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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.

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