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.

On information literacy, information-seeking, and microfilm

This is a narrative on microfilm followed by a thought-bubble on information literacy and information-seeking behavior.

This weekend, a student stopped by the reference desk for help locating film reviews in old newspapers. She was a little frantic and a little confused by her Theatre assignment’s requirement to use primary documents from the 1940s.  The 1940s!  She didn’t know how to search an electronic index on a computer let alone rifle through print indexes and then move to the microfilm.   Although she was a fairly smart student, this one was going to need some time.

The other librarian at the reference desk started things off by showing the student the New York Times Film Reviews, a print item that indexes film reviews by film name, actors, and perhaps directors; this text almost put the student in the right direction.  I say “almost” because like everyone’s first experiences with microform, the student was thrown off by the idea of handling film, using a giant metal reader possibly older than her parents, and working her biceps to wind through a reel from the 1940s.  There would be no mouse-clicks and no print-to-PDF options on this research assignment.

A New York Times print index: cryptic to the first-time researcher and to the seasoned librarian (Click for photo credit)

Eventually, the student located her references and could head to the film readers, but the shift in media from print to film frightened her, as it does for so many others, so she came back for help.  My colleague had left for the evening, so I took over by sitting down and explaining what the tiny codes she wrote down actually meant.  Our student was looking for film reviews about Mae West and transcribed  1950 Mr 16 : 18, 2.   I put her at ease once I explained that this was shorthand for “1950, March 16: Page 18, 2nd column”, but that lasted only until we began walking to the microfilm collection, which is located away from our learning commons.  I think we’re so used to clicking through to electronic resources that the idea of physically walking somewhere to find our reference can be unsettling.  Even though we had to walk no more than a minute and even though our reel was located on the first stack at the front of the room, she vacillated between confusion over the perceived difficulty of the task to annoyance that information discovery requires so much work.  The Internet really has altered everything we know about information discovery and information retrieval, it seems.

But this is where things change.

I can’t speak for all librarians, but it seems that every time I load a reel of film on a microfilm reader, the student immediately becomes curious about what’s going on.  This is more than a need to watch what I’m doing so they can hopefully reload the machine the next time they have a problem.  Instead, they become interested by how a small reel of film, only a couple inches in diameter, can contain the information they are looking for.  (Tonight, not only was this student interested by my handiwork; some other students studying in the room walked over to ask what I was doing and what the film stored.)  This is a newspaper reel: an archive of two weeks’ worth of news in 1940, waiting to be read by whoever needs to access it.  And unlike a digital archive, they have to manipulate the reel with their own hands.  Information has become a physical object which they can own for a moment or two.

Handling the reel turns the concept of “information” into a real, tangible thing.  To locate the information on the film we must handle the reel like a Rubik’s cube to ensure it is upright and then spin it through a reader, and then we must physically wind the reel to find 1950 Mr 16: 18, 2.  Information-seeking at this point becomes a physical exercise: our discovery leads us to the article we are looking for.  This is unlike query-based searching with databases, which might discover our article or instead return several similar articles for us to choose from (hopefully one or the other will meet our needs).

Microfilm looks daunting, but it shows us with our own eyes the amount of information available to us and how it is organized (Click for original photo)

Using microfilm, on the other hand, makes it easy for the user to see and understand the information architecture.  They can quickly learn how the information is stored (on reels), how it is located (with an index), and how to access it (with a reader).  Researching with microfilm is unlike using a search engine, which combines the steps in information retrieval into one act, thereby muddling our understanding of how the information is organized and how it can be retrieved.   Instead, researching with microfilm requires an understanding of the field’s controlled vocabulary, of the kind and amount of primary documents in the field, and the tools required to access them.  There is a little bit of work involved, but it makes the treasure to be located all the more valuable.

