Information Literati

I’ve been thinking a lot about information literacy at late: One of my responsibilities at my new job is to give information literacy workshops to students come the new school year, and while I took the Information Literacy course during school, I’m still utterly terrified. That’s normal, right?

Information LiteracyA resource I came across recently is a report from two researchers at the University of Washington, who are doing a comprehensive study of university students’ information seeking behaviours when attempting to undertake research for coursework. The authors published their preliminary findings in a report called, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Students Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age” and they’ve done a great job of generalizing the challenges students face when they go about writing their papers for school.

They note that a difficulty facing students is the synthesizing and delineation of a topic, and figuring out how it might best fit into their coursework. Students lamented about the need for greater context, and – as topics become increasingly focused and specific – the ability to understand and interpret the discourse and terminology surrounding a given discipline (I totally remember this feeling from undergra- ok, ok, ok. Grad school.).

Librarians have a role in creating a context for this language, making sense of the information resources for befuddled students, and helping to create a sort of “knowledge map” that makes new information more context-rich. Students see librarians as “navigational sources” used for making sense of complex library systems and resources, and as “information coaches” who they use for refining their research question, or helping to locate sources.

Interestingly, many students considered formal library instruction to be of little value because it’s so difficult to recall that information when it comes time to do research. They also expressed a need to have the information they need now, and when they can’t get a quick response to their questions, they change course – usually to the Internet.

I hope to integrate these findings into my own info-lit work in the upcoming academic year; with a focus on customized, context-specific workshops that ease students’ research anxiety and ensure them that we can make sense of their essay topics one-on-one. Through some rockin’ take-away’s, and in tandem with web-based instructional videos or audio how-to’s, I hope to meet students’ reference and research needs and save them the pain of Googling their topic a million times, to no avail.

One of the TRY Conference sessions I attended also got me thinking about information literacy in academic libraries. Presented by Joanna Szurmak from the University of Toronto @ Mississauga, the session was called, “The Adventure of Building Engagement through Embedded IL” and discussed the opportunities and challenges presented by working in tandem with a professor to integrate information literacy directly into the classroom. To assess the success of this project, Joanna used a standardized test call SAILS, the Standardized Assessment of Information Literacy Skills. SAILS is a knowledge test with multiple-choice questions targeting a variety of information literacy skills. The test items are based on the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards or Higher Education, and allowed Joanna to codify and compare the statistical rates of information literacy success among her students.

Assessment is particularly salient in these lean economic times; during the TRY Conference roundtable discussion, Cynthia Archer (University librarian at York University) described libraries as “climates of assessment” – and certainly information literacy work is no exception. Products like SAILS help us to understand what, exactly, students have learned from our work with them, and provide a compass for future directions in information literacy. They’re also a great advocacy tool to present to stakeholders who don’t necessary understand (or… appreciate?) the services librarians provide to the broader academic community.

So: Lots to think about in the area of information literacy. There’s still the real potential that I’ll end up tripping on a computer cord and spilling coffee all over the professor’s laptop, but at least the content of my info-lit workshops will be solid.

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2 responses to “Information Literati

  1. A thoughtful post on a vital topic for librarians. I wonder if one way to position IL* to clients is to focus on process; moving from “I’m confused and lost!” to “I know enough to get moving on this topic.” The first level could be reference works and then go deeper as needed. Getting faculty support for IL might also help with attention (maybe give a small bonus mark for participating in an IL session or make IL an element of one assignment?).

    * I wonder if “information literacy” is a good way to make this label this when we are facing the client. Stephen Abram observed in his presentation at the Web 2.You conference that this term forces people to admit they don’t know something and that is a difficult place to start from. Implying that university students are illiterate in this set of skills pose an engagement problem.

    • Hi Bruce,
      One interesting observation for the report I mentioned is that students – basically – find IL kinda, sorta, not really helpful. The one-off workshops I will provide to students will probably do little more than familiarize themselves with the first few webpages of the library’s catalogue, and give them links to our research guides.
      I think it’s important to compliment these seminars with rich, customized, multimedia digital spaces for students, that are themselves IL tools – As Cynthia Archer said in the TRY Roundtable, “Anytime, anywhere”… or something like that. It goes for IL too.