Fortunately that time of the year isn’t here yet, but I’m still thinking already about teaching of all kinds in the fall, including library instruction. Though there are busy times, even busy seasons, when I coast on my experience and skills, I try to be a reflective instructor when I can. A conversation with a friend the other day centered around library instruction. We were arguing about (discussing?) a couple of different schools of instruction, which I might call Kitchen Sink and Minimalist.
The names both explain themselves and hint at my own preferences. The Kitchen Sink approach wants to turn students into little librarians, though the Kitchen Sinkers would say “independent scholars.” As a long term goal I have some sympathy to this approach. Within certain parameters, we should want students to become independent scholars, or maybe independent “scholars.” The problem comes in the practice, and in the definition of scholar.
For example, I have seen good librarians spend 45–50 minutes explaining the intricacies of the OPAC to freshman in a composition course preparing to research a 10-page essay. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read a 10-page research essay by a freshman, but I can tell you from experience there’s just not that much an essay like that can cover. To do the research for an essay like that, freshman don’t need to know every nuance of the OPAC, or even every nuance of searching. Spending that much time on any one activity is a mistake, but I’ve seen it happen over and over.
Just at the technical level, I’ve seen the similar activities with online indexes and databases. Some librarians go through several in a session, as if there was any great difference in technique among them. For the purposes of search, a database is a database is a database.
The Kitchen Sinkers approach more theoretical applications in the same way. They want every student to come out of every one-shot with a mastery of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. I guess the thinking is, I’ve only got this one hour, I’m going to make it count!
Needless to say, I’m not a Kitchen Sinker; I’m a Minimalist. A former colleague (who hated most things about me professionally and personally, I should note) said that I should go into a BI, hand out my business card to students, and suggest they take notes on that. She meant this as a rebuke, no doubt, but it was an accurate enough description of my library instruction then and now. There’s only so much one can do in an hour (or 80 minutes, which is our typical freshman instruction session length). Even with 80 minutes, I might spend only half an hour on formal demonstration. The rest of the class I let the students start researching and I wander around consulting.
And in that half hour, I still try to minimize what I do. I certainly don’t cover every nuance of the OPAC, and typically I might demo one other database. Instead I emphasize what I call the geography of information. If you want this kind of thing, you look in this kind of place. It’s all abstract, but similar to some reference training. After all, if I know there’s such a thing as an historical atlas, I know all I really need to know about that topic to answer reference questions.
Search technique is easily enough dispensed with. I usually mention five things to do with a database:
- Search by Keyword
- Search by Subject
- Limit by date, language, etc.
- Mark the records you want to save
- Email citations/articles to yourself
How much more do students need to get started? I also discuss approaches summarized from Thomas Mann’s Library Research Methods:
- Keyword searches in online and print sources.
- Subject searches in online and print sources.
- Citation searches in printed sources.
- Searches through published bibliographies (including sets of footnotes in relevant subject documents).
- Searches through people sources (whether by verbal contact, e-mail, electronic bulletin board, letters, etc.).
- Systematic browsing, especially of full-text sources arranged in predictable subject groupings.
Again, if students master the basic theory, do they need to be completely “information literate”?
There are a couple of possible objections to my approach. First, one might say I really am trying to get the students to be little librarians. Thomas Mann? He’s the reference librarian’s reference librarian! There’s some truth to that. But what I give students in a very brief time are guidelines. I don’t attempt to reinforce them all with extensive searching in a joint demonstration. Another possible criticism is that the students don’t leave with much. It’s true. They don’t. And they don’t leave with much in other classes, either. That’s because there’s only so much students can absorb in one class. They leave with enough to get started, to solve some problems, and to build from there.
The Kitchen Sinkers are motivated (I suspect) by the crisis of time. Unlike professors in a class, librarians don’t have much time with students. (I suppose there are those semester long information literacy courses, but those aren’t very common, which might not be a bad thing.) One doesn’t learn how to research quickly or abstractly, though. It takes not only time, but practice. This is the difficulty we all face. We can try to pack everything into one session, thus ensuring not only that the students won’t learn much but that they’ll be bored in the process. Or we can hint at the complexities of research in the class and get them started, with the hope that if they need more skills later on they’ll develop them through practice. Maybe we’ll be there; maybe we won’t. But there’s nothing we can do about it in a one shot class.
Research skills are learned over time with practice, even for librarians. Would we consider a new graduate student equal to a senior professor in research knowledge in a field? No. Nor would we consider a new library school graduate equal to a very experienced reference librarian, especially one who had also done her own research.
The good news is that most students will never need to be little librarians, or even big professors. Most students will need the sort of minimal research skills necessary to navigate their way through life, which outside academia rarely requires long research projects. Most students won’t ever be real scholars, nor do they need to be. The bad news is that in a lot of schools, there’s no guarantee that as the students progress, the librarian’s help will be consistently offered or sought when needed.