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Must-read Project Information Literacy Report

If you can make time for reading just one professional report over the holidays, please make it Project Information Literacy’s (PIL’s) latest research report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Find Information in the Digital Age” released on Tuesday, Dec. 1 (42 pages, PDF, 3 MB).

(Note that I didn’t narrow “you” to those of us working in academic settings.)

This report upends most conventional wisdom. First, it shows that students’ information-seeking behavior is at odds with how many libraries provide services; second, that students actually have pragmatic, if overly-formulaic, approaches to research; third, the instructors are the first and most important human relationship these students develop in their research processes; fourth, that students value and use the scholarly resources we provide; and finally (something OCLC has reported in another context), that librarians are at the bottom of all resources students use for their research efforts.

To begin with, students don’t start the research process with Google. They start with course readings — a very pragmatic choice, if you think about it. Which means that faculty members are the very first information-connection for students.

But this finding collides with something we already know from other studies (and from observation, if we’re being honest with ourselves), which is that students rarely if ever consult librarians.

Students do use the scholarly databases we provide, and understand that these resources provide quality information. But when they need help, they don’t turn to the library; often, they turn to faculty. Librarians ranked only above “blogs” among a list of 15 possible information sources used for coursework. (Virtual reference services didn’t fare better.)

I see this as a problem in part about understanding and adapting to student workflow.  Librarians design too many services around a workflow where the student receives an assignment, perceives an information need, and comes to the library for assistance; as well as the just-in-case “first-year” instruction where students are bathed in instruction that is divorced from actual research tasks they need to conduct. But obviously, students aren’t following that workflow, and though they do seem to pick up that databases are valuable, frog-marching them into those inevitable biblio-classes isn’t growing the library luv for them–at least not luv as we envision it (which is part of the problem).

So the question is, why don’t we adapt our practices so that we are working with the “proxies” for library services — the faculty themselves, who create the assignments, interact first and most with students, and are the referrals for the tools we offer?

Actually, at MPOW, we are doing that already, in part. We have a faculty development program where a skilled librarian works directly with faculty, one-on-one and in groups. This program (sometimes called the MacBook program, since as part of it every faculty in this program received a MacBook) is designed to help faculty integrate technology into their curriculum, but it clearly holds promise as an avenue to stronger liaison activities.

Read that report, and heed it. If you’re evaluating “first year” programs by how many students sat through a lecture on Boolean logic, you might want to ponder what the actual outcomes were.

Posted on this day, other years:

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  1. Mita wrote:

    There was a similar survey from Cambridge University that also found that students find the majority of their information sources through reading lists and course notes and another from the British Library/JISC that also pegs librarians as on the low end of the scale of places to go for support.

    I mention it just in case the reader has time for a couple more professional reports…

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  2. Nice good stuff! Thanks. Perhaps good follow-on reading after the presents are wrapped, and the eggnog is… nogged?

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Edward wrote:

    I didn’t read the report, but I’m still amazed the the conventional wisdom would be any different from what this report says. Of course students start with the faculty that create the assignments. Why wouldn’t they?

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  4. Look at library workflows around information literacy; they’re designed around the “other” wisdom!

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 2:40 pm | Permalink
  5. teri wrote:

    But, I felt the paper drew too sharp a line between librarians and library resources, and that “librarian” in this article meant “reference librarian”. Librarians create the websites that guide the students to the databases and catalogs, they design parts of the interfaces and make them more student-friendly. Tech-services librarians are librarians too! It seems the creation of course-specific pathfinders and custom google-searches (that many libraries already use extensively) are a route to “solve” this problem.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Karen, first, thank you so much for being the first one to alert me to this really insightful report, which I read last night. I noticed that your name is listed among the acknowledgements on the last page of the report. I must admit to some curiosity about your role in the project.

    Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink
  7. Stephen, we are one of the participating institutions, and I read an early version of a previous report. I was very gratified by our faculty response rate!

    Thursday, December 3, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  8. thewikiman wrote:

    This really interesting, and from a brief glance through I can really see what Teri is saying in comment 5.

