Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Information-Literacy Audiences

Somewhat recently an instructor in the English department requested to use the library instruction room to give his class research instruction. Our policy states that nobody use the room without a librarian present, and we reserve for instruction of library resources or information sources. In my view it's an information-literacy room. I could not see any valid reason for refusing him the room, as he did intend to use it to teach his students how to conduct research using the library resources.

I sat in on the instruction session myself to observe his approach to library research. He actually talked about Boolean terms. In fact, he asked the students about the term, and someone even dared to say that "AND," "OR," and "NOT" were the correct Boolean terms. He even asked them what they were used for ["What do they do for us?"], and another student said they are used to connect keywords in a search. Sometimes I assume students do not know these things, but many have already had library instruction, so they have heard it already. This instructor, Dr. X, had asked how many of the students had attended a library-instruction session in their English 101 course, and most of them indicated that they had. Librarians would do well to ask questions to see how much their audience already knows. In fact, we should be asking the right kinds of questions of the instructors before they bring their class into the library for instruction. As this instructor said, "We all know how to diagram the word 'assume.'"

He did not dwell on things for too long, because he wanted students to have time to conduct research while someone [us] could help them. He showed the library quick links to find the catalog and the databases. He showed the call-number link that shows the names of the books that come before and after the one clicked, so you can browse the shelves virtually. [I'm still not sure this always works exactly in this way, because many different items are located in different parts of the library with very similar call numbers, such as reference books, periodicals, items in special collections, etc. But it's pretty good, since there are lots more books than journal titles and reference materials.]

It was great to see him point out the Resources-by-Subject pages with their different sections, namely books, web sites, and articles. Come to think of it, he did not mention contacting any librarians for help. Perhaps I should encourage him to do so the next time he brings his class to the library.

This leads me to my most important observation in this post. Why did he not want a "reference librarian" to teach his class? He willingly told me after the class had finished that he has been to library-instruction sessions where the librarian takes the entire time explaining how to do research. He feels strongly that students need time to do it in the class. Like he was saying, students leave the library session and do not do any research for a while and in the meantime they forget what they "learned," so when they try it themselves they stumble and cannot find anything. Their recourse is to Google the information--something they know how to do already. They need time to practice, run into roadblocks, and ask for help when their instructor or librarian is close by and ready to offer it.

He attended a graduate library-instruction session last semester, and he tells me that the librarian talked for two and a half hours about how to do research. In his view, a valid one in my opinion, he felt he knew how to do research already otherwise he would not be where he was = in graduate school. I appreciate the feedback he gave me, because librarians who do give instruction need to be aware of their audiences. We are often chomping at the bit to show them everything we have, that we overlook some of their basic needs and desires, like just trying it on their own. During that two hour and twenty minute session he tried to write down ideas for his own research.

Chances are that some of his colleagues liked the workshop heartily and did not complain; however, many probably wished that they had an opportunity just to practice and start doing some research where a librarian could assist them directly with a specific question.

One of the things I liked the most about his class was how he emphasized evaluating the results of search in determining which ones will be used. "Do you pick the first five if five is what you need? How do you select sources?" This is definitely something I need to do better at myself.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that librarians should be asking the right kinds of questions of instructors before they bring their classes into the library. Here are some questions that we might ask, depending on the situation. If anyone reading this post has more questions along these lines, please add them as a comment to this post.
  • What would you like me to focus on during the 50-minute, library-instruction session?
  • How much would you like me to focus on the article databases, library catalog, citation resources, developing a search strategy, evaluating search results, showing the library web site, etc.?
  • How much time would you like for your students to conduct hands-on research?
  • What did you like most about previous library presentations given to your previous classes?
  • What did you like least about previous library presentations that I should avoid?
  • Where do your students need the most help with their research?
  • How do your students learn the most?
  • What is the biggest question you hope students will strive to answer in your course?
  • What one important thing do you hope your students will gain from their visit to the library?
  • What can I, as a reference/instruction librarian, do to help you and your students?
  • What are some of the topics that interest your students?
  • Which texts do you use/require in your course?
Clearly, not all of these questions should be asked of every instructor, but as a faculty member I want to help the university accomplish its research and learning mission. The library, its resources, and staff know that they can contribute to this worthy goal and advance information literacy = critical thinking + knowing how to find the best, most-accurate information needed.

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