Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland

This week I taught a research instruction session for a learning community that pairs an introductory English Composition course with a Speech course. I love teaching this class because I get to work with colleagues in our English and Humanities Departments with whom I’ve long collaborated; we have a good rapport in the classroom and the students always seem to get a lot out of the class. Because the library session runs for twice as long as usual — we use the class periods for both classes — we always have lots of time for students to practice doing research. Because the students are usually more engaged in learning communities and there are 3 instructors in the classroom, we also typically get into discussions about topics in information literacy that we often don’t have room for in the other sessions I teach.

This time around we found something very interesting. The students were researching the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an infamous late 19th-century disaster that happened just steps from our college’s campus. We’d been using the library catalog to look for books on Brooklyn and New York City history, talking about the kinds of keywords that work best for broad or narrow topics, the usual. Recently I’ve noticed that during the internet research part of my instruction sessions students sometimes find books on commercial sites like Amazon, so I’ve started to suggest that students note down the author and title of books they find on those sites and search for them in the library catalog. I recommended that to this class, too, and a student called me over to help him do the search in our library’s catalog for a book he found on Barnes & Noble.

The student was trying to search by ISBN in the keyword search field, but that wasn’t really the problem. The problem was that our library (and our university system) doesn’t own the book. And, actually, we’ll never own the book, because the book he was looking for was a book of Brooklyn historical information pulled directly from Wikipedia. It took a few minutes of poking around on the B&N website to figure that out, and then we all (as a class) found a long list of books “published” by the company LLC Books:


(Hey, at least they’re relatively inexpensive, right?)

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it restricted to Wikipedia content — I remember hearing a few years ago about a similar “publisher” printing up and selling dissertations without their authors’ knowledge. And it’s pretty easy for us to discard these kinds of books from our own searches online. The listing the student found actually cites Source: Wikipedia as the author, but even those that don’t are highly suspicious: they’re on a huge variety of topics with very similar covers each with an image of a flower on it which is not at all relevant to the book’s content. Red flags everywhere, right?

But first year undergraduates are not librarians, and the student I worked with was, I think, legitimately confused by this book, especially seeing it in a set of search results that included traditionally published, “real” books. We ended up having a great conversation with the entire class about who owns the content on Wikipedia (and an introduction to open access and Creative Commons-licensed content), how print-on-demand publishing technology is changing information production, and why it’s important to evaluate information in all formats, not just online.

It was a great class; I left happy that we’d been able to cover such complex topics and hopeful that the students will continue to think critically about information the way they did in the class. However, I worry about other students, the ones in all of the classes that don’t have an extra-long library session, in which we don’t have time to get to print-on-demand Wikipedia scam books as well as everything else we need to cover. While not about library sources, I think this is important content that’s well worth discussing in our classes. But it’s tricky to accommodate all of the nuances of the information landscape in our instruction, especially when it’s both/and: real books both in print and electronic (both in the library and on the internet), and fake books, and… How do you incorporate new (and evolving) information literacy issues into your instruction?

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

2 thoughts on “Curiouser and Curiouser: Guiding Students through the Information Wonderland”

  1. You imply that issues related to this Wikipedia scam are less important than lessons devoted to library resources (“While not about library sources…”). I know we’re in a tight spot; classroom instructors expect us to cover content, such as database mechanics, evaluation criteria, or citation styles. Anything that doesn’t address these concerns seems inappropriate. But I think that does a disservice to the students. These concepts are equally important, just on a different scale. Library resources prepare them for short-term academic success. Teaching them how information is created, controlled, and shared—especially in sources like Wikipedia–prepares them to function effectively as citizens.

    I try to balance both perspectives. For example, when I teach an introductory business class about industry research, I start with Google. We visit company websites and look for financial information. In some cases, like Apple, it’s hard to find; their selling products, not attracting investors. In other cases, like AstraZeneca, it’s easy; they’re promoting their drugs, not selling them. Once they have company information, I ask them to find information on their industries. Because it’s a commodity—which we discuss—it’s not freely available. We move to library resources and find comprehensive and current reports. Then we discuss how much the database costs. Contextualizing everything I say, forces students to consider the broader issues related to their research.

    I think we need to convince classroom instructors there is value in covering both perspectives.

  2. Hi Joel, thanks for your comment. I definitely agree, and didn’t mean to imply that library resources are more important for student research than internet resources. I also tend to start off my instruction sessions with the internet — it’s what students know — then move onto library resources; lately I’ve spent time emphasizing how the two can be used together for a research assignment.

    I teach mostly for our introductory English Comp classes so we sadly usually run out of time for some of the more nuanced discussions about research — like the costs of databases — which I often have to give short shrift to in favor of working on topic and keyword selection. And of course sometimes the course instructor really, really doesn’t want us to talk about the internet. In those cases I try to emphasize how useful the internet can be for brainstorming, and try to sneak in a little bit of discussion about Wikipedia that way. But it’s a challenge sometimes, for sure — I’m always interested in learning additional strategies for convincing the tough-to-convince instructors of the value of covering the internet in library instruction sessions.

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