Authoritative Sources Or Question Authority?

When teaching how to evaluate information, academic librarians often rely heavily on the concept of authority. Authority for librarians is usually understood to be some kind of reviewed and reputable source. Students are to trust sources that have authority over those that lack it. Whatever authority is, we like it. Conveniently, libraries specialize in acquiring authoritative sources and providing them to users. This is all well and good.

Except what happens when sources have some of the indicators of authority but need to have their authority questioned? Isn’t this when we are most likely to be fooled? How do we know when to trust authority (we can’t be expected to independently verify everything or have the expertise to do so) and when to question it? I was thinking about these things as I read an article about a course at SUNY Stony Brook that attempts to teach students how to evaluate information in the news.

The study was completely invalid, the experts said, and yet it was published by a newspaper and read by tens of thousands of people without challenge. Why, Mr. Schneider asked. Because it confirmed what reporters, editors and readers already believed.

That is one of the hardest things to do as a news consumer,” he told the class of 30 or so students, “to stay open to information that does not conform to your views.” It was one small moment in the course on news literacy, a semester-long lesson on how to be an informed consumer of news, how to navigate with appropriate skepticism the ever more crowded — and confusing — spheres of print, broadcast and Internet journalism. The course is unusual in that it is aimed at all students, not just aspiring journalists.

A simple message here is don’t trust everything you read in the newspaper, but the deeper point is about how our own beliefs can lead us astray. Would the many checklists to evaluating information put out by libraries help students question a source like this? Or do we encourage too much trust of authority when we teach about evaluating information? Even peer-reviewed sources have errors and biases, occasionally they are even outright hoaxes. Perhaps in our desire to slam home the point that “authoritative” library resources are better than the free web we promote a bit too much trust in authority.

One of the ways that our libraries are key partners with subject experts in aiding critical thinking is for librarians to build large and diverse collections and to encourage students to use more than one source and to corroborate sources against each other. This is very simple advice yet I seldom see it recommended outright in the checklists. It’s a tricky balancing act, but in our drumbeat for students to “use authoritative sources” let’s not forget to recommend questioning authority.

Library as Place-With-Books

A member of the ILI-L discussion list pointed out an interesting article in the May issue of Harper’s that I finally got around to reading. It profiles the Prelinger Library, an idiosyncratic personal collection made public that provides its own classification system and allows for unexpected discoveries. (Here’s the non-digital link: “A World in Three Aisles: Browsing the Post-Digital Library” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Harper’s [May 2007]: 47-57.)

In passing, the author criticizes librarians’ devotion to all things technical, especially slamming the “roomy and bookless” SFPL in which “reference librarians, reconciled to their new roles as customer-service technicians in the guise of advanced-degreed ‘information scientists,’ stand behind high oak-paneled counters and field questions about how to use these Internet resources, or more often how to get the printers to work.” Hey, they haven’t ditched the reference desk – that sounds positively old fashioned.

Anyway, the conclusion of the piece raises an issue I’d like to see discussed more by academic librarians.

The executive director of the digital-library initiative at Rice University is quoted as saying that “the library is not so much a space where books are held as where ideas are shared.” This is odd. Most people might suppose, to the contrary, that a library is exactly a space where books are held. There are many, many places on a college campus where ideas are shared: lecture halls, seminar rooms, computer clusters, dorm lounges. The library happens to be the only where ideas are shared precisely because books are held.

So here’s my question: as we pay attention to the “library as place” and try to demolish the “warehouse for books” stereotype of libraries, do we have any evidence that what’s in the library is contributing to the conversations we hope to foster? That is, as the library becomes a better place for students to do a variety of things, are they making better use of the collection itself? How well do collection development, information literacy, and “library as place” work together? What assessments have been made that can establish some causality – a better place means better learning using what libraries have to offer?

Apart, of course, from computers, comfy chairs, and good coffee.

The Only Laptop in the Room (and a Worthwhile Keynote Paper)

I’m not certain what I think it means but … I am attending this conference – The Student as Scholar: Undergraduate Research and Creative Practice – and am the only person I see with a laptop in the sessions. So different than presenting at ACRL and other recent library conferences where the blog posts about my presentations were posted to the web by attendees before I gathered my things up and left the podium. I sometimes wonder if librarians make too much of our willingness to embrace technology and use it to our advantage but then …

In any case, let me use my laptop to your advantage – take a look at the keynote – From Convocation to Capstone: Developing the Student as Scholar. Some interesting ideas and obvious connections to information literacy. I particularly think that academic librarians might benefit from becoming familiar with LEAP: Liberal Education and America’s Promise and especially the report College Learning for the New Global Century.

iWonder

The ETS has renamed its ICT exam to iSkills to make it sound more relevant and hip. At least they didn’t call it iSkillz.

I’m guessing people got tired of explaining the acronym – or correcting people when they assumed the C stood for computer.

But in the rush to be cool, I wonder: Should UDub rename its LIS program iSchool? Should we drape giant white earbuds over our libraries to make them appear more plugged in?

iDoubt it.

Journal of Information Literacy

This morning’s inbox included the delightful news that another open-access information literacy journal has started up and released its first issue. From the email:

Volume 1, Issue 1 is now available from the Information Literacy website: http://www.informationliteracy.org.uk/JIL.aspx

JIL is an international, peer-reviewed, academic journal that aims to investigate Information Literacy (IL) within a wide range of settings. Papers on any topic related to the practical, technological or philosophical issues raised by the attempt to increase information literacy throughout society are encouraged. JIL is published in electronic format only and is an open-access title. The aim of JIL is to investigate and to make generalised observations on how Information Literacy impacts on organisations, systems and the individual. While recognising the firm foothold already established by IL in the Higher Education sector, the editorial board, seeks to consolidate and extend this to a wider educational audience. Furthermore the board welcomes ever-wider interpretations of IL that extend its theoretical interpretation and practical use beyond the educational arena and across national frontiers.

Interestingly, this journal also provides its definition of information literacy and the understanding that skills/competencies in informaiton literacy require(http://www.cilip.org.uk/professionalguidance/informationliteracy/definition/):

Information literacy is knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner.

This definition implies several skills. We believe that the skills (or competencies) that are required to be information literate require an understanding of:

  • a need for information
  • the resources available
  • how to find information
  • the need to evaluate results
  • how to work with or exploit results
  • ethics and responsibility of use
  • how to communicate or share your findings
  • how to manage your findings.
  • Two things that strike me about this. First, perhaps obviously – the different listing of “top level” items than we see in many standards documents in the United States. Second, that this is a list of understandings required for information literacy skills and so I wonder if these understandings are considered to co-develop with skills, be pre-requisite for, or causal of? Good food for thought.

    JIL looks a welcome addition to the information literacy field. Happy reading!

    Lisa Hinchliffe