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)

Google v. Blekko v. The Librarian. (The librarian wins.)

In the past week I’ve heard three different librarians say something like, “We lost to Google years ago”.  We know that this sort of statement isn’t complete hyperbole.  When it comes to discovering or verifying quick facts, people turn to search engines faster than they ever turned to an encyclopedia at home or a reference collection at the library.  While there are many things librarians can do better than Google, like help people find the needle the information haystack, or teach people how to make wise, informed decisions when researching, when it comes to ready reference, most of the time Google has got us beat.

The big thing Librarians still have over Google, though, is criticism and control.  We not only know how to quickly manipulate Google’s search engine (and other companies’ engines) to discover decent results, but we are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff.  I notice this especially with government documents and government data on the web: people who visit me at the reference desk who are looking for government data have a hard time finding information and then being able to verify its authority.  There are no second readers on the web – people have to rely on their own experience and understanding of information organization and information architecture to locate documents, and then be willing to using them with confidence.  Librarians, however, can help people locate information sources, draw relationships between items, and determine the value of this knowledge to their own work.  For these reasons alone, we’re kind of a big deal and shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

Click through for a great example on why Google is *not* a good search engine.


Especially in this so-called digital age, our ability to help people choose information sources makes us essential to information management and research services.  For all of our complaints about people’s reliance on the Google search engine and index, we can at least take comfort knowing that our “editorial” function vis-a-vis the Internet is still necessary and valued.  What’s a curator but a selector of items of value?  I’m not saying that librarians curate the web, but on the whole, we certainly have a broad understanding of the tools and resources needed to help you find what data you’re looking or to take your work to the next level.

But now, Internet, Inc has developed the latest, greatest search engine that apparently should leave us shaking in our boots: BlekkoBlekko is receiving a lot of new-startup-PR this month because it is doing what librarians have done for ages (and what Google doesn’t bother to do) – it separates the good from the downright ugly on the Internet.  Although Blekko has indexed over 3 billion webpages, it lists only top results in order to cut down on website “pollution” from content farms and simple dirty spam.  I’ll let the New York Times take over from here:

People who search for a topic in one of seven categories that Blekko considers to be polluted with spamlike search results — health, recipes, autos, hotels, song lyrics, personal finance and colleges — automatically see edited results.

And furthermore, their comparative example:

In some cases, Blekko’s top results are different from Google’s and more useful. Search “pregnancy tips,” for instance, and only one of the top 10 results, cdc.gov, is the same on each site. Blekko’s top results showed government sites, a nonprofit group and well-known parenting sites while Google’s included OfficialDatingResource.com.

“Google has a hard time telling whether two articles on the same topic are written by Demand Media, which paid 50 cents for it, or whether a doctor wrote it,” said Tim Connors, founder of PivotNorth Capital and an investor in Blekko. “Humans are pretty good at that.”

Blekko's logo - featuring a real live person (a librarian, no doubt)

Blekko’s founders are basically looking Google in the eye and saying the Internet isn’t going to be a wild west any more, that editorial control (if not authority control, too?) is required to organize all the information available to anyone ready to jack in to the web.

This is verging on librarians’ territory.  Should we be concerned?  I don’t think so.  Should Blekko succeed at helping the entire world discern what is valuable and critical from what is a bottle of plonk on the Internet, then I think we’ve got a problem, but given the fact that information is synthesized into knowledge at the local level, I think we still have something on the these apparent new search engine masters.  And I don’t feel like I’m sticking my head in the sand by saying that, either.  Sure, the Internet can give us a run for our money at times, but if anything it’s made the work we do all the more important to the people we serve.  With so much information available to people since the development of the web, it’s useful to have other people (i.e., us) close at hand to help them determine their particular information needs and help them solve it.

Librarians - We are electronic performers (apologies to Air)

Blekko won’t know, for instance, what titles our local public library holds, and neither it will be certain which electronic databases our local universities subscribe to.  And I can pretty much guarantee it won’t have any Canadian socio-economic data (longform or no longform) and very few government documents.  This is where the person on the ground – the librarian – can step in and act as an intermediary between our patron and what the Internet has to offer.

Funny.  I nearly called the Internet an “Interblob” just now.  Because that’s what it is – a big doughy blob of information.  But because I’m a librarian, I can help you find what you’re looking for on it – Google or no Google, Blekko or no Blekko.

What is a Library? Thinking about what Alberto Manguel thinks about

Over the October long weekend, I had the occasion to get some pleasure-reading done.  I took a trip to Iceland and packed some real ink-on-page books in my case.  On planes, on busses, in cafés, and in hotel rooms, I turned the pages of Alberto Manguel‘s The Library at Night (2007).  Reading the book made me think about what we want a library to be versus what it actually is.

