Sunday, September 21, 2008

Books were easier (in terms of information literacy)

Exhibit 1: The microfilm reader.

So, I consider myself a realist when it comes to the ease and efficiency of technology's role in locating information. Then again, I find myself in the classroom with the group of digital natives who perhaps didn't grow up with books or access to a good library. They have little history with print, and so they don't know to demand content that is edited and fact-checked. They arrive at college supremely confident in their ability to find information quickly online, and it comes as an unwelcome shock to hear that they really should think critically about the 'information' they find there.

How much easier my job would have been with books! Instead I drone on about how to find articles in library databases, and how and why those articles are probably going to make their instructors happier than the ones they find on wikipedia. The word 'journal' means very little without a paper precedent to point to, and why should they use these 'journal' things when it's easier and faster to find an article online that's just brimming with truthiness?

I think information literacy is going to be an ever-expanding responsibility for librarians in the coming years. I'm glad to say my library seems really attuned to this, and I'm proud to be on the front lines as a Reference and Instruction Librarian. The glaring challenge, of course, is how in the world to reach these students.


  1. From yesterday's New York Times article "Technology Doesn’t Dumb Us Down. It Frees Our Minds" by Damon Darlin:

    "In a knowledge-based society in which knowledge is free, attention becomes the valued commodity."

    --> Information may be free, but information is not the same as knowledge. We still have to process and understand the information we find in order to turn it into knowledge, so technology hasn't completely rescued us from the "time-wasting activities associated with finding information."

  2. They arrive at college supremely confident in their ability to find information quickly online, and it comes as an unwelcome shock to hear that they really should think critically about the 'information' they find there.

    Is the information we find in journals really that much better? Sure, journals are peer-reviewed, but it's impossible to check the results of everything (maybe even of *anything*) that you read. Yes, journals and the authors that publish there build up a sort of authority over time, but the "peer review" that something like wikipedia is exposed to has the potential to be more powerful. So many pairs of eyes scrutinizing the same document. And the information is available so fast!

    In any case, I think the best answer will be a blend of the technologies. More journals are going open-access, and there are blogs/online communities that are springing up that review these open-access journals regularly. Maybe students will come to accept journals as peer-review publications that appear online.

    (ok, hope I didn't stray too far off-topic there.. I was sort of brainstorming)...

  3. I agree about the blend of technologies being the best answer, and yes it's true that a lot of scholarly information is available on the open web, but the ability to process the information critically is what I'm worried web page looks essentially like the next, yet there ARE still differences in the quality of information found online. And despite all this wisdom-of-the-crowds stuff, I still think one knowledgeable expert is better than a bunch of idiots (-: And generally the knowledgeable experts are making a living at what they do, unlike wikipedia contributors. (Obviously this is not to say that only non-experts and/or idiots contribute to wikipedia, but you get my point).

  4. I just watched a wonderful video, available on YouTube & created by Bob Baker at Pima Community College, all about evaluating information resources.

  5. Even if a wiki is written by a bunch of idiots, one expert can usually flag material as questionable or lacking citation (tho this is not an infallible system). It would be interesting to see a study of factual errors that are found on wikipedia (rates of error generation and correction). I recently introduced a tiny ambiguous factual error into the wikipedia page on standing rib roasts (no joke) and it was corrected within an hour and a half. In my own experience, wikipedia has almost always had accurate technical information -- the problem is usually more that it's poorly presented and hard to understand. Maybe that poor presentation is related to making the information harder to process?

    Great video link -- I like how a lot of the evaluation tips he describes can be applied to either web or print resources.

  6. Olivia,

    Thanks for the great post. I've been arguing with (they might say pestering!) my friends for a while now that information literacy and the ability to evaluate and think critically about the sources of information is such an essential and basic skill for not only students, but for our democracy as a whole. A lack of such skills are what I point to as a big reason for the sorry state of our politics and mass media.

    I'm starting to explore ways to make the sale (to the students) that embracing info eval is not only essential to academic success, but that in many ways it's an essential duty of any citizen to learn about and master. What I don't know yet is how to make this argument. Anyone have any ideas?