for librarians, researchers and educators interested in information management

Big questions and outrageous claims about information literacy


I love being challenged to think about the bigger picture, to question my assumptions and respond to provocative claims made with the intention of stimulating thought and comment.

This is what happened when I read Barbara Fister’s paper Decode Academy, which was the text of a talk presented at the annual LOEX conference, held in Nashville, May 3, 2013.

It is a very thought provoking, interesting piece that asks librarians to think about some big questions: What are libraries for?  What are universities for?  What is knowledge for?  These questions frame more specific ones around information literacy teaching practice, which librarians should think about from the perspective of a longer view.  It’s so easy, Fister suggests, to get caught up in the immediate demands of our clients, which can distract us from focusing on the fundamental question: “what experiences do we provide that support long-lasting and meaningful learning?”

One of the central roles of the academic library, she argues, is to contribute to student learning:

“The library is the common ground of the university, where all of the disciplines come together, where students can learn how to learn, where they can become not just consumers of knowledge but makers of it.”

The paper challenges us to think about what that learning should look like, and how librarians can contribute to better student learning.  It does this by making a number of “outrageous claims” which I’ll attempt to summarise:

 1. Research papers should not be part of the first year experience

Students tend to treat knowledge as stuff that is manufactured somewhere else, inert material to be acquired, stored and exchanged.  A lot of students write research papers or essays by patchworking quoted material (glued together with their own words) without actually engaging in the process of reading, writing, thinking critically and creatively, and making meaning out of that information in an organised, thoughtful way. Better learning would occur if there was more emphasis on the process rather than the end product and if students were encouraged to read, think and understand about something that matters to them.

2. We should stop teaching students how to find sources

Librarians spend a lot of their time teaching students how to use library tools and find information.   However, this is the easy part – the hard bit is helping them discover the ability to create new knowledge, which requires them to develop critical inquiry skills.  This involves teaching students how to frame questions, see patterns in the literature, weigh the evidence, and see the gaps.

3. Very rarely are citations needed

In undergraduate study there is a big emphasis on the construction of citations, which tends to allow the citation to stand in for having read a source.  This emphasis doesn’t necessarily teach students about the way writers use and acknowledge sources, or help them understand and think about the ideas they are citing and how they relate to each other.

4. We should stop policing plagiarism

This point is similar to the one above in that there seems to be such a heavy focus on plagiarism and citing properly that students don’t want to participate in the co-creation of knowledge.  It creates a situation where rules matter more than creativity, and knowledge is seen as belonging to, and made by, other people.

5. We should stop implying that ‘scholarly’ means ‘good’

There is a tendency to to argue that anything published in a scholarly journal is superior to any other kind of information. Rather than see scholarly journal articles as a means of communication by which scholars interpret the world in useful and meaningful ways through the process of primary research, students tend to see scholarly articles as a safe bet to grab a quote from to meet the essay requirements.

6. Librarians should spend as much time working with faculty as with students

This is difficult to do, and often is most successful when it happens through informal means.    However, collaborative work is critically important, and the library can provide faculty with a place to discuss their pedagogy, to share ideas, to learn, to have conversations.  Librarians can play a role in helping faculty to work out how to teach the complex activities of reading critically, identifying claims and organizing thoughts.

Barbara’s paper was the subject of the blog-comment Information Literacy Journal Cub meeting held on 24th July, moderated by Sheila Webber.

I would have liked to attend this, but the timing wasn’t optimal (3 am Perth time)  so I caught up with the discussion afterwards, and found it very interesting.  I have interpreted some of the discussion points and added in some of my own:

  • it would be good idea to start students with smaller assignments where they focused on the process, rather than the product; learning close reading, looking for arguments and evidence, organizing thoughts, without having to also take on a heap of other new skills such as finding information sources, citing them correctly etc.
  • Assignment requirements are generally outside of the influence of the library (although this doesn’t mean the focus of what we do can’t change)
  • Teaching students how to search for information is one of the library’s strengths, but perhaps it is a matter of shifting the focus from teaching them “how to search for information” to “how to search for answers”.
  •  We want students to learn how to discover and explore, to see how information works, how to refine their questions through searching, how to understand that the questions asked will define your approach to searching
  •  Understanding that particular specialized databases are connected with learning, and that they can be an entry point to various conversations within a discipline is a means by which we can teach students how to listen, to demonstrate understanding, to respond to the arguments.
  • Learning the skills of citation, attribution and issues around plagiarism is very important, but the ‘outsourcing’ of this responsibility to the library is contentious and the nature of this role is open to debate.
  •  The  move of information to predominantly electronic formats has meant that citation has become much more complex and not as clear cut as it once was, when information was found in print books or journals. Perhaps there is a role for the library to use this as an opportunity to teach students how to understand the nature of resources and information in a new way.

I really enjoyed the questioning and provocative nature of Barbara’s paper and the discussion that ensued.  It’s always good to look at the bigger picture, and the paper is particularly timely as academic librarians seem to be currently giving thought to the future of the profession, their changing role and the value that they add to supporting student learning.

In my experience, we academic librarians haven’t really seen ourselves as playing a significant part in teaching students how to create knowledge, and getting involved in this difficult, but wonderfully creative and rewarding process.

Perhaps it’s time we did.


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This entry was posted on July 28, 2013 by in information literacy, knowledge.
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