I’ve been wanting to respond to a well argued postat Sense and Reference that was sort of a response to a post I wrote in response to another post there. Unfortunately, between the teaching and working on the book and my day job, time for blogging seems to evaporate. I”m not sure if this is a response exactly. It’s more a post inspired by a response I might have made if I were more focused at the moment. I’d said something about the librarian’s role in information literacy, implying that I thought they had a relatively small direct role, and I was criticized for that. My response here will be brief, but I’m hoping to outline a few thoughts. Do librarians play a role in information literacy? I absolutely think they do. Do they play a large direct role? I’m not so sure.
First, let’s refresh ourselves about what information literacy is. The phrase has developed various meanings over the past couple of decades, but I’ll go with the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards, since those are widely used. The document is explicit that information literacy is the responsibility of librarians and faculty. The standards are also both broad and deep. I’ll list the basic standards in case you don’t have them all memorized:
- The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
- The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
- The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
- The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
- The information literate student understands many of the economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses and uses information ethically and legally.
Standards 1 and 2 are, in my opinion, the ones that librarians would typically have the most direct effect on, though often in relatively limited circumstances. Many of us in academic libraries routinely teach students how to find the kind of information they need for research, and give them suggestions on how to evaluate it which they may or may not apply.
I’m not sure who besides the student could be responsible for Standard 3, and I have no idea how that would be assessed in any broad way. What’s clear from the research I’ve read about is that most people have trouble incorporating new information into their knowledge base and value system, especially if it conflicts with values they already hold. But a rigorous liberal education should help people get past that barrier. Regardless, Standard 3 is really quite expansive, and unless they’re actually teaching an information literacy class (or a writing class, where I’ve worked on this with students), librarians typically aren’t working with students to evaluate information in any depth or look at sources critically. This requires that both the librarian and the student have read the work. I could be mistaken, though. How many librarians out there discuss any books or articles in depth with students and help them evaluate them critically? Pointing out how to tell primary from secondary sources or scholarly from popular articles is one thing, or doing a quick website evaluation to show that some website is biased or unauthoritative, but those are relatively superficial compared to reading and discussing works with students, and it’s the reading and discussion that teaches students how to evaluate well and signals whether something has been comprehended, much less evaluated. I’ll grant it can happen, and just last week I helped a student working on an essay by discussing the course reading with him and helping him generate ideas, but that’s unusual.
Standard 4 is also goes beyond the level of student involvement that most librarians have. Accomplishing a specific purpose can be interpreted many ways, but the specific purpose of most students I see is writing a research essay of some kind. I help them find sources, discuss the different kinds of sources their are and what they could do for an essay, but I don’t work with them in the way that instructors would, and I’m usually not in a position to know if they’ve accomplished their task well. When I teach writing, I do work with students to help them write research essays, which often involves seeing how students use their sources in their writing and teaching them how to use the sources more appropriately. That’s work I could do as a librarian, but it’s not work I normally do. Librarians who teach courses that have research components have that sort of direct role, but other than that how many do? In addition, the Standard implies that this can be done repeatedly, for any project. Given the relatively limited time most librarians have directly with students, how much would our direct teaching enable students to reach that point without significantly more guidance than we typically give?
Standard 5 is a complete washout, because no one but librarians and publishers seems to care much how information is acquired as long as it’s easily acquired. I’ve written before arguing that the legal and economic barriers to scholarly information are incompatible with scholarly values. For example, if scholars want access to articles their library can’t get for some reason, they’ll go through informal and technically illegal channels to get those articles. Standard 5 says the information literate person uses information ethically and legally, but I think there are cases where scholarly ethics and copyright law conflict. The very willingness of otherwise ethical scholars to defy certain copyright laws supports my point. Though I wouldn’t advocate piracy of copyrighted information to anyone, this standard contains more than just “literacy.” It’s an ethical injunction as much as anything, and for the other standards to be met, sometimes it might be necessary to acquire something illegally. Finding information and incorporating it into your worldview to accomplish a task isn’t the same as using the information legally.
Information literacy as conceived by the ACRL standards is very broad, and covers in its entirety the sort of critical thinking and higher order cognitive skills we would expect to be developed over years of higher education. Standards 3 and 4 especially call for those skills. Let’s say that a student who has completed a traditional college degree has managed to acquire those skills, and is in fact information literate in the broad sense. It’s not just that they know a bit more about research or can complete a specific task, but they’re informationally fully formed. How did they get that way? They got this way by studying, writing, researching, and being guided by professors and librarians numerous times. They took class after class, developed some minimal knowledge of a field of study, and produced work that was judged and commented upon for years.
