Part 2 in P2P Review: an Elaboration

Today the Library Journal published the follow up to my previous column about information literacy as an unnatural state: Education is no Salvation. In that one I’m trying to explore the motivated reasoning and cognitive bias literature a little more with the goal of showing what we’re up against when educating people to be “information literate.” Definitely still a work in progress.

The question I’m now asking myself is why. What difference does it make if we’re more aware of cognitive bias, motivated reasoning, and all the tricks the mind plays? For the most part I’m content with Aristotle’s maxim that humans by nature desire to know, but librarians tend to be a practical breed, and the question I’ve often gotten when doing anything theoretical is what difference it will make in practice. Right now, I don’t know, but every practice is based on some theoretical construct, usually one we apply unawares.

In providing some context to the last column, I used the phrase “scholarly habitude” to describe what I think is one of the aims of higher education, at least in the traditional arts and sciences. It’s not a list of things we can do, but a state of being, a frame of mind, something along those lines. In some ways I’m going back to Aristotle and the notion of virtue ethics. Scholarly habitude captures better than “information literacy” the sense that being a scholar or academic researcher isn’t just about having a set of rules to follow. It’s also about being a certain kind of person: intellectually curious, skeptical, requiring evidence for at least some beliefs, etc. These traits aren’t necessarily abundant in people.

I’m thinking about this mostly in terms of teaching undergraduates how to research and write scholarly essays, which most of them are expected to do at some point. An example of one approach I mentioned in today’s column: the student who has something to say and wants some scholarly sources to support it. The exact opposite way that people should approach research, but the way that is the most natural and in accord with how the human mind seems to work. We make snap judgments and then try to justify them. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking Fast and Slow, our “System 1” comes to a conclusion very quickly, while our slower and more thorough “System 2” is usually happy just to accommodate System 1 without further prodding because it’s also lazy. As Michael Shermer puts it in Why People Believe Weird Things, “smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

The wrong way to approach research on an unfamiliar topic is to have an opinion and then look for sources to justify it. The right way is to look for evidence and follow the evidence where it leads. There’s an academic analogy for this, but I’m not sure how far I want to pursue it. It’s similar to the distinction between theology and religious studies. I don’t want to say theology isn’t scholarly, just that it’s not really in accord with current information literacy standards in some ways. Theology can be defined as faith seeking understanding, meaning the theologian believes something to be true and then seeks to understand and justify that belief. Although I’ll leave open the possibility that some people do, in general people don’t hold religious beliefs for rational reasons based on evidence that could withstand public scrutiny. That’s why most religious people tend to practice the religion they grew up with and few convert to a different religion. Children growing up in a religion didn’t rationally choose to follow that religion, although later on many of them seek to understand their faith in a rational way. Hence, theology.

Religious studies, on the other hand, takes a different approach. We can use the insider/outsider distinction. Theologians study a religion from the inside, while scholars of religion often come at religions from the outside, trying to understand those religions without necessarily practicing them. They approach the available evidence and try to make sense of practices that might seem bizarre to outsiders, and to outsiders all religions have their bizarre practices. Understanding a religion as an outsider partly means explaining why strange practices don’t just exist because they’re practiced by crazy people. “They eat the body and drink the blood of who again?” “What kind of loving god would forbid bacon!?” “Your religion says I can’t publish a picture of this guy? WTF?” I’ve noticed lots of people like to make fun of Scientology without considering what they’re own religion looks like to people who don’t practice it.

Or a slightly different analogy, a bit broader. The traditional foil of theology is philosophy, and during the European Middle Ages philosophy was considered the handmaiden of theology, at least by the Catholic Church, and they were the intellectual standard that mattered. During the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophy broadly conceived came into its own again, and philosophy became the queen of the sciences. Every study that wasn’t motivated by religion could be considered philosophy, and indeed what we now call natural science was called natural philosophy in the 18th century. That’s why we now have PhDs, doctorates of philosophy, for disciplines that we don’t consider to be philosophy by contemporary standards, because they’re all involved in the same Enlightenment driven enterprise: to discover and disseminate knowledge about the world. The way to do that is approach the world with as few preconceptions as possible and see what you find. That approach explains why we (or perhaps “we”) no longer believe that demons cause epilepsy or the earth is the center of the universe. Academics follow the evidence, unless they’re economists or philosophers, because those people just make stuff up.

If we use theology/ philosophy analogy, what we’re trying to do when we try to teach students about academic research is move them from a theological mindset to a philosophical one, where the preconceptions, uninformed beliefs, and cognitive biases don’t motivate all of their reasoning. Writing what they know isn’t a good idea, because they don’t know very much, their experience of the world is limited, and their experience of scholarship even more so. Those preconceptions and biases instead should become objects of investigation themselves. That boundary has to be crossed before they can begin to examine evidence in the way information literacy standards suggest. Part of a good liberal education is about breaking down your past self to prepare to develop a better self.

