Friday, May 30, 2008

Information Behavior vs. Information Practice

Recently I read an article that discusses the theoretical meaning and the ways in which information specialists use the terms "information behavior" and "information practice." The author contends that information experts have not thought about these phrases in a reflective manner, rather they bandy them around like a tennis ball. An understanding of the usage of words and phrases can yield insightful discoveries. In this article the author tries to discover how these phrases have influenced discourses in the information realm. Here's the full citation:

Savolainen, Reijo. "Information Behavior and Information Practice: Reviewing the 'Umbrella Concepts' of Information-Seeking Studies." Library Quarterly 77.2 (2007): 109-32.

Savolainen looks at the historical uses of these terms, pointing out that "information behavior" has been around since the 1960s among information specialists. He notes that it has various forms: "The concept of information behavior may appear as a part of a longer phrase, for example, 'information-seeking behavior' or 'human information behavior.' In general, information behavior may be conceptualized as including 'how people need, seek, manage, give and use information in different contexts'" (112). If someone has a question and needs more information to answer that question, how do they go about finding that information? How do individuals keep track of that information once they have found it? Will they share it with others, and in which contexts will they do so?

Information practice refers more to the information habits individuals have established in their everyday lives. Reading the morning newspaper, listening to the radio on the drive to work, talking with co-workers, or watching the local evening news could all be construed as "information practice." Both of the phrases in question interest information professionals. For librarians, knowing the practices of an individual may offer recognizable avenues for helping a patron with an information need, thus influencing their behavior. Information-literacy instruction sessions endeavor to offer students strategies for improving their information behavior, particularly when they face a research project.

Toward the end of Savolainen's article a succinct definition and comparison of the two phrases appears: "Ultimately, the major concepts of behavior and practice seem to denote the same phenomena: they deal with the ways in which people 'do things.' The concepts of information behavior and information practice both seem to refer to the ways in which people 'deal with information.' the major difference is that within the discourse on information behavior, the 'dealing with information' is primarily seen to be triggered by needs and motives, while the discourse on information practice accentuates the continuity and habitualization of activities affected and shaped by social and cultural factors" (126).

Why is this important? I tried to address this earlier, but Savolainen cuts to the core of the matter better than I do as s/he defends this exercise as something useful and important--not just "academic hairsplitting." (How many angels can fit on the head of pin? = true discussion in the medieval universities.) Savolainen writes: "However, as the present study suggests, the preference for umbrella terms is not a self-evident or innocent choice of terminology that can be justified solely by stylistic reasons. On the contrary, there is a genuine need to generate a self-reflexive and critical attitude among researchers toward their familiar concepts in order to avoid being 'trapped' in their own discursive formations" (127).

Following are more citations that can point you to sources of the quotation marks within the quotation marks in the first and second quotations above:

Fisher, Karen; Erdelez, Sanda; and McKechnie, Lynne (E.F.) eds. Theories of Information Behavior. Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2005. [See pg. xix of the "Preface."]

Tuominen, Kimmo; Savolainen, Reijo; and Talja, Sanna. "Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice." Library Quarterly 75.3 (2005): 329-45.

Essentially, this article qualifies as a review of the literature as it analyzes how scholars and experts have used and reflected on the terms of "information behavior" and "information practice." A study of all 84 of the articles and books could be useful for those wanting to steep themselves in the ideas of information literacy.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Evaluating Research Results

A week ago I taught students in a library-instruction session how to find books, articles, and and library information. They worked to find resources for a research project required for their class. I tried an active-learning exercise that I had not tried previously, which allowed the students to work in groups of two and analyze abstracts and elements of an article citation.

Like I do before most of my instruction sessions I practice many searches in the databases, particularly related to the the subject of the class. Generally, the instructors send me a few ideas of topics in which the students may have some interest. After finding a few results from a search that I had conducted, I looked at the abstracts and the document information attached to the articles. Recently, I had been feeling that I have not emphasized information-literacy skills as much as I would prefer. With this in mind, I decided to choose four or five abstracts from the results list of a search and hand them out to students in the class, so they could conduct their own analysis of the results.

