I remember once giving a session on finding information to a group of MSc students. Duplicate sessions had been scheduled, because there were going to be too many students to fit in the allocated room at one time.
At the end of the first session, one of the students came up to me and asked if he could sit in, again, on the next session. I pointed out that I was going to go through exactly the same stuff as I’d just done, and he said:
“Great! You know, I hadn’t realised that these sessions were going to be so useful, and I wasn’t concentrating at all for the first twenty minutes. Then I suddenly realised that what you were saying was really good and relevant to finding papers for the thesis I’m writing. So I’d really like to listen to it all again.”
Another time, I had the course lecturer at an information session for an MSc group. Afterwards, he came up and said that just about everything I’d covered had been new to him. He didn’t know that the information tools and search engines I’d spoken about existed. He wanted me to give exactly the same session to as many of his colleagues, who he reckoned also didn’t know about the tools, that he could muster.
I gave information sessions for many years. Usually, they were appreciated, especially if I caught the students at exactly the right time – when they’d just been given their dissertation topics, and realised that finding information wasn’t going to be as easy as they had expected.
It would have been much, much better if the bibliographic databases, search engines and whatnot, had been easier to use, and more intuitive, in the first place. And also cross-searchable. I always felt annoyed that students who had signed up to do a course in Construction, or Mechanical Engineering, or whatever, had to spend so much time learning about how to find information in various databases, each of which worked in a different way, rather than concentrate on what they were actually interested in. This applied especially to engineers, who tended to be particularly focussed on their subjects. I sometimes found some of the information tools almost incomprehensible myself. The simple issue of knowing whether something (a scholarly paper or article) found in a bibliographic database would actually be available in full text at the point of discovery, sometimes seemed amazingly complicated for the databases to solve. We had cases where the databases would indicate that something was available, when it wasn’t (due to the paper being in an old issue of a journal, when our subscription only covered the most recent volumes, etc); and cases where the database would indicate that the paper wasn’t available, when it actually was (due to the paper being available in a repository, or in a journal not yet online, etc).
I spent a lot of time working on projects that tried to solve some of these issues, and working with publishers to make their products more intuitive and standardised. It was a surprisingly slow process.
So, I always had mixed feelings about information literacy. I felt that information professionals should do more to solve the original problems, rather than teach students how to work around the problems.
Providing awareness of the available tools, rather than the nitty gritty ways of using the tools (i.e. “…you click here, and then here, and then ignore that bit, and that jargon actually means such-and-such, and then click here and download the details into one of about twenty possible reference tools, then check somewhere completely different to find if the article is available, and if it’s not, you can click here and fill out this form for an Inter Library Loan”), was always something I felt perfectly happy to do.
I was also very happy to teach awareness of the information seeking process.
My last post, which was a largely negative crit of the UEL Library website, seems to have created a bit of a stir (judging from the number of page views). Right at the end of that crit, I wrote that I liked the UEL Info Skills section. Since learning that it received the 2011 Innovation award from Cilip UC&R I’ve looked at it in more detail. It’s very good, and is a great example of teaching the ‘awareness of the information process’ that I mention above. It’s nicely designed, easy to read, and written from the students’ perspective. The Search facility works (I suspect because they’ve managed to avoid using the dreadful UEL Direct Search). I like how UEL Info Skills is arranged into sections according to actions (verbs): Discover the range of sources…; Understand how to search effectively…; Learn how to evaluate…; Find out…
The Info Skills section benefits from not having been ‘socially networked-ified’. Instead, it’s a relatively simple section of web pages that leads students through most of the important parts of the information finding process.
Of course, things like this need constant updating. For example, it links to something I helped create many moons ago – Pinakes subject launchpad – which is now rather out of date.
Another issue libraries in general probably need to address better is how to teach the use of services such as Twitter, Facebook, etc in the information seeking process.