So where does this leave library instruction? If all these cognitive biases and preconceptions are completely natural, extremely difficult to overcome, and probably impossible ever to completely overcome, how does this affect us practically? For one thing, it should lower high expectations. If you were unaware of all the ways the mind obscures and distorts reality for our benefit and how difficult making the philosophical leap really is, and you were already frustrated how little you could get done in the hour you might spend with a class, this news should lower your expectations and perhaps explain your frustrations. If you thought a little library research instruction is going to have a remarkable effect, you should probably change your opinion.

Then there’s the question, what the heck do librarians do instead, or in addition? I don’t have any ideas on that yet, but I’m convinced so far that librarians play much more of a support role in this enterprise than some think we do.

Some Context for the Latest P2P Review Column

My latest Peer to Peer Review column in the Library Journal came out today, Information Literacy as an Unnatural State. This is my first effort to pull together ideas I’ve been writing and thinking about information literacy, the persistence of pseudoscience, and cognitive bias for the past year and a half. Possibly there will be some ancient philosophy in there eventually as well (e.g., Stoicism and philosophical Daoism), but I’m not sure yet. What we think of as information literacy, and indeed the entire academic enterprise, is deeply unnatural, and that instead of thinking about IL as a set of competencies, we should think about it some other way. I’m not sure what way yet, but the idea I’m playing around with I’m calling “scholarly habitude,” meaning roughly that the difference between the information literate/ scholarly person isn’t the ability just to do certain things, but a set of habits or frames of mind relative to the world, and that it’s much harder to achieve than reading through a set of competencies might indicate. I’m also not sure yet what specific role librarians would play in developing those habits.

Anyway, the LJ column is a tentative first step to something that might grow larger over time, so if anyone has any questions or criticisms, I’d appreciate them. The more and earlier the better.

Unlikely Conversations and Improbable Sources

Recently I’ve been getting some requests for what I have called The Improbable Source.  An improbable source is some source students hope to find that is exactly on the topic of their research essay, especially when that topic is somewhat obscure. The example I used then that still stands out as the top of this category is “scholarly books and articles on email as a form of civic friendship.” You can double check the philosophical literature if you like, or you can take my word for it that nobody has ever published a scholarly book or article on this topic. When I first identified the existence of the improbable source, I suggested that the problem “is that they want sources that already do their work for them.” To some extent, that’s true. Almost always, the improbable source students desire is one that already supports the exact thesis they hope to argue. If they found the source, then they’d have to change their thesis. However, I now think the problem is larger than that. It’s not just about a hunt for improbable sources, but also about a hunt for unlikely conversations.

“Scholarly conversation” is a phrase that librarians and writing instructors often use. It’s an apt metaphor for what scholars do, and most scholarly work is in a conversation of some sort with previous scholarship, whether arguing with it, building upon it, or whatever. There’s nothing controversial about either that claim or the use of the phrase itself as far as I can tell. However, it’s very difficult to teach a first-year student who has never participated in such a conversation or engaged in any actual research to understand what’s going on.

I’ve worked with students who are looking for scholarly conversations on topics that are highly unlikely to be conversed upon by scholars. We can stick with the “email as civic friendship” topic. It’s not just the source that’s improbable. It’s the entire conversation that’s unlikely to exist. And if there weren’t a conversation, there wouldn’t be the improbable source, because the scholarly sources often respond to previous research. Students have been taught that scholarly conversations exist. They are perhaps engaged in class readings that demonstrate a scholarly conversation in action. Then they pick a topic and go out to find the conversation that likely doesn’t exist.

So that’s what is happening. But why is it happening? There could be many reasons, but I suspect the main reason is the backwards approach to research the students are taking. Instead of reading around broadly in an area of scholarship and looking for the conversations that emerge, students are choosing and even narrowing topics at random and then trying to find the scholarly conversation. Librarians have strategies for helping students find the conversations, but they only work if the original topic is pretty broad. Students might make the leap into a conversation about email as civic friendship because they’ve read an article on civic friendship and need to write about a form of communication as civic friendship, but that’s obviously a scholarly conversation that didn’t emerge from anything scholarship they’d actually been reading. Another approach is students having to relate some event or thing to two different scholarly disciplines. That can be a very fruitful assignment, but students sometimes have problems figuring out exactly what they should be researching in the disciplines, because it’s usually not the thing or event itself. Thus, their initial searches aren’t emerging from the scholarly conversations within a discipline. They’re hoping to find that conversation based on what they think is interesting about the thing or event, and sometimes it just doesn’t exist.