    Just in case any of you haven’t seen it, the report linked to from here: – Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future – is almost two years old now but acts as a useful companion piece to this one.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 5:11 am | Permalink
  9. Rewarding faculty with MacBooks is brilliant! Excellent use of funds and likely to pay off in many other ways besides library usage.

    Friday, December 4, 2009 at 3:34 pm | Permalink
  10. Senga White wrote:

    I have read the abstract and introduction to this report and have tagged to read fully when the school term is over. I’m a secondary school library manager in New Zealand and am currently working on a course designed for my Year 13 students planning on tertiary study. Therefore this study is of particular interest to me. So, here’s my question to tertiary librarians: what would you like those of us working in a secondary school setting do to prepare these first year university students for? I want to make my programme as relevant as possible. Would love some feedback!

    Monday, December 7, 2009 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  11. Mary B. wrote:

    Interesting…I just finished a 10-Week intern stint as an adult reference librarian in a public library. During that time I helped 2 local college students write papers and access scholarly journal articles. I actually “frogmarched” one student to her own databases and dialed her school’s librarian, handing her the phone – thereby forcing her to talk to him. There might have been an intimidation factor going on there – cerebral academic librarian vs. friendly ol’ public librarian. Maybe you-all should consider assuming a blue-permed wig and spectacles with gold chain peeper-keepers. And don’t forget to say “Shhhhh!!!” once in a while. ;)

    Monday, December 7, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink
  12. That’s it! And the long sweater with the hanky in the sleeve. :-)

    Monday, December 7, 2009 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  13. Hi Karen – thanks for the pointer to this report … at Mohawk, we’ve been focusing more and more on faculty – you are right they are totally the key. Why not work with them to use library resources when they develop those reading lists that students to to first? We are dismayed when we see printed “courseware” full of articles that are available in our online databases. If you want students to use resources in your library and not just hang out (not that we’re not happy to have them do that) you gotta make sure your faculty expect their students to do so.

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  14. Hi Again – blame lack of coffee on the incoherence of my last post – I realize that I may not have been clear … what dismays us is the discovery of courseware sourced without the library’s help or use of our resources, printed and sold in the bookstore, that could be a page of links to articles found in our databases. We’ve seen 80 page printed courseware packages that could be 1 page of links. It happens too often and we’re working really hard on outreach to get the library more embedded in faculty course and assignment development processes.

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  15. That’s an excellent point that would tie in well with a POW’s emphasis on social justice (ergo environmental justice) as well as a general cost-saving measure. I’m not sure this happens at MPOW but it is something to watch out for.

    Thank PiL for their work in underscoring that faculty are key. :-)

    Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  16. Sue Kendall wrote:

    Ist: Welcome back to California! 2nd: This report is really challenging how I was approaching library instruction / my Libguides, etc. Also making me rethink how we have presented federated searching. The report has a lot to offer and digest. I was wondering if Allison Head, et al are going to have the survey open to other academic libraries?

    Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. uberVU - social comments on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by infopeep: Schneider, Karen G: Must-read Project Information Literacy Report

  2. [...] Schneider’s blog post, “Must-Read Project Information Literacy Report,” alerted me yesterday to what appears to be a really great document, “Lessons Learned: How [...]

  3. Librarian Fail; Again « The Infomavens' Desktop on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    [...] entitled, “Lessons Learned: How Students Find Information in the Digital Age” and the Free Range Librarian blog has some interesting things to say on it, namely, what many of us are painfully aware of, [...]

  4. [...] Karen Schneider kalder det en must-read undersøgelse og opfordrer alle til at læse den i den kommende ferietid. Hun skriver den glimrende blog Free Range Librarian. SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: "2.318 studerendes informationssøgning", url: "" }); [...]

  5. New Report from Project Information Literacy « on Tuesday, December 8, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    [...] Report from Project Information Literacy Thanks to K. Schneider at Free Range Librarian for the heads-up about this new report on the information seeking behaviour of college students.  [...]

  6. [...] [8] Headm A., Eisenberg, M (2009) How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age. Available in PDF format via – originally brought to my attention by a blog post from Free Range Librarian.  [...]

  7. [...] Thanks , K.G. Schneider, (author of the excellent Free Range Librarian blog) for pointing this study out. [...]

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