I’m not sure where to end with this narrative.  I don’t want to suggest that we should return to microfilm, and I don’t want to suggest that all students should take part in an IL class that requires the use of microfilm.  But it would be nice if we could help our users understand just How Much Information Is Out There in a way that using microfilm does so well.  Helping people to understand how the Internet has improved information access and retrieval, as well as helping them to see how this information is stored might improve information literacy rates.  When researching with electronic databases, we tend to think that “there’s an article for that” the same way that Apple has made us believe that “there’s an app for that.”  But information and knowledge doesn’t work this way.  If they did, then our information needs would be easily met by slotting some one else’s article or chapter (i.e. knowledge) into our information gap, and our problem would be solved.  However, information discovery, retrieval,and evaluation takes time, and patience.  If more users understood just how much knowledge is out there for them to use, it may help them understand the task they have ahead of themselves.

Photo Credit No. 1: New York Times Print Index  /  Andrew Whitis (CC)

Photo Credit No. 2: Microfilm  / anarchivist (CC)

Assisting research v. Research Assistants

When does helping some one with their research turn into becoming a research assistant?

Sometimes the role we play at the reference desk confuses us or even the people we serve.  When the retrieval of information appears so instantaneous to people who aren’t comfortable using electronic database or government documents, the role (and maybe the value) of the reference librarian becomes muddled.  If you were to ask a sample of people what exactly reference librarians do, some answers you might hear would be that librarians:

  • teach us how to find Stuff
  • help us retrieve Stuff
  • get us Stuff

And how do reference librarians define their work at the reference desk?  I think it’s safe to say often we conflate things like teaching, information discovery, and information retrieval into a vague, large mission, which is to help people find what they’re looking for.  This isn’t a bad thing since we’re in the business of serving people by filling their information needs.

Ohio University Libraries, ready aye ready, 1971

But should a line be drawn to mark a boundary between the a librarian’s work to help a person and a librarian’s work for a person?   This sort of discussion is constant:  in academics, it ebbs and flows with the term, often coming to the fore when the reference desk is red-lining because mountains of assignments are due.  Last May, a small discussion began on research services at the reference desk and if that line exists on the ACRLog.  Most commenters agreed that faculty generally don’t abuse the research services that the library provides.  Another comment I particularly liked, however, was about the librarian’s relationship with the student.  Leo Klein admitted that he has let students treat him as a research assistant in the past, and moreover, “to a certain extent I’ll play along.”

I like Leo’s comment because it’s conditional: he will act as a research assistant at times, but only to a certain extent (his reasons for acting in this capacity when he does are valid and strong, I’m sure).  The fact that he plays along but only at certain times reminds me that a librarian’s work on the reference desk should be adjusted to meet the needs of the person in front of him or her.  The roles we play at the reference desk – teacher / librarian / impromptu research assistant – are normally a result of the relationships we build with the people in need of help: some people need more help than others, and the help we offer to one person will likely be different from the help we offer to another.  To draw a line in the sand regarding our services is foolhardy since every client who approaches us from the other side of that metaphorical line has distinct needs.

At my former place of work, we served a diverse student body, both scholarly and culturally.  The university has a strong TESL programme whose students often need extra guidance with scholarly databases since they are working in a working in a second language.  The school also has a large and successful MBA and M.Finance programme, whose students are often accustomed to working not with libraries but information centres in the workplace, and are accordingly used to receiving valid, verifiable, and ready-to-use results when they request help from their information specialists.  These examples show only two student groups within the university community and can’t speak for the information needs and customs of the school’s arts students, science students, post-graduates, as well as students who may be on academic probation.  However, they do show why we shouldn’t draw a firm line in the sand when it comes to research help at the reference desk – doing so would be a disservice to the people we serve.

Binghamton University Libraries

We need to be prepared to help individuals in a manner suitable to their own needs and customs.  That isn’t to say that librarians must drop everything whenever a student makes excessive research demands so much as it means that each reference situation is unique to itself and that reference librarians must adjust their roles accordingly.