Anyway, I think those are reasons why, but even if not there’s still the question of what to do about it. The first response I usually offer is one of assurance, because often enough the student has tried to find the improbable source or the unlikely conversation and failed. That’s when I practice reference as therapy, and assure students they’re not finding it because it likely doesn’t exist.

Then, we analyze, which etymologically means to break something down into its elements. Email and civic friendship has two elements, both of which could be researched separately. However, that topic is really what writing instructors call a “lens essay,” which means the student should be examining email through the lens of a theory of civic friendship. Thus, really the topic is email and whether or not it fits the criteria for civic friendship. But other topics that combine two or three areas together are ripe for analysis and research on the separate areas, but even then it might be hard to figure out specifically what to look for sources on without having read a lot. and that’s the students’ job, not mine. Comparing disciplinary approaches to something can work as well, but again it’s usually something that requires more reading by the student than searching with the librarian.

That’s where my final advice comes. Sometimes even as I’m meeting with students I realize they don’t really need me at all. They don’t need to find more sources; they just need to start reading and figuring things out from there, and the only thing I’m good for is to tell them that. So maybe I was right before and the hunt for improbable sources and unlikely conversations is motivated by the hope that someone out there has done all their reading, analysis, and synthesis for them, because that, not library research, is the hardest part of writing a research essay.


Bad Google Scholar Results

I’ve seen lots of criticism of Google Books, but I find Google Scholar to be more frustrating. Google Scholar tends to be something of a last resort for me. It’s where I go when I’ve tried everything else and hope that the keyword searching will pull up something with at least some relevance that might have been missed in standard indexes. Usually I’m disappointed. For example, I was looking for scholarly information around a controversy within the International Churches of Christ, specifically regarding a controversial letter criticizing the organization and the aftermath. Here’s the Google Scholar search.

There are eight results, only half of which might count as scholarly. The book about God and karate could be considered scholarly. Another is a 4-page article from Leaven: the Journal of Campus Ministry, which I wouldn’t consider scholarly in the way that, say, the Journal of Religion is scholarly, and it has no references, but it’s sort of scholarly. Another is a link to a PDF of “Discipling Sisters” at the University of Georgia’s institutional repository, which wasn’t working at the time. By searching their OPAC and following links, I discovered it was a 2007 dissertation. Finally, success! Except that the only mention of the guy I was looking for uses a Wikipedia article as the source of information. Failure! The only other link that is at all scholarly is to a master’s thesis in the digital commons at McMaster University. That’s scholarly, but a master’s thesis is pretty low down the food chain for scholarly secondary resources. On the other hand, no Wikipedia articles are cited. One actual book, one questionable article, and two theses. Half the search results were sort of relevant.

The other links are not. Two are links to the same article from two different websites, and, both of which are anti-ICOC websites, so there’s some obvious bias and article is definitely not scholarly. There’s another link to a lecture housed at, which is a Christian ministry site. How did they end up there? The only thing I can think of is that they’re all in PDF format. Does Google assume that anyone who can save a document to the web in PDF format is a scholar? Finally, there is a link to a Christianity Today article, only it’s to a Russian website instead of to the Christianity Today. Not scholarly, and possibly bootleg. Three non-scholarly websites and a bootleg news article. Half the results weren’t remotely relevant.

A broader search for ICOC alone brings more results, and with more results, there is a larger number of actual scholarly sources. However, buried in those results are numerous questionable sources, like PDFs from, whose subtitle is “exposing the International Churches of Christ.” At least their bias is obvious. There’s also, (both linking to the same non-scholarly article), (which doesn’t exist anymore), and, whose “mission is to outreach, unite and support those touched or adversely affected by the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi Movement.” These might all be great websites, but there’s nothing remotely scholarly about them.

It’s like Google Scholar is deliberately putting in non- or quasischolarly material just to make us have to evaluate the information more. Instead of filtering out the nonscholarly stuff littering the Internet, which is what I thought Google Scholar was supposed to do, it clutters up the results with dubious sources based on a questionable search algorithm. The best I can figure is that if a source on the Internet is in Google Books, is in PDF format, or has any citations, Scholar seems to consider it scholarly.

On the other hand, it’s a good exercise to discuss Scholar with students who want a quick fix when searching for scholarly sources. Do a search and start evaluating the source with even the most cursory criteria for scholarship and it’s pretty easy to show what is and what is not scholarly and why. That’s typically necessary when searching the open web, but it’s the sort of thing I wish one didn’t have to do with something like Google Scholar. There are no royal roads to research.

Vendor Provided Instruction Materials?

