Category Archives: Libraries and Learning

For postings about information literacy, learning commons, and the role of libraries in higher education.

Explaining Authority (Part 2)

After writing my previous post, our library director brought this report to my attention: “The Changing Nature of Intellectual Authority” by Peter Nicholson, presented at the 148th ARL meeting in Ottawa, Ontario, May 17-19 2006. Apparently I was “scooped” by a good three years, as the ideas in the report are similar enough to my own (albeit worded more eloquently) that I should have been aware of and acknowledged it. Better late than never, right?

One way of thinking about the problem of authority that Nicholson suggests, and which Emily described in my post’s Comments using slightly different terms, is that there are various species of information, with differing niches. For example, when you have a ‘good enough’ mentality, wikipedia is usually fine, but there are other times when you will demand and value peer-reviewed sources.

And so I have begun to think that when librarians teach information literacy, the underlying question to encourage students to ask should be “Why was this information generated?” That can be unclear, so the question becomes “Why COULD this information have been generated?” It is easy to become paranoid when searching for this answer, but I like to think that misinformation is usually caught, and when it is not, it is a source of outrage, or at least newsworthy.

Deliberate propagation of misinformation is greeted with protest rather than resignation, at least in this country. Whether we work in information professions or not, everyone is responsible for paying attention, and because of the abundance of critical minds, we can count on someone to call out untruths, mistakes, biases, and sinister influences.

As Nicholson points out, institutions suffer as a result of a breakdown in rules about authority. I do work for an institution, with all that implies. As I proceed blithely ahead, attempting to teach students information literacy and how to use the traditionally accepted, scholarly resources that the library provides, perhaps I will best serve them if I bear all of the above in mind. I should be pleased if they are skeptical of me and my message. At least, if students stop to consider where information I recommend is coming from, they can take personal responsibility and have a personal stake in the information they choose to rely on.

If I can make all this clear in my library instruction sessions, while still being relevant to the task or assignment at hand, I will consider my job well done.

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P.S. The next post will be my last as a First Year Academic Librarian here on ACRLog. Technically this should have been my final post, but the administrators kindly granted me one extra.

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

Lawyers, Librarians, Clergy, and Coaches

No, this is not the answer to the “Top 5 Professions You Would Like to Pursue” quiz that is likely appearing on Facebook even now; it is a partial listing of the “other professional staff” positions found on American campuses cited as part of a Chronicle article on the increasing number of “support staff” in higher education. The Insider Higher Ed version of the article is here.

Both IHE and the Chronicle point to a new report by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity on “Trends in the Higher Education Workforce” that notes that the number of “support staff” positions have increased far more rapidly over the past 20 years than has the number of instructional positions. This, it is suggested, “reflects unproductive spending by academe.”

The Chronicle does a good job making clear the (very) gray areas around any conclusion that increased spending on “other professional staff” reflects “unproductive spending,” but the lumping together of librarians with other professional staff presumed not to be directly contributing to instruction is worth noting. I have seen several surveys over the years that have followed the “other professional staff” model, including those of first-year-experience programs and public engagement initiatives – librarians are administrators, managers, and, perhaps, research support staff, but they are not instructors.

And, perhaps we are not (although I have argued the opposite on many occasions), but I see echoes in this report of the 2006 debate in school library circles over the “65% solution”, i.e., the question of whether school librarians should be “counted” as instructional staff in budget allocations and reporting required by educational reform programs. Should the argument advanced by the CCAP report gain traction, and should there be any question of whether professional academic librarians contribute directly to student learning in ways that all might recognize as being “productive,” we might be wise to consider these questions advanced as part of the school library debate (Harada, 2006):

  • How does your library media center support student learning?
  • What compelling evidence do you have that students have achieved the learning targets?

How ready are you to provide the answers?

Truth, Information and Knowledge: u r boring me

A funny and ultimately disheartening? article in the Washington Post portrays librarians as the last defenders of truth in a decadent culture consumed with trivia and superficialities, even going so far as to describe librarians as “trench warriors for truth.” Here’s a dramatic excerpt from a chat reference service:

“We’re losing him! We’re going to lose him!” Chad Stark frantically clicks back and forth between two windows on his computer screen.

Stark is the sweater vest-wearing, 30-something Hyattsville librarian currently manning AskUsNow, a 24/7 online chat open to Maryland residents who need research help.

AskUsNow, developed four years ago, helps patrons find accurate online information so they don’t have to fumble blindly in Google. Librarians: reliably on the front lines of truth protection.

Stark types that he’d be happy to help, but he’s not fast enough for the user:

“dude u r boring me.”

Librarians have been known to stand for many noble things, reading, learning, free speech, and now truth! Although it may feel like we are the orchestra that supposedly played on while the Titanic was sinking, there are worse ways to go down. I wrote about librarians and truth in a book review here; for more on librarians and truth see Don Fallis’s work on social epistemology.

