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What Do We Teach? Information Literacy and Information Technology in an Academic Setting

A few times a term, librarians from Carleton and St. Olaf meet to discuss an article that is either about some aspect of information literacy and IL instruction, or can be discussed from the perspective of people teaching information literacy. This morning, for example, we talked for about 45 minutes about Ann Grafstein’s new article in portal (which I highly recommend, by the way).*

On each of our campuses we’ve heard rumblings from time to time that what we do and what the IT people do is really fundamentally the same thing. When we say, “Uh, no, it’s really not,” they respond with, “I mean, if you forget the fact that they work in the IT department and you work in the library… just leave that out of the equation, what’s left is really fundamentally the same thing.” This is only true if by “fundamentally the same” you mean “help people do what they’re doing,” in which case almost everybody on campus fits that description.

The next argument is that we teach people how to get stuff out of databases just like IT teaches people how to manipulate spreadsheets. Well, I know our IT department does a whole lot more than that, and while I do indeed teach people how to get stuff out of databases, I do so much more than that. And a lot of what I do would be important even if there were no technology at all, or if the technology changed drastically.

So what do I do? What do I offer students that goes beyond a basic knowledge of subject headings, catalogs and databases, and the mechanics of search?

We Work with Content, Regardless of Format
When we teach database searching, catalog searching, search engine searching, and even *gasp* print index navigation, the format is simply a vehicle. Our true focus is on the content beyond the vehicle. This is why library sessions that aren’t tied closely to an assignment often result in zoned out students. If you’re simply teaching “this is a database… this is a subject heading” and the students aren’t trying to get at any content, everything feels unimportant and arbitrary. If the students are actively trying to find content to work with, and are finding the process frustrating, that’s when they pay close attention.

This is also why I’m against wholesale moves from print to electronic. Some sources simply work better in print. Some work better online. I would prefer to figure out which vehicle best suites the content and the students’ uses of that content than to squeeze all content into one format. Granted, electronic is a wonderful vehicle for many, many kinds of content, but not all kinds, and not all instances of each kind.

Evaluation of Sources
Probably more than any other component of this nebulous thing we call “information literacy,” evaluation of sources has taken hold as The skill that librarians are trained to perform and teach and that goes beyond simple location of sources. And while this task has become more tricky as more and more stuff floods the Internet, it is and always has been important even in the print-only world. I’m not convinced that it was ever easy, no matter how many people tell me it was so much easier when you had the print in front of you. I tend to think we simply haven’t honed our teaching skills in the newer formats to the same extent that we had before. But what do I know? I’ve never known an academic library that didn’t have JSTOR.

But I propose, as a topic for discussion, that while evaluating sources is definitely important, it has gained it’s current widespread status as almost synonymous with “information literacy” primarily because it’s taught in library school and because it has steps to follow. We’ve grown so used to saying that we don’t just teach “how to” any more, we also teach evaluation, that we don’t often look beyond that to the other things we can and do teach. And I’d propose that these other things are as interesting and as important, but that they don’t have clearly defined steps to follow and that they are not taught in library school (at least, not at the library school I went to).

What are these other things? Well, I think teaching research strategies falls into this camp even though these strategies do get lip service in library school, and we do mention them occasionally in classes, and we work a lot with them at the reference desk and in individual research consultations. And sussing out what counts as evidence for a particular discipline, sub-discipline, and audience is also a major component of information literacy.

Research Strategies
When I was in library school, we spent one day on information seeking behaviors and strategies (which mostly turned into a discussion about how we could get people to come to the library first rather than consult their friends), and about two weeks (with accompanying group projects and presentations) on evaluating sources. I am extremely grateful to have had evaluation beaten into my head with that kind of force because it has stood me in good stead. But I am still figuring out how to quickly and effectively help my students devise workable research strategies. It is not enough simply to know that they’ll consult friends and trusted professors, or to say that research is an iterative process. I want to default to thinking about helping my students navigate this thing that really frustrates them in the same way that I default to helping them think about how trustworthy their sources are.

What’s more, I don’t think students have a realistic sense of how much time research can take. I know… that’s not a radical thought… but here’s why it’s important. Someone might argue that we have to help them evaluate sources because they don’t think of asking for help with that because they don’t know that they don’t know evaluation, so they don’t know to be frustrated. They are often frustrated with the progress of their research, though, so it’s not as important to remind them that they will need help with this. Not so. They often get frustrated too late, when there’s no more time for interlibrary loan or restructuring arguments so that they can actually support what they’re saying with real evidence.

Matching Evidence to Audience
And this brings us to real evidence. “Real” evidence is the stuff that bridges the gap between your topic and your audience. If there is no gap, you need no evidence (and then it’s not really worth researching, is it?). So what counts as evidence to your field? What counts as evidence to the people in your field who would be interested in this particular topic? Will you need a traditional lit review or anecdotes? Will popular publications or snapshots of wikis on a particular days support what you’re saying and be credible witnesses for your case in the court of your audience’s opinion? Will you need statistical data or interviews with experts? Will your opinion count or will you have to cite others’ thoughts? None of these can be assumed to be important across the board. And I had no training whatsoever in thinking about these questions.

And yet, I would argue that this is the single most fundamental cornerstone of information literacy. Without this, everything else crumbles. And the closest we usually come to teaching this is to walk students through “what counts as a scholarly source.” That is a great start, and for some students in some classes that’s all they need. But it just doesn’t cut it for everyone in every situation.

So that is the beginning of my credo. I’m just starting to figure out what I my role is on my campus, and what I’d like it to be, and this is where I’ve gotten so far. I’m not done, and I’m sure I never will be done defining my job. But I’ve made a start. Sure, I also teach the mechanics of search and the steps for getting your hands on full text, but I do that in service of these other goals.


*Grafstein, Ann. “Information Literacy and Technology: An Examination of Some Issues.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 7.1 (2007): 51-64.

2 thoughts on “What Do We Teach? Information Literacy and Information Technology in an Academic Setting

  1. [this is good] as they say.

    I think this is very important to think and write and talk about. So we help them find some sources and evaluate them. To what end? Do they know what to do with them once they have them. Do *I* know, and do I know how to convey that?

  2. That’s exactly it. There has to be a goal beyond hunting and gathering. Unfortunately, once I do think about it, I don’t quite know what to do with it.

    Almost by definition, I can’t do all of this in most of the classes I teach or at the desk. And yet absolutely by definition this doesn’t lend itself to credit-bearing courses because those would feel arbitrary without “real life” research goals. I come close in some of my individual consultations, but … I’m still confused.

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