Last week I spoke at the NFAIS Humanities Roundtable about “Library Research Instruction in the Humanities.” The audience was a mix of vendors, publishers, and librarians, which was a different audience than I’m used to. I was trying to tell the non-librarians in the room, or rather the people who don’t currently work in libraries, what kinds of research instruction librarians do for students in the humanities. On the same panel was someone from ProQuest who then spoke to the librarians about what materials vendors could provide to help with that instruction. Her talk mirrored my points, and I thought it went pretty well.

One thing that surprised her in our discussions (both on the phone and at the Roundtable) was that I don’t attend vendor training on products and almost never use any instruction materials vendors might provide (with the exception being that years ago I did pass out some pretty good material on Refworks when we were first promoting it). I didn’t claim to be the norm, although I might be on my campus. It’s not that there isn’t plenty to learn about various products. It’s just that I’d rather learn it on my own, because that’s how I learn best. When asked what vendors could provide, I said I wanted lots of detailed information available online for me to read, and then I’d go from there. I learn more by tinkering than training.

Also, with some exceptions, in the humanities a database is a database is a database. If you’re mainly concerned with the major subject indexes in the humanities, once you’ve mastered one database you’ve pretty much mastered them all, especially if, as we do, we get most of them from the same vendor. There are some exceptions, such as L’Annee Philologique, but these days the only time I personally use that is when I’m showing it to library school students in my humanities librarianship class, while simultaneously thinking to myself “I wish this were as intuitive as the Ebsco interface.” There are full-text primary source databases that can be tricky as well, such as the Thesaurus Linquae Graecae. Try going to that database and doing an advanced lemma search if you’re not really sure how to go about it and you’ll understand what I mean. But it’s rare that in the humanities I would encounter something of the complexity of a Bloomberg Terminal, where I’d have to know not only a good deal about finance but also about how to manipulate that very specialized interface.

There are apparently a lot of librarians who like to be trained on databases by vendors or other librarians or some combination. That’s a matter of learning style. But what about using the supporting material? The ProQuest trainer talked about all the stuff they provide, which was all new to me. And they do provide a lot of support material, including Libguides boxes that can be imported. I took a look at some of the material, including the Libguides for the Patralogia Latina and the FIAF International Index to Film Periodicals. It seemed like good content to me, but would I use it?

Probably not, at least not as it stands. The question is, with solid content explaining how to use particular resources, why wouldn’t I use it, especially if it was as easy as importing into Libguides? The biggest reason is branding. I don’t object to branding as such, and have no problem recommending the ProQuest Research Library or Ebsco Academic Search Premier. They’re good products. It also makes perfect sense for ProQuest or Ebsco or whomever to want to brand everything in sight. I doubt it matters much to students, but interfaces matter to librarians, and many times I’ve chosen to get the same index through one vendor rather than another because the interface was better. I think I’m on my third vendor with the Philosopher’s Index, for example. If Ebsco provides me with a better search experience than some previous interface did, I want to know that, and I keep it in mind for future decisions.

However, when I’m doing some sort of research instruction, either with a class or individually or through online tutorials, I don’t want to brand the product. I don’t want students thinking about brands, but about tools. I don’t want students to think ProQuest or Ebsco or FirstSearch. I want them to think Digital Dissertations or the ALTA Religion database or WorldCat. I don’t want the “ProQuest Start Here” logo on any of my training materials, because I don’t want students thinking that way. I’m reminded of an ebook rep several years ago who said they were designing the product as one-stop, or at least first-stop shopping for books. We basically said our library had 7 million books and this product had 10,000, so we would never promote the product that way, even it’s a good product.

Which brings up another distinction besides my learning style and my desire to have students think about tools, not brands–the size of the collection and library staff and the librarian-student ratio. We create most of our instructional materials in-house and could probably meet individually with every student on campus if they wanted research help. We don’t have 30,000 students and I don’t have to liaise with 12 academic departments or do 40 instruction sessions a semester. (And I’m grateful for all those things!) That was pretty much true at my first job as well at a liberal arts college, except I did a lot more instruction sessions. Thus, we’re not so overwhelmed that we can’t make our own Libguide content.

In addition, we have a lot of stuff. There are smaller libraries that pretty much rely on one vendor to provide most of their database content, so in some ways it makes sense to rely on the brand as a shortcut. If everything you have is from ProQuest, that ProQuest “Start Here” is accurate. That’s also the approach Summon is taking, and I just got an email offering videos on how librarians have used Summon in instruction sessions. However, while Summon might be “web-scale discovery,” it doesn’t have everything, and except for freshmen I wouldn’t recommend it as the first or only tool to use. We have too many specialized databases and indexes for that. Plus the most important means of scholarly communication in the humanities is still the monograph, so I’d recommend starting with WorldCat anyway.