What is a library?


Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)

Blueprints to the Chicago Public Library (1897)


Manguel’s text is not a treatise or essay you’ll find in JASIST or Library Administration and Management.  There are no surveys, no reports, and no methods sections.   Manguel is a writer and thinker whose essays read like poetry. He’s unafraid to infuse his own opinions into the arguments he proposes, and he writes with a narrative arc and rhetoric that won’t allow the beauty of the written word to become lost in the work’s subject.  (It’s a form of prose I admire and admittedly try to emulate with little success.)    With this style in mind, Manguel’s idea of a library is hauntingly romanticist: the library is a refuge and a pleasure-house; it is a place of intellectual ambition and of location of imaginative indulgence.  And the librarians who help manufacture these libraries are the heroes (and sometimes the villains) who make it all possible.

Through the first half of the book at least, Manguel’s idea of library is just that – an ideal.  It is a concept that we should aim for.  Manguel’s rhetoric suggests that there exists a perfect, complete form of “library” we should aim to create, a wonderland of knowledge and of perception we can spend the rest of our days in.  This library is the library we all want to work in: it is a Xanadu of intellectual content.  It is at once a refuge from the din of society and a staging ground for us to take on what lies beyond its doors.  Playing on Borges time and again, Manguel’s library is an encyclopedia of the universe, of our singular and group existence.  The library records knowledge and creates histories, but it also expects us to nourish it with new information and to create our own tales within it.  I think this is why there is almost a dreamland quality to this sort of library: in spite of the fact that the library holds all the knowledge known to man, it is left to our own imagination and wit to piece this knowledge together as we see fit.

We know, however, that the libraries in our lives are not the libraries in Manguel’s dreams.  Manguel’s library is a fantasy, a myth.  In Manguel’s library, nothing must be managed, controlled, budgeted, or evaluated.  Manguel’s library is perfectly built to last to the ends of time; its only expansion will be a steady increase of knowledge-texts that complement what already has been collected.  But libraries as we know them today are managed, physical spaces that hold documents, workspaces, and the systems that provide access to electronic texts.  Physical collections in today’s libraries (at least today’s academic library) have been reduced in size so that space can be found for more people to work with the collection itself.  And to many users of libraries, the actual print collection, which surrounds them when they work in the library’s confines, is subordinated to the electronic collection which can be accessed whether one is at or away from the building.  The browsable library, full of dusty texts and their marginalia that records one patron’s notes for another to use, has been supplanted by the searchable (searched?) library, a collection of electronic indexes, proxy servers, and license agreements.

All the same, part of me longs for Manguel’s library.  Although I’m very much a realist on this issue and understand that libraries as we know them today have more to offer the communities they serve than ever before, I realize I’m still the kind of person that longs to “get lost in the book,” or better yet, “get lost in the library.”   If a library really is an encyclopedia of the universe (or of Heaven, as Borges sometimes put it – he couldn’t ever decide between the two), then I’m more than happy to create my own worlds by wandering the stacks and drawing connections between otherwise random texts, as Manguel wonderfully notes.


Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland

Abbey Library of Saint Gall, Switzerland: where worlds are made manifest


This may be one of the reasons why I love working at the reference desk of any library – academic, public, or special.  When you are at the reference desk, people come to you with questions and puzzles about their own special subject, riddles about the worlds they are creating in front of you.  The texts we reference may no longer be physical, but they remain objects that inspire people, objects that nourish our intellect and imagination, objects that drive us to respond, react, and recreate.  (Is it any wonder that librarians are the biggest defenders of intellectual freedom and the biggest fans of mash-ups and copyleft?  We’ve been helping people build worlds from texts for thousands of years now.)

When I asked myself the question, “What is a library?” in a plane cabin high over the north Atlantic ocean, I had to chuckle because I haven’t given the subject any thought since my first days in library school several years ago.  I try to avoid these questions since the answers tend to illuminate the division between the ideal and the real without explicating on the real at all. But now that I work as a librarian in a library, and everyday I see people working with library collections to complete their research, I wonder if I can reconcile Manguel’s musty ideal with the here-and-the-now.  Most of the people I pass as I walk to my office probably don’t know who Manguel is and likely wouldn’t care about his book, but I can see in the time they spend in the building, working with our texts and resources, that things get done in the library. And that’s got to count for something.  Their work may not always be an elevated treatise on renaissance aesthetics or on classical music theory, but the work nonetheless is validated by the work completed before it.  In the library, one uses prior knowledge to create new theories, new arguments, and new art.  If the Manguel’s ideal library allows for constant renewal and regeneration in the person and in the collection, then I’m definitely along for the ride.

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.