The article goes on to raise the issue of the distinction between information and knowledge, which I have always found more puzzling than helpful. The most useful discussion of this I’ve read recently is in Dominique Foray’s Economics of Knowledge. Foray points out that the main distinction between information and knowledge is that knowledge depends on human cognition, whereas information can simply be words on a page. Information can be reproduced quickly and cheaply with a copy machine, but reproducing knowledge is far more expensive and time consuming because, well, teaching others is hard. Here’s Foray:

These means of reproducing knowledge may remain at the heart of many professions and traditions, but they can easily fail to operate when social ties unravel, when contact is broken between older and younger generations, and when professional communities lose their capacity in stabilizing, preserving, and transmitting knowledge. In such cases, reproduction grinds to a halt and the knowledge in question is in imminent danger of being lost and forgotten.

Can we use the distinction between information and knowledge to articulate a role for libraries and librarians in the digital age? Although information is bountiful and some of it seemingly cheap, tons of knowledge is being lost and forgotten everyday. Academic libraries and librarians are part of institutions that help to stabilize, preserve, and transmit knowledge as opposed to information. Hmm, how’s that? Good start, maybe, but needs work.

The article goes on to raise disturbing questions about the psychology of knowledge acquisition, noting that even when people are told repeatedly that something is false, the fact that they have heard it somewhere makes them think it is true. Politics immediately comes to mind here, but this raises a serious concern with all the new media that allow for the rapid reproduction of bits of information.

Quite thought provoking for a newspaper article, but once again reading the news gives me the feeling that we are doomed.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

You’ve Never Been To A Library Like This

I recently made a visit to Cabelas, which is a store dedicated to those who partake in outdoor activities such as camping, hiking, hunting and fishing. The retail stores are huge. You could fit about five Wal-marts into the one I visited. You need that much room if you want to have an indoor fresh water aquarium and a deer museum (I’m not going to elaborate on that). But I never expected to find a library there as well. I guess I should mention that this was a gun library. Yes, the sign over the entrance said Gun Library. It was an extremely ornate room, as nice as any rare book library I’ve ever visited, but here, behind the fine glass cabinet doors you’d find no books, just seriously expensive rifles, shotguns and handguns. I’m talking guns that cost as much as new cars. Yeah, it was just like a real library. Oh, the only other difference is that this library has no circulating collection.

Just In – Libraries Officially Obsolete in 2017

Now we know the answer! No further navel gazing is required. Libraries will be obsolete in 2017. How do I know? Well, I consulted the Extinction Timeline. It shows everything that has become obsolete or will become obsolete between 1950 and 2050. I’m somewhat disappointed. I was going to retire in 2025, but now I see that retirement will be obselete in 2015. On the other hand I’m relieved now that the uncertainty about the future existence of libraries has been resolved. At least I’ll be able to keep blogging. That doesn’t become obsolete until 2023.

Do You Know A Perpetual Super-Novice

So what do you do with a library user who just keeps going to the same old database for every possible search and never seems to want to add to their knowledge base. Well, if nothing else, you can give them a name. Call them Perpertual Super-Novices. That’s a term coined by Paul Sherman. Sherman describes the perpetual super-novice (PSN)as “people who stop learning about a digital product – whether it’s an operating system, desktop application, web site or hardware device.” While we know we have PSNs among our user community, they can be harder to detect. Among Sherman’s strategies to overcome this problem, teachable moments can certainly help. I suspect that the real problem with PSN in academic libraries isn’t as much the users as it is the librarians. Ever tried to get a librarian who primarily uses one preferred database or system to try a new one or get a colleague to learn a batch of new features added to a familiar system. It’s like pulling teeth. Why does it happen? Most likely it’s a self-defense mechanism against information overload. Try to learn too many systems and too many features and you might just become lousy at using any of them. Take a look at Sherman’s suggestions for how we might do a better job of breaking the PSN habit.

The Hidden Benefits Of One-Shot Sessions

A long-time lament of many academic librarians who do classroom instruction is that they typically only get one shot to teach a class, perhaps in a 50 or 90 minute class. If only we could go back for a second or third session, we say, that might allow us to really help students to learn how to use library resources effectively. Based on some faculty blog posts I’ve been reading, being limited to a single class session may be a real benefit. Why? Well, if we encounter some incredibly obnoxious student behavior, we can escape and never have to face it again. Not so for the faculty who have to go back day in and day out. In this post an instructor wonders just how much control faculty have over students in the classroom when it comes to objectionable behavior. And since our instruction is the “one and done” type, we rarely have to deal with grading and some of the ridiculous nonsense with which faculty have to contend. On the other hand, library instructors trudge from class to class throughout the semester, which affords a wonderful opportunity to be subjected to many different forms of student indifference and rudeness, with absolutely no ability to exert control. Well, if that’s your situation, cheer yourself next time by running the hell out of that class as fast as you can and just keep repeating to yourself “you never have to go back there again” all the way back to the safety of your little cubicle in the library.