So those are my reasons for not using vendor-supplied training materials. I prefer to learn on my own, I don’t want to brand the research, I have the time to create my own material, and my library has too many specialized resources to focus on a given vendor. Am I the minority here? Are some of you using that material?

A Model of a Research Consultation

In my last post, I discussed research consultations, which seems to be one common interaction in academic libraries that is rarely addressed in library school, at least based on the standard reference textbooks. I examined the two standard texts I’m familiar with–Bopp & Smith’s Reference and Information Services and Katz’s Introduction to Reference Work–and neither addresses the research consultation as such, though Bopp & Smith mention that there are these things called research consultations. The assumption seems to be that the needs of the research consultation are covered under basic reference: conduct a reference interview, assess the information need, address it, etc. Instead, I tend to think of a research consultation as something in between a standard reference transaction and an instruction session.

Though some research consultations focus on specific information needs, most of the ones I have start from a general research topic, usually with the student wanting scholarly books and articles on that topic. Often enough, there’s a gap between the way the student thinks about the topic and the scholarly discussion about it, if indeed there’s any scholarly discussion at all. In that case, the consultation often includes discussion about how to approach a topic based on the research found. Rarely do I encounter a student who has a topic that perfectly conforms to both the research and the controlled vocabulary of an established index. So, considering a student who goes into a consultation with only a topic or even a vague research question, what should that student leave with? That question isn’t addressed in the reference textbooks, and it wasn’t addressed at all in any of the reference courses I took in library school.

In the ideal research consultation, I think students should emerge with a small number of relevant sources and a plan for how to proceed with their research after the consultation. Thus, it is partly about finding an “answer” to a question like “can you help me find sources on X?” However, it’s also a time to provide detailed instruction on how to find more sources like those, and sometimes even on how those sources might be useful depending upon the essay topic.

I’ve given a lot more thought to this since I started teaching in a library school. I wanted to teach reference skills appropriate to academic librarianship. In the arts & humanities librarianship course I’ve been teaching at the University of Illinois, I assume that ready reference in the humanities is dead and focus on research consultations. Dead might be too final a word, but the way reference has traditionally been taught–e.g., sets of ready reference questions and possible reference sources–is much less relevant to the academic library than once it was. For the research consultations, I give fairly well developed research questions based upon actual questions I or others have gotten from students and have my own students write a response in 2 pages or less as if it were an email exchange. There are obviously limitations to the assignment, such as the impossibility of conducting a reference interview, but it’s as close to a real world interaction as I could come up with, and the sort of thing I do on occasion when a face to face meeting won’t work.

In their response, my students are supposed to provide an example of each of the following (if relevant to the topic):

  • Primary sources (archives/ historical documents/ works of literature/ philosophical works, etc.)
  • Secondary sources (including “seed documents”—recent, relevant, scholarly books & articles)
  • Tertiary sources (encyclopedias, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Citations that seem worth chasing
  • Important scholars in the field (if they can be identified)
  • Databases and indexes to search
  • Useful keywords and subject headings/descriptors

Keep in mind this sort of consultation is geared towards the humanities, though I could imagine variations for students who needed help in other fields. Also, not everything on the list is appropriate for every consultation. Nevertheless, students who get to this point should be able to proceed on their own, which should be the ultimate goal of research instruction.

Because I’m curious about what other people do and because I’m always looking for ways to improve the course, I’ll end with questions. Does this seem like an appropriate model for a research consultation? Is it too ambitious? Or does it leave the student with too few documents in hand? Is there something you would do differently in an assignment that could make it mirror an actual consultation more?

Neutrality and Research Help

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post AL Direct linked to on Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions from the relatively new blog Letters to a Young Librarian. (I hadn’t heard of the blog before, but after a quick skim of the back posts added it to my reader.) The post proposes ways to handle questions where students are “looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support.” The advice is practical, and I’m not discounting it. It’s not necessarily what I would do myself, but reference is an art, not a science. However, a couple of statements in the post have been nagging at me since I first read them, possibly because, as happens often enough, they sound like solid librarian orthodoxy and I completely disagree with them. Let’s take them in turn.

“As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn’t going to work. I’m there to provide objective information access….”

That does indeed sound like the orthodox librarian policy. For “objective,” I substitute the perhaps more common term “neutral.” The librarian should be neutral in providing information. After all, according to Article II of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with. I agree with this, but I don’t think it means I can’t tell students their topic won’t work. I’ve told numerous students over the years their topics won’t work. If there’s no evidence supporting their thesis (or in my case usually no scholarly debate about their odd topic at all) that I can find after the most rigorous searching, then the thesis won’t work. Research essays should insert themselves into a scholarly debate at some level, and if there isn’t a scholarly debate, then there’s no essay. If there’s no scholarly debate as well as no reasoning or evidence behind a thesis, students don’t have to abandon the topic completely, but they will have to adjust their thesis so they can defend it in a scholarly research essay that demands at least a modicum of reasoning and evidence. I don’t mind telling them that because I don’t think it’s my job with students to provide objective access to information as such. It’s my job to teach them how to do academic research.

