Category Archives: Information Literacy

“In-house Document Request”

One of the first duties I inherited in my new job was becoming the campus key contact for SciFinder. SciFinder is, at least here, the favored chemical search database of the students and faculty.  Like many databases, SciFinder has an assist to get to the full-text, in this case CAS Full-Text Options – a collaboration between CAS and various publishers. Among the various methods of connecting users to full-text is integration of the catalog, external links to patent websites, links to publisher websites and, if desired, “In-house Document Request”.

The user sees the link “In-house Document Request” and there is no indication of what it is or how it works. But when they click through, it shows my email address, has a form to send a message and then the citation for the troublesome article, patent, what have you. I get an email notification and then I try to help the person out.

When I gained this responsibility I also started recording the requests and my responses. I picked up this data collecting habit in my lab manager job because I found it always useful at work to argue about data and numbers instead of feelings and impressions. In any case, since July 10th I’ve had 130 In-house Document Requests and I broke down the responses into four broad categories: interlibrary loan request, physically on the shelf, part of the e-subscriptions, or available free online. There were also some requests I didn’t answer; usually because the article was in a foreign language and when I asked the user whether they really want an article in Kazakh the answer is typically “no”.

I’m about to give you the percentages, but remember that there is no user instruction on what “In-house Document Request” is, how it works, or when it should be used. So here are the numbers:

  • Required interlibrary loan request – 36.9%
  • Available in print in the library – 22.3%
  • Available through our e-subscriptions – 9.2%
  • Available free online – 23.9%
  • No response – 7.7%

Before talking about what I learned, let me curtail some hand wringing about the state of information literacy in America. The “available free online” category consists overwhelmingly of patent requests, often untranslated foreign patents. Even with detailed instruction, Espacenet or the Japanese Patent Office can be daunting the first few times you visit.

Also, SciFinder only reports the first appearance of an article. So a citation from Vysokomolekulyarnye Soedineniya can usually be filled with the English translation in Polymer Science U.S.S.R. a few months later – which is “available through our e-subscriptions”. So, the kids are still all right and civilization isn’t doomed.

Some lessons learned – I should do some outreach and learn more about patent searching. A lot of students just don’t know what to do with those references. I’ve also learned to use these email contacts are an avenue for liaison work. Email is main way I am contacted and the SciFinder requests have led to a couple students coming in for pointers. I learned users interpret this option in wildly divergent ways – and since there’s no guidance, who can blame them? One user requested every single reference this way until I informed them that I expected them to at least look before contacting me (there is a story behind that policy, but moving on…). Some students hope I will conjure a digital copy for them so they don’t have to come in, or just don’t check anything beyond the e-journal collection. So the abstract concern that some users don’t consider the physical collection as real has become concrete for me. But most often the requests have some element of trickiness to them, show me broken links, or cataloging mistakes. Overall, I’ve learned to enjoy these requests as little puzzles and pleasant detours from the routine.

Not as simple as “click-by-click”

One of the projects I inherited as emerging technologies librarian is managing our library’s collection of “help guides.” The online learning objects in this collection are designed to provide asynchronous guidance to students when completing research-related tasks. Over the last few months, my focus has been on updating existing guides to reflect website and database interface changes, as well ensuring compliance with federal accessibility standards. With those updates nearly complete, the next order of business is to work with our committee of research and instruction librarians to create new content. The most requested guide at the top of our list? How to use the library’s discovery service rolled out during the Fall 2012 semester.

Like many other libraries, we hope the discovery service will allow users to find more materials across the library’s collections and beyond. Previously, our library’s website featured a “Books” search box to search the catalog, as well as an “Articles” search box to search one of our interdisciplinary databases. To ease the transition to the discovery system, we opted to keep the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes, in addition to adding the “one search box to rule them all”; however, these format search boxes now search the discovery tool using the appropriate document type tag. Without going into the nitty gritty details, this method has created certain “quirks” in the system that can lead sub-optimal search results.

This back-story leads to my current question about creating instructional guides for our discovery system – how do we design screencasts to demonstrate simple searches by format?

So far, this has boiled down to two options:

  1. Address the way students are most likely to interact with our system. We know users are drawn to cues with high information scent to help them find what they need; if I’m looking for a book, I’m more likely to be drawn to anything explicitly labeled “Books.” We also know students “satisfice” when completing research tasks, and many are unfortunately unlikely to care if their searches do not retrieve all possible results. Additionally, whatever we put front-and-center on our homepage is, I think, a decision we need to support within our instructional objects.
  2. Provide instruction demonstrating the way the discovery system was designed to be used. If we know our system is set up in a less-than-optimal way, it’s better to steer students away from the more tempting path. In this case, searching the discovery system as a whole and demonstrating how to use the “Format” limiters to find a specific types of materials. While this option requires ignoring the additional search options on our website, it will also allow us to eventually phase out the “Books” and “Articles” search boxes on the website without significant updates to our screencasts.

