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Project Info Lit and the “Ginormous” Problem

 

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Mastodon (via Wikipedia)

Project Information Literacy has once again dug deep into information behavior, turning some of our assumptions upside down while showing that others have grains of common-sense truth. (Full disclosure: I’m on the PIL Board; my compensation is the ability to say “I’m on the PIL Board.”)

As a librarian, my default approach is that more is always better: more books, more metadata, more databases.  In my doctoral studies, more, for me, is wonderful, and I’m unfazed, indeed delighted, by the sheer width of the river of information I’m fording. Navigating all that stuff is the least of my problems. In fact, looking back at the doctoral program orientation, I recall turning up my nose at a handout listing a few useful but rather obvious databases, because, for heaven’s sake, I know that stuff.

But PIL’s latest study, “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College,” underscores that more, from the perspective of an incoming freshman, is a complex, scary, and not necessarily good thing. The report notes, “In their words, the college library had a collection that was ‘ginormous’ and there was ‘a ton of stuff,’ including both online and on-site resources.”

The sheer scale of the difference between high school and college is illuminated through students’ own words: “the majority of freshmen used dichotomous pairs of words to describe their  feelings: overwhelming and exciting, overwhelming and amazing, scary and exciting, and  stressful and competitive.”

What can we do better during this critical period? It caught mey attention that “Freshmen said they found campus librarians (29%) and their English composition instructors (29%) were the most helpful individuals on campus with guiding them through college-level research.” We know from earlier PIL studies, quoted in this report, that later in the university experience, librarians rank 17 out of 18 among resources students will turn to for help.  Somewhere in that transition is a lost opportunity.

I particularly admire how the study confirms the “ginormous” problem by comparing the limited array of resources available to high school students to the resources available in universities. Barbara Fister notes that we “already know” that the college experience is much more complex, but we tend to “forget” this fact.

Without data, this exponential increase in complexity is only a truism; but PIL’s research confirms this as an actual problem. A high school library may have a couple of databases; where I work, we trumpet that we have over sixty, and if we were a fancy school, you could multiply that five-fold. Even if high school students wanted to ramp up to college-level work, they don’t have the tools to do so. Furthermore, they have no awareness of the scale of college-level information resources.

It had never occurred to me that when we crow about the bazillion resources we offer, we might be scaring the pants off students, and yet, without any context for all this new stuff, how could it not? This may be even more true in California, where there is no mandate for school libraries in public schools, and funding for school libraries is abysmal.

By the time students get to college, the report notes, students have been strongly acculturated to relying on Google and other non-scholarly resources, a process that they may associate with success — because, after all, they made it to  college. But as we know from instruction and other interactions with students and as this report makes clear, freshmen are ill-equipped to formulate search queries or evaluate information — a situation only exacerbated by rolling out barrels of “stuff” and heralding this as exclusively a good thing.

The report’s chart comparing the resources students have in high school versus college nails this sobering reality and gives us a concrete reminder that those students are complex human beings undergoing a huge, jolting life transformation — one that a one-shot instruction session can only begin to address.

The report also made me reflect on the importance of convincing faculty of the value of information literacy. Students interact with instructors far more than they ever will with librarians, a level of influence we cannot hope to match.

Like most libraries, where I work we are not uniformly successful in persuading instructors of the value of our services. I once tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a particular professor of the value of having a librarian come to his class to share how to find and use information for the assignments (I know, crazy concept, right?). After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the professor said, as if to prove his point that such a session would be useless, “Look, I bring them to the computer classroom and tell them to search for an hour, and at the end of that hour they aren’t any better at searching!” Yet I wasn’t able to convince him to once, just once, embed a librarian’s session in his class to help his students become “better.” Perhaps this report can be a pathway to a new conversation.

There are excellent recommendations in this report, and each one struck a bell. The first recommendation talks about building bridges between high school and college experiences. Our university has an “early admit” program which helps prepare students for the higher-education experience. A couple of years ago, when the program was getting started, I suggested we embed librarians in that process. I’m going to reopen that suggestion–this time, armed with a report that helps me make this case–and see if I can get some traction.

The second recommendation boils down to Patti Ianuzzi’s advice: don’t teach the databases; teach transferable skills. Of course, that means focusing on how librarians teach. Like many library directors in universities where the focus is on student learning, I care deeply about information literacy, and 100% of our instructional librarians have attended the very high-quality “teach the teacher” program, ACRL Immersion (yes, that means all two of them–but still!).

Immersion is not the only path to enhancing instructional skills, but it’s an important one. I’d dearly like to see a regional Immersion in California, and I know a couple more administrators who feel the same way. I’ve tried through a couple of avenues that didn’t quite pan out, but I haven’t given up on the idea; I’ll just keep beating on this problem with a stick. Let me know if you’d like to pick up a stick and join me.

The final recommendations in the report call on us to “reframe … expectations of today’s freshmen.” Thank you, PIL! I wish I had a nickel for every time the phrase “digital native” cropped up in promotional material for universities. You don’t hear librarians using that phrase because we understand how ridiculous it is. Refreshingly, PIL’s report strongly discourages this mindset — “It is incorrect to assume that because most of today’s freshmen grew up with a thriving Internet at their fingertips, they are naturals at college-level research” — and recommends bringing more comprehensive research instruction across the curriculum, asking,”Why not integrate advising and training into the course from librarians?”

Many of us see this as a goal, and we chip away at it, but the assumption that college students do not need early and persistent guidance in the use of information, coupled with a lack of understanding of the value librarians bring to that equation, lies sotto voce under too many practices in higher education.

One of the things I appreciate about working in a teaching university is that, paradoxically enough, the fact that we are not a research institution makes teaching research skills more important; we’ve made inroads with information literacy that might not have been possible in a university where student learning — the presumed end-goal of higher education — was lost in the shuffle.  I just passed my four-year anniversary at my job, and as I watch the renaissance of the library and the impact we have on student learning, I am increasingly convinced that all roads lead to information literacy. If I can’t map a service to student learning, we might as well not be doing it.

At the same time, all of us can do more, particularly with finding methods for embedding librarians in students’ research workflows.  A parishioner said in church this Sunday, “We are very good at being welcoming, but we are not so good at being inviting.” Similarly, for many libraries, the model of support is based on actively reaching out to faculty members through a liaison model for instruction, but research help (aka reference) — the more informal relationship outside of the classroom — frequently has a more passive design.

Even where libraries do everything they can to build relations with the campus community, when it comes to diagnosis and treatment for information “problems” — the hallmark of a profession, so saith Andrew Abbott in The System of Professions — by and large, librarians wait to be approached by students. Yet PIL’s data on the disconnect between librarians and students during the course of a four-year education suggests this model isn’t working for us.

The director of our university’s new, and highly successful, advising center recently spoke to our faculty senate about the relationships they had built and planned to build. The library was on their “to-do” list, which pleased me. As the director talked, I reflected that the center’s existing relationships are based on a model of diagnosis and identification: for example, math and writing problems are referred to math and writing tutors.

After the presentation, I approached the director and commented that the library could come up with methods for clarifying when and how to make a referral to a librarian (an “information tutor”). This idea was well-received, and I brought it up on the ACRL College Library Section email list, where it had more discussion. This is just one small example of how librarians can rethink how we reach out to students grappling with all the challenges the college experience introduces, “ginormous” and otherwise. And we have PIL to thank for providing us robust data and head-turning insights to help us get there.

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