In practical terms, I might turn this into a series of question: What prompted you to want to write on this topicn? Did you read something supporting it? Hear about it somewhere? What evidence have you gathered so far? What reasons do you have for holding this position? All those questions get at the core of the problem in a constructive way. I want to know how they got to the point they’re at now, where they’re coming to the librarian asking for a few sources to support a position they arrived at without any support at all, because I want to know where they’ve gone wrong in the research process and begin there. If students are asking for sources to support an argument they want to make but don’t already have some evidence for, something has gone wrong with the research process. It’s broken. That’s not the way research works, and it’s part of my job to make that clear to students.

Which leads me to the second statement: “this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.”

Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument. Not helping guide students to scholarly sources to support their arguments doesn’t mean I abandon my neutrality or my duty to aid their research. It’s just that my job is to educate them as well as guide them. The post was about politicized questions, and thus the desired objectivity was implied to be about the political position of the student’s claim. But one can be neutral about politics without being neutral about process. It doesn’t matter what claim the student wants to make an argument for–whether it’s about global warming or the symbolic meaning of tea cozies in contemporary Lithuanian poetry–scholars don’t pick a claim and then go find sources to support it. They research a general topic and go where the argument leads them, or at least they should. Hence some of my earlier questions. What led you to want to make that particular claim? If you pulled a thesis out of nowhere, then you need to back up and read more about the topic before you can possibly write a research essay.

Research (in the humanities at least, which usually includes the type of first-year writing course research essay I think is being addressed) is a recursive process. Find a general topic of interest. Read some general sources. Formulate a research question or hypothesis based on that reading. Read some more specific sources to answer the question or test the hypothesis. Narrow your topic to a thesis based on your interpretation of the available sources, then argue that thesis using whatever evidence you have to defend it and critiquing evidence for the other side. Without doing the preliminary reading on a topic, students have no reason to assume the thesis they want to argue has any merit whatsoever. Furthermore, one can’t make a good argument, especially on a “politicized” topic, without understanding both one’s own position and the opposite position. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with a student’s thesis. The thesis itself is irrelevant. It’s about process, not substance.

Let’s consider a hypothetical topic, global warming. It could be anything, but I’ll stick with a politicized topic since I don’t know anything about tea cozy symbolism in Lithuanian poetry. Possible research questions might include: Is the earth really warming? If it is warming, is human action contributing to that warming? If the earth is warming, what will be the consequences? Will the consequences be dire? If the dire consequences predicted are based on models, how sound are the models?  If human action is contributing to that warming, to what extent? If the earth is warming, and if human action could slow or stop this warming, and if that would be a good thing, what are the economic costs now and in the future of that action? All of these are legitimate research questions to begin an essay with, and all leave plenty of room for various political interpretations. But a student in question might say to a librarian, “I want five scholarly sources for my research essay that prove global warming doesn’t exist.” (If they said they wanted five sources that proved global warming did exist, I wouldn’t address that directly, either.) Regardless of the initial approach, the response should be the same. “I can help you find numerous, recent, peer-reviewed scholarly sources on various aspects of your topic. You should then read them, evaluate their arguments, and position your own claims in relation to them.”

It doesn’t matter what the end result is, and over the years as a writing teacher and librarian I’ve guided students through the research of theses I found reprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s not important what students argue; it just matters how they argue it. It’s similar to the process of peer-review. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources can sometimes radically disagree on significant topics, but it only matters for our purposes that they meet a standard of argumentative or methodological rigor. The same should go for student research essays, and we shouldn’t feel bad about saying so when appropriate.

The Myth of Information Literacy

The comments and responses about my bit on information literacy have been intriguing, and obviously lots of us disagree on what information literacy is and what role librarians play in its development. Just for the sake of argument, I want to stoke the fire and make a bold proposition.There’s no such thing as “information literacy.” It’s a baggy phrase that means either too much or too little, and as defined by the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards provides an unrealistic and unattainable goal for students, and causes many academic librarians to believe they are somehow responsible for achieving this chimerical goal.

And if information literacy in the broad sense implied by the ACRL Standards truly exists, then reference librarians are the only people who have any chance of becoming, or desire to become, information literate. Reference librarians are trained to do any sort of research, to be content neutral and process strong, but that’s not how everyone else works. Only if our goal is to train students to be little librarians should we train them to be information literate in the broadest sense. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I say that’s not what students or their professors want.