While debating these options with my colleagues, it’s been interesting to consider how this decision reflects the complexities of creating  standalone digital learning objects. The challenge is that these materials are often designed without necessarily knowing how, when, or why they will be used; our job is to create objects that meet students at a variety of point-of-need moments. Given that objects like screencasts should be kept short and to-the-point, it’s also difficult to add context that explains why the viewer should complete activities as-shown. And library instruction are not usually designed to make our students “mini-librarians.” Our advanced training and interest in information systems means it is our job to be the experts, but our students to not necessarily need to obtain this same level of knowledge to be successful information consumers and creators.

Does this mean we also engage in a bit of “satisficing” to create instructional guides that are “good enough” but not, perhaps, what we know to be “best?” Or do we provide just enough context to help students follow us as we guide them click-by-click from point A to point B, while lacking the complete “big picture” required to understand why this is the best path? Do either of these options fulfill our goals toward helping students develop their own critical information skills?

No instruction interaction is ever perfect. In person or online, synchronous or asynchronous, we’re always making compromises to balance idealism with reality. And in the case of creating and managing a large collection of online learning objects, it’s been interesting to have conversations which demonstrate why good digital learning objects are not synonymous with “click-by-click” instructions. How do we extend what we know about good pedagogy to create better online learning guides?

 

Building a Pedagogy

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about pedagogy. To tell you the truth, throughout graduate school I thought very infrequently about pedagogy, assuming that even as an instruction librarian, something as theoretical as pedagogy would be outside of my professional bounds. Though the instruction course offered at my university did touch on the aspects of designing an information literacy curriculum, it was a far cry from being a course in pedagogy. In fact, as librarians, we often become so overworked in our day-to-day tasks of making sure our resources and services are accessible, we can forget that first and foremost, we are educators. And like any highly skilled educators, having a strong grounding in pedagogy is essential to our job.

Pedagogy is, simply, the art of education. It is how we teach, how we connect students to the curriculum, and how we position students to be learners. Pedagogy is the beating heart of the teaching professions. I come from a strong social science background, particularly one poised to challenge and investigate systems of the status quo. I spent all of my undergraduate years studying the prison industrial complex from a gender perspective and my favorite courses in library school were on the politics of classification and knowledge production. Not surprisingly, then, I tend to frame my own librarian practice within a framework of social progress and have only recently begun to consider how to use this framework in library instruction. Yes, I want my students to be skilled in information seeking, but I also want them to be willing and able to think critically about information and the politics through which it’s produced. I take my pedagogy cues from the likes of Freire, hooks, Zinn – in other words, I want my students to be rabble rousers.

I am extremely lucky to be part of an institution with which I share these strong social convictions. My university’s commitment to social justice and radical learning is at the core of all it does, including its library instruction. I, along with the library director, have recently begun developing a comprehensive information literacy curriculum for the library. How can we reframe the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to a more critical perspective? We always have and will continue to have the one-shot in-class library workshops, but we are starting to strategically envision what skills and concepts we want to consistently deliver. In addition to the traditional keyword-forming, full-text finding skills, how can we give students the skills to think critically about the information they both find and can’t find? How can I open the discussion about the problematic nature of academic publishing? Where is the room for this agenda? It’s a lot to fit in the 50-minute one-shot.

I am in no way the first person to think about this. Many, many books have been published on this topic and continue to be published. And, indeed, many of the student-centered, critical strategies involve very few bells and whistles. A few ideas that have left me inspired:

  • include critical reading skills in every workshop. As simple as that! It is as important as knowing how to properly cite a resource or construct a search term.
  • Have students search for articles on a purposefully controversial topic, like the link between autism and vaccines. Have them note what information is in the peer-reviewed literature, what stance it tends to take, the methodologies it tends to employ, and where alternatives may exist.
  • Show students how to find and use open-access journals and repositories. The few times I’ve done this, I’ve vetted these sources to ensure they are of high quality and repute (and explain that I’ve done so, using which criteria).
  • Change the way I organize my lessons. Instead of PowerPoints, I try to structure the lesson according to student suggestions and examples.
  • Leave the more traditional information literacy skills to Lib Guides and other digital learning objects. I’d rather spend my precious face-to-face time on the more nuanced aspects of information seeking and point them to videos and other online resources to do the more mundane tasks, like how to find full-text.