And what direct effect did librarians teaching information literacy have on that? Over four years of college, how much time does the typical student spend with a librarian? Answering this would, I think, give us some idea. The answer would have to vary by institution, I know, but I’m aiming for a ball park figure. And for the purposes here, I want to exclude those schools that have a formal information literacy class of several weeks taught by librarians. I could still work them into my argument, but that practice is
far from universal. I can answer it easily for myself. I went through college getting very good grades, doing good work, and becoming as information literate as my peers, and I received absolutely no research instruction from a librarian. I never took a class with bibliographic instruction, and never asked a reference librarian for help. Granted, I had spent a lot of time in libraries over the years, but I probably hadn’t had any instruction in how to use one to find information since I was in grade school. Once you know how to use a library catalog, the rest you can develop on your own. I suspect my experience isn’t that atypical. There are probably lots of students who either never talk to a librarian, or never talk to one after their freshman writing class. However, even assuming that students see their librarians, how much time? Two hours a year? Maybe they have one instruction session and one consultation. Does two hours a year seem too small for an average? Four hours a year?
I’m talking about most students. There will always be a few library travelers, who not only spend a lot of time in the library, but who frequently ask questions of the librarians. I’d be very surprised if even the heavily dependent students spent more than a few hours a year with librarians, though. However, it could just be that my experience is limited, and that your library has students who receive direct information literacy related help on a weekly basis for years at a time. One could make the argument that the more dependent upon librarian help one is, the less information literate one is. This could also differ by discipline, because while humanists are heavy library users, they tend not to seek as much direct help from librarians as students in other fields might. My argument might be blinded by the disciplines I work in.
But for most students, how much time? For the sake of argument, let’s say three hours per year, which I suspect is excessive. That’s twelve hours over the course of a four year degree. How many hours is the average college class? That varies a lot by university as well, depending on quarter systems and other factors. A lot of places have fifteen week semesters, where the students meet for 2.5 hours per week. That’s 37.5 hours. And let’s say over the course of four years, students take 28 classes, four per semester. That gives our average student 1050 hours in the classroom. If these figures are reasonable, our average student has interacted with librarians approximately 1.1% as often as she has interacted with faculty in the classroom. Those figures don’t count the time the student has spent working on their papers and projects, and the students don’t really become educated without that work. One study I read about suggested that college students now study about fourteen hours a week. That might be smaller than in the past, but it’s still 1,680 hours over four years. That puts the time with librarians delivering some sort of information literacy instruction at about 4/10s of 1% of the time students spend learning in college. Even if our number of hours assumed for time with librarians or librarian prepared guides were doubled or trebled, it’s still a very small part, and rarely would librarians have been able to go too far towards directly helping students acquire the higher order critical thinking skills necessary to be information literate.
A given librarian might spend hours every week teaching people how to be more information literate, but that doesn’t mean that any students spend hours a week with librarians learning from them. The time spent with librarians compared to time spent in class and studying is always going to be small, and because of that it seems pretentious to think that librarians direct effect on information literacy teaching is going to be significant, especially if we think of information literacy as a higher order ability in the sense that Standard 3 and 4 imply. It’s not just a question of whether students can meet these standards for a given project, but repeatedly over the course of a lifetime. How could it be otherwise? I would ask even librarians. When you were in school, did a significant amount of your education come directly from librarians?
However, this doesn’t mean that libraries and librarians aren’t essential to a good liberal education and to helping students become information literate. Using the library and directly using librarians isn’t the same thing. I know students who are heavy library users who rarely talk to librarians. I was one of those myself. They’re using the collections the library provides, the interfaces and access tools librarians create, the study spaces the library builds. Information literacy instruction itself can be very indirect, but effective. Students might never read the bits of a research guide about how to find or evaluate information, but just going to one repeatedly they can get a sense of where you might go to find articles on a given topic.
One could also argue that the effect of teaching some information literacy skills is disproportional to the time spent teaching them. Students might spend only four hours with a librarian in four years, but those four hours lay some groundwork for what the students will eventually learn. Done right and timed well, even minimal amounts of research instruction can give students a good foundation to build upon. That’s what I happen to believe my own effect to be on any given student. What I do matters, is useful and helpful and essential for many students, but I don’t kid myself that my direct role as a teaching librarian has an overwhelming impact on students learning to become information literate. I give them a shove in the right direction, but the learning is mostly done elsewhere. Putting this into perspective, I also don’t think a given professor teaching semester-long courses has a huge effect on the overall education of most students.
If we conceive of information literacy narrowly and focused on one project, which seems to be the way its often assessed, then librarian instruction might have a strong direct effect on information literacy attainment. But if we consider information literacy broadly and deeply, the overall impact of librarians directly teaching information literacy skills is relatively small at most universities. Learning to become information literate in the broadest sense is little different from liberal education without the subject matter (as a commenter mentioned on my last blog post). It’s a cumulative effect of the efforts of many people directly and indirectly influencing the lives of students, and the students themselves working and practicing those skills. Librarians play an important direct role, and an extensive indirect role, and we seem to be the primary professionals discussing or evaluating information literacy, but our role is still limited.