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)