If we’re not trying to teach information literacy, then what are we doing? Among other learning objectives that have very little to do with librarians, professors and librarians are trying to teach students how to do scholarly research, and that’s certainly where instruction librarians come into play. Scholarly research isn’t vague and content neutral, though, because it always has a subject and a context. Scholarly research also isn’t so broad that recognizing and assessing it is impossible, which is why most assessments of information literacy are narrow and don’t even attempt to assess it according to the broad definitions offered by ACRL. Scholarly research isn’t something that can be taught as such, though; it’s only something that can be done. We can offer suggestions and guidelines and feedback, and professors are supposed to model the behavior of the experience researcher, but it’s only learned by doing. That’s why assignments offer students the motive and opportunity to do their own research with guidance from professors and librarians.

Information literacy is a phrase designed to highlight the role of librarians; unfortunately, librarians are usually the only people on a campus familiar with the phrase. If instead we look at scholarly research, which is what the scholars on campus are actually doing, the focus changes, and the role of librarians is more limited than some librarians feel comfortable with. Librarians focus on the library portion of research, but the library portion of any research, even in the humanities, is limited. One of the best books I know on library research is Thomas Mann’s Library Research Models. The entire book is about how to use libraries for research. Compare that to Jacques Barzun’s Modern Researcher. The 6th edition has fourteen chapters. Guess how many are about finding information and using the library? One. This seems about right to me. I’ve been trying to teach students how to write academic research essays off and on for nineteen years, and I know that no matter how essential the library research part isn’t the most important, or even the most difficult, part of any research project. There’s a reason the library-centered book is by a librarian while the research focused book is by an historian.

Scholarly research ability is developed slowly, project by project, over a period of years, and almost always in one discipline. There is no epiphany in an information literacy class or in any other sort of class. The development takes time and energy, and most students will never devote that time and energy to learning to be great researchers, no matter how much we prod them. For those that do develop into great researchers, the role of librarians is important, but still limited, especially because scholars (at least in the humanities) typically learn how to do their research from other scholars, not from librarians. This surprises and even irritates some librarians, but since that’s the way scholars have been mentoring each other since the very beginning of research universities, it doesn’t bother me at all. That’s because instead of focusing on what I could provide for students, which is considerably more than I’m ever asked to provide as a librarian, I look at my own development as a scholar and that of just about every scholar I’ve ever known. Information literacy is something librarians like because it puts them in the center of the scholarly research process, but professors are trying to teach students how to be scholars in their fields. The cumulation of all our teaching might create information literate students, but most people would settle for educated students, whatever that might mean.  

I’m happy doing my part to support the scholarly development of students through collection building, research guides, instruction, consultation, and anything else that seems appropriate, but when I’m doing all this I don’t believe I’m teaching anything called “information literacy.” I’m providing tools and techniques and guidance to support and develop scholarly research that will mostly be done outside the library and the domain of the librarian. Ultimately, this means that I’m not concerned with information literacy in the broadest sense, with whether students or anyone else have all the skills necessary to find, evaluate, and incorporate information about any topic whatsoever. Almost nobody but excellent reference librarians will ever meet that goal anyway. Instead, I focus on the research, helping project by project, hoping that students develop into independent researchers, and knowing that if they do, there will still be areas of incompetence. Scholars are always focused on a project and nurtured in a discipline, and even outstanding scholars have areas of research incompetence, and they always will. That’s when even they call upon reference librarians, the most information literate people around.

A Bit on Information Literacy

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:

  1. The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.
  2. The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.
  3. The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.
  4. The information literate student, individually or as a member of a group, uses information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.
  5. 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.

Timing of the Research Question

There’s a good article in the latest portal that should be interesting to any librarians who provide research instruction for first-year writing students:

Nutefall, Jennifer E. and Phyllis Mentzell Ryder. “The Timing of the Research Question: First-Year Writing Faculty and Instruction Librarians’ Differing Perspectives.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 10 (4), October 2010: 437-449. [Librarians with access to Project Muse can click through.]

The literature review alone is an excellent quick overview of what some librarians and writing instructors have written about the research question. The study itself was of librarians and writing instructors at George Washington University. At GWU, the writing courses are topic-based and capped at 15 students (which is similar to the model at Princeton).  The authors compared the attitudes of librarians and writing instructors toward the research question. Librarians and faculty agreed that good research questions should be complex, worth answering, and interesting to the student. But they disagreed on the timing of the research question. Librarians tended to want students to have clearly formulated questions early in the process, while faculty tended to think that focused research questions come late in the process after a lot of exploratory reading has been done.