Where do you draw your pedagogical inspiration? Does your library have an comprehensive information literacy curriculum? Share your thoughts, resources, and inspirations in the comments section, or tweet me @beccakatharine.

“Power Searching” with Google

Google, common “frenemy” of academic librarians everywhere, has put together a short online class called Power Searching. The course is designed to teach you how to find good, quality information more quickly and easily while searching Google.  When I first heard about this course, my first thought was “Ah, Google is stealing my job!” After I calmed down a bit, I read over the description for the course and decided to enroll. I wanted to check out our potential competition and I hoped I might be inspired by new ideas and tools to incorporate into my teaching.

The course is divided into six classes and each class is further broken down into short videos. Each class totals approximately 50 minutes of video content. Following each short video there is an optional opportunity to test the skills demonstrated by David Russel, Senior Research Assistant, through an activity or quiz. The course contains a pre, mid, and post class assessment.  After successfully passing both the mid and post class assessments, you receive an official certificate or completion. To supplement the concepts taught in the classes, Google search experts also offer forums and Google Hangouts. When I took the course, it lasted about two weeks and a new class was released every three days or so. The classes could be completed any time prior to the specific due date.

The classes themselves definitely hit on topics that we usually cover in our library workshops, such as choosing good keywords and thinking critically about the source of the information. But for the most most part, it was about more about clicking this and then clicking that…similar to a typical electronic resource demonstration.  I did get bored a few times and skipped some of the activities. Also, I never had the motivation or desire to participate in any of the forums or Hangouts, but that was mainly due to my busy schedule. Despite all of this, I’m not too proud to admit that I also learned a few things–specifically on how to specific operators and how to do an image search.

So, is Google stealing our jobs? No. (At least not right now.) What academic librarians do that Google cannot is work with researchers on the gray, messy stuff like choosing a research topic, determining what types of info are needed, and figuring out the best way to use information. If more first-year and non-traditional students took the initiative to enroll in Google’s Power Searching class, I think it would help me as a librarian to focus more on those gray areas and less on the logistics of doing a simple search. While from a pedagogical stand point I didn’t have any “Aha!” moments, I may incorporate some of their search examples into my future library sessions.

I think it would be awesome of Google collaborated with a college or university library and did this same type of class for effectively using Google Scholar for research. (If you’re reading this, Google–I’m available!)

Have any other librarians taken Google’s Power Searching class? I’d love to hear what you think of the course and its content.

Active Learning and Teaching the Teacher

Ever since I attended ACRL’s Immersion Teacher Track about a year ago, I’ve been trying to incorporate more active learning strategies into my classes—and surprisingly, it’s been a lot of fun! One unintended benefit of these activities has been the opportunity for me to see inside the minds of students by seeing and hearing how they reason their way through this crazy journey we call research.

A couple weeks ago, I did a workshop for juniors and seniors enrolled in a music management course that requires students to write a large research paper. One problem the professor and I encountered in prior semesters was that students struggled with assessing and using their sources properly. For example, they sometimes have problems discerning when a source is heavily biased.

In an effort to get students thinking critically about assessing their sources I came up with a group activity. Each group had a different research topic with three sources. The sources ranged from peer-reviewed articles to a search in Twitter for “Skrillex” and “dubstep.” I asked students to incorporate the CRAAP test (–the brainchild of the brilliant librarians at CSU Chico), which stands for currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose. After utilizing the CRAAP test, students were instructed to decide if (1) they would use the source for each paper and (2) how they would use it. Following the activity, each group presented their topic and three sources to the rest of the class.

I’m hopeful that this activity will eventually prove to have any effect on this group’s ability to assess and use their sources. We shall see. Nevertheless, I can definitely say that it taught me a lot about students’ perception of sources of information. Here were a few of my notable observations:

  1. Autobiographies and interviews: While students were able to recognize the value of these as primary sources, they didn’t seem to understand how a musician’s statements regarding his/her own success could not be completely trusted.
  2. Blog posts: Students were really suspicious of blog posts—and they should be! But they didn’t immediately see the utility of a blog post as evidence of public opinion.
  3. Twitter: Musicians use Twitter to connect with their fans, but students didn’t recognize the potential for using it to monitor trends in music genres or musicians.

This activity made me realize how I subconsciously make assumptions about how students think. For whatever reason, I thought students would be better at discerning how to effectively use unconventional sources. I also wonder to what extent their responses were informed by what they thought I (the librarian) wanted to hear. Regardless, I am pleasantly surprised to discover how active learning activities can be used to teach the teacher.