dominated media social landscape – our university leadership and faculty members have not been generally trained to speak, let alone be fluent in the languages of images and digital media.  The “teachers” and university leaders are fluent in text-based languages, not the image and digital literacies that are the dominant channels of information and communication today . . .

In the years to come images and digital media will continue to expand – how do we prepare our current students become fluent in the ways that will allow them to contribute to advance social well being?  How do we teach our learners to be visually and digitally literate?  Where are we giving them these skills?  As “teachers” how do we attain these new literacies?

Tim asks a lot of questions here, as most good blog posts do.  He raises a couple questions that librarians have been grappling with for some time now:

  • How do we communicate effectively with students who have are familiar with different modes of communication?
  • How do we teach critical thinking and research skills to students whose alphabets, vocabularies, and languages are visual more than they are textual?  What fundamental changes have occurred to research (and to teaching research) with the shift to the digital and the visual?
  • How do we keep up with these new technologies and literacies, ourselves?

So head to Tim’s blog:  read, and discuss.   You may also want to check out my previous post on transliteracies, which may have some useful links on the matter, too.


With Apologies to Albert Einstein and Steve Wheeler

Information Literacy, Transliteracy, and other literacies

[Note: I originally posted this on Dalhousie University’s School Of Information Management blog.  It’s only a few quick words meant to introduce others to one of the biggest information literacy debates in 2010/11.]

This winter and spring, the library blogosphere has buzzed around the idea of transliteracy, which broadly encompasses critical thinking and writing (or perhaps “synthesizing”) across a multitude of formats and devices.  You can read more about digital literacy at:

The incorporation of transliteracy into our definition of information literacy is either controversial or welcome news.  Some people see it only as the flavour of the month, while others believe that the arguments behind transliteracy should have been developed long ago and that librarians are still trying to catch up with the implications of our changed information society.   Regardless of what you believe, Bobbi Newman of the Libraries and Transliteracy blog must be commended for starting an information literacy discussion that has asked our profession what we do as instructors, what it is we instruct, and how we well may be doing it.
Personally, I see a lot of merit in broadening our understanding of IL to incorporate the arguments made by transliteracy advocates.  However, I also worry that we may be spending too much time thinking about what to call our paradigms instead of properly researching their implications and incorporating them into practice.  Perhaps it’s because I’ve always considered myself to be “tech-savvy”, but I’ve always believed that our notions of information literacy would naturally incorporate information regardless of its medium, both before and after it’s synthesized into knowledge.  Whether we call this subject “transliteracy” or “information literacy,” our focus must be on improving (information) literacy levels amoung our users.  As librarians, we don’t “teach” information literacy so much as we teach people how to find and evaluate information effectively, and how to improve people’s ability to turn that information into their own knowledge.

Having said all that, I believe that transliteracy is a subject that should be followed by any librarian who is concerned with how their patrons interact with their materials.  Thus far, transliteracy has produced incredible research and opinion within LIS.  It’s given us a chance to share our expertise and opinion on education and pedagogy with a wider community of scholars and practitioners.  Don’t forget the term, “transliteracy.”  It’s not just a buzzword, and it has implications that are here to stay.

On Information Literacy, Students, and Syllabuses

I sometimes get terribly annoyed with LIS literature. Often, I encounter articles that use small samples to confirm that librarians are indeed essential to post-secondary education. Given this cynicism, reading Alison Head’s 2008 article, Information literacy from the Trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research? was a breath of fresh air. Although Head used a small sample for her research, she crafts a solid argument which shows that student expectations, anxiety, and even information literacy levels are affected by poor guidance in the classroom and from syllabuses.

Let me say before writing further that Head isn’t suggesting that teaching faculty are ghouls living in the ivory tower whose purpose it is to make things difficult for students. Rather, she argues that most students encounter a fundamental information gap between what professors expect of them and how they are supposed to achieve it. Syllabuses do a great job at listing schedules, reading lists, and essay requirements, but they fall short when it comes to explaining how the student is to meet the professor’s research expectations.

Head analyzed 30 different faculty handouts to achieve two goals:

  1. to find out what professors assign
  2. to find out the amount of guidance professors offer students about how to carry out their research, how to evaluate resources, and how to assemble and prepare the paper (p. 431).

The answer to the first question shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone working in the humanities and social sciences: 30% of assignments are argumentative research papers, while another 17% are lit reviews, and 16% are about theory (p. 432). Assignments in the arts, we know, are based on critical inquiry and interpretation – two related competencies that students often struggle with.

Head’s data show that undergraduates feel pressured to be original and creative in their work (p. 433), which is a difficult task when you’re writing on a tight deadline about a subject you know very little about. Her research on what professors assign to students confirms a lot of the things we already know – that bibliographic instruction isn’t always appreciated, that procrastination and time management are large stressors, and that student success is largely dependent on their understanding and grasp of basic IL competencies (p. 434-435).

The article really begins to shine, though, when Head shows that students often feel disadvantaged by the syllabuses that guide their coursework. 12 of 13 members of her student focus group felt that “one of their most serious obstacles is understanding professor’s expectations for assignments” (p. 435), and 48% of survey respondents felt that “a lack of information from the assigning professor stymied them the most, sometimes keeping them from beginning an assignment at all” (p. 435). Head continues:

The [content analysis] data show a lack of detail and guidance in many research assignment handouts. As a whole, the handouts offered little direction about: (1) plotting the course for research, (2) crafting a quality paper, and (3) preparing a paper that adheres to a grading rubric of some kind. (p. 435)

Head’s work identifies a major information gap that stalls the student’s attempts to produce academic research: a lack of guidance about basic research skills. Junior undergraduate students, who often have very low information literacy rates, have got to learn how to research effectively and also understand the professor’s expectations before tackling their topic, but they have been given very little information to help them along in this regard.

I don’t think that Head is trying to start a fire in the academy with this article. She’s identified a significant problem in post-secondary education but follows up by listing three remedies: more information from the professors, more IL instruction, and more proactive intervention on the part of faculty and librarians (p. 438). The article resonates because it clarifies the muddled situation we face at the reference desk when confused students find a helpful librarian, often by chance. Librarians know that a student’s information-seeking skills may not be as great as they could be, but we aren’t always thinking about what kind and amount of guidance the student has been offered before seeing us. Sometimes the student can’t find answers to the research question because they don’t even know what the research question is or how to produce an academic response to it.

Head’s article reminds me that students often have neither the skills needed to research effectively nor an understanding on how to improve those research skills in the first place. The IL help we provide at the Reference Desk is a bit of a bandaid solution for this problem. Yes, we must continue dressing those wounds, but it is imperative for us to raise the importance of basic research skills and IL competencies when we speak to our peers beyond the library. Whether you’re speaking with a faculty member or some one in student services, remind them of what students ought to be learning in basic writing and research courses. Faculty are accustomed to a research culture that has been nurtured by years of scholarship, but their students are only at the start of their own academic journies. This means that more time must be spent on basic research skills in the classroom, in one-on-one situations, and in handouts given to students. Although librarians have taken up the information literacy mantle long ago, we can’t solve this problem on our own. Raising IL competencies requires collaboration with our colleagues in the professoriate and in student support services.

note: If ever you’ve read anything by Gloria Leckie, then you’ll understand where Head is coming from in this article and why I support her argument. I’ve studied under one of Leckie’s own students, which has clearly informed my own opinions about the information seeking behavior and predicament of PSE students.

Head, A. (2008). Information literacy from the trenches: how do humanities and social science majors conduct academic research?. College & Research Libraries, 69(5), 427-45.