The authors speculate that this divide might be caused by the different research methods of librarians and writing faculty.

the research projects the librarians described are more focused on particular audience needs. For example, they investigate and share better pedagogical techniques for library instruction with other librarians. For the most part, librarians seemed to prefer a more structured research process in their own work and prefer to teach a more methodical approach to research to first-year students. For faculty in the UWP, the majority of their projects study how people and cultures exchange knowledge. When faculty describe their own research process it is similar to those documented in other studies as typical for “expert” researchers.Their methods rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. (445-46)

The implicit claim that librarians aren’t “expert” researchers would certainly explain a large portion of the library literature. Based on the library literature I’ve read, librarians aren’t typically expert researchers in the sense that they rely on prior knowledge and celebrate serendipitous encounters. There’s a whole sub-genre of library literature that requires knowledge of nothing more than how to send out an online survey and how to report results. 

There’s definitely a disciplinary distinction in play. Even the best of the library literature tends to work under social science models, where research questions are often formulated more specifically than in the humanities, especially compared to literary and cultural studies in which a disproportionate number of writing faculty are trained. However, I suspect that disciplinarity is only part of the disjunction. The differing functions of the librarians and faculty, or at least how many view those functions, could account for some of it. Having taught a few hundred writing students of my own, and provided library research assistance in some form or other for more students than I can remember, this is the distinction that makes the most sense for me.

Librarians want early, clearly formulated research questions, preferably with good keywords, because it’s at that point that librarians can be most useful, or at least when many librarians feel most useful. Often enough, librarians are helping students find information on topics the librarians know even less about than the students if the students have done any preliminary reading at all. And the help often provided will be with some sort of literature search in one of the library databases. Those librarians need focused topics so they’ll know which databases to search, which keywords to use, and which results to examine in more detail when they find some. It’s the level at which a well-trained reference librarian with an adequate collection of resources can help just about any researcher. The great thing about the methods librarians use is that they work, almost all the time. The difficulty comes when they don’t work because researchers aren’t clear and specific enough in their goals.

For writing instructors, on the hand, “research” in the sense of finding concrete sources about a given topic isn’t the most important thing, because their function is quite different. Whereas librarians often enough get students with at least some focus, writing instructors usually begin with the chaos that is most student writing in the early stages of a first-year writing class. It’s the function of the writing instructor to teach students to form this chaos, to shape it, discipline it, focus it, and just when the students have mastered one skill, it’s time for the writing instructor to push them further into the unknown with the research essay assignment. A writing class is always in some stage of managed chaos, and the writing instructor is always helping students find their way. It’s not that librarians are afraid of the chaos. It’s just that there’s not as much for them to do. Focus can also come through the writing process, so that students with only a vague idea of what they want to argue develop their best ideas only after they start writing. One of the librarians studied likes students to envision their entire project, what they want to do, the types of sources they’ll need, etc. Librarian nirvana. The problem is, this isn’t how beginning researchers work, and it’s not really how a lot of experienced researchers in the humanities work. The actual library searching portion of most student research essays is a small part of what they’re learning to do, and not the most important part.

The authors of the study suggest that librarians and writing faculty should work closely together and be clear about their expectations and when research is appropriate. I agree completely. But another possibility is for librarians who feel comfortable enough to step out of their usual function of helping students find information only after they know what they want. At my library, this is more typically done with advanced undergraduates. Often enough, research consultations fluctuate between what I typically think of as a library research consultation and what I typically think of as a writing consultation session. The line between those two is easy to cross, if it exists at all. When I was in library school, I worked both at the information desk in the main library and as a writing consultant in the writing clinic on campus, and it was interesting how frequently what I did for students was the same. That’s because the writing and research process are inextricably intertwined, but the organization of universities means that the two functions are split between the library and some other department.

I’ve met with many students where I helped them figure out what they were really trying to research. We might discuss possible topic options and limitations, or how books and articles can be used to develop and narrow ideas, or how some strategies will work better than others, or how they can use sources as models and not just support, or how they can link disparate strands of research to develop a question, or how various sources might function in their essays. These are all research issues and also the sort of thing covered in writing courses. I’ve had numerous students ask me what I thought about their topic, or whether they should change it. Through in-depth interviews held during lunch with at least three other librarians here, I confirmed that the practice isn’t just confined to me. Librarians do this sort of thing all the time, even if they don’t realize it.

As Nutefall and Ryder imply, we should be aware of our disciplinary boundaries and blindnesses when working with writing students and instructors. But if we’re not already, we should also be willing to to do more with students than just help them search for topics they’ve already narrowed down. The research process is far more than searching, which is easy for us to forget sometimes since we often see just that part when working with students. We should be comfortable working with the chaos of the vague topic and the inchoate research question, because we often have a lot to offer students throughout the research process.