By focusing their attention on one abstract and its accompanying citation elements, the students could practice using the evaluation criteria outlined in the CRAAP Test. Using the acronym CRAAP can help researchers remember five important points when evaluating many sources (Yes, our library webpage uses this test only in context of evaluating websites, but it can be useful for all types of resources.). Here are the five points:
- Currency
- Relevance
- Authority
- Accuracy
- Purpose

In groups of two, students read the citation and the abstract before discussing among themselves the different criteria. For this particular class that focused on physical education and sports history, I found some articles that talked about the Olympics and its history. It seems that when individuals begin a research project they should have a central question in mind, one that interests them, and one that is appropriate for the scope of their project. Students received the following question as a touchstone against which they could measure the article abstract with the five points listed above: "How have the modern Olympics evolved since 1896?"

Students needed about three minutes, but not more than five to evaluate their article citation and abstract. One student acted as spokesperson for their group, so that individual talked about whether the article they received would be a good source to answer the question listed above. When students have an opportunity to discuss in a small group, they tend to be more willing to share with the larger group afterward.

During the discussion we talked about the currency of an item and determined that an older article could be valuable for those doing historical research, but researchers and teachers generally prefer newer articles for their currency on the topic. Fields in the health sciences demand newer resources as new knowledge continually grows. Furthermore, we talked about the relevancy of an article, so if an article claims to talk about the changes from amateur to professional participation in the Olympics and we want to learn about female athletes in the modern Olympics, then it would not be useful. We know not to spend time reading that article and go to find another that addresses our concern. Likewise, an article about antique Greek coins depicting athletes in the ancient Olympics would not be pertinent to our inquiry.

When it came to authority, one abstract described how the Olympics went at the first modern iteration in 1896. It also stated that the article was only two pages long and written for Sports Illustrated. The students believed that anyone writing for this magazine would know their stuff--that they would be experts in sports. It provided a good opportunity to talk about the audience of this serial publication; typically it consists of the general public. Truthfully, writers for Sports Illustrated do need to be authorities in some regard, which may mean that they have watched sporting events their entire lives, participated in the sports extensively, or attended many such events in person. These writers may only have a bachelor's degree and may not be scholarly by any means. The key points I tried to emphasize were that the article only took up two pages of space, which meets the needs of a general audience but hardly scratches the surface for those who want to really gain an understanding of the 1896 Olympics.

Additionally, the fact that the authors of this article published in Sports Illustrated means that a less rigorous editing process took place. Undoubtedly, the editors at the magazine demand quality and accuracy; however, imminent deadlines do not permit the kinds of painstaking efforts required for in-depth fact checking, such as those taken by authors publishing in a peer-reviewed journal or a scholarly monograph publication. Admittedly, I would probably use a Sports-Illustrated article if it related directly to my topic, but I would also be sure to include other more thoroughly researched sources that may be more authoritative and accurate.

Looking back on the experience, we may not have discussed the criterion "purpose" at any great length, but it is one that writers need to remember. If a writer and research can identify the reasons for which an author wrote a particular article or book, they can use that as leverage to bolster or discredit their argument. For example, an activist in a well-known environmental group like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth would be biased in opposition to group in the other direction.

Overall, the experience succeeded, and it got the students thinking critically about the resources--something we want to promote. In the future I might want to demonstrate the search that led me to the article titles and abstracts. It may be good to make students aware of my mental processes, so they can know how they might approach a similar search. Let them know which questions I am seeking to answer along the way. Ideally, I would like to illicit more responses from the students; I fear that I may have been too quick to talk after students gave their brief summaries of the abstracts. What kinds of questions would be best to ask after students have talked about their sources? Is it best to engage that particular group in the discussion or the class as a whole?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Promoting Information Literacy via Roving Reference

On Monday and Tuesday I decided (with the approval of my supervisor) to try an experiment and do some roving reference in Idaho State University's Rendezvous Building, which was finished just last August. I checked out a laptop from the library's Information Technology department and also took some scotch tape, a stapler, a notepad, a water bottle, and my own planner. Circulation let me take a book truck. My first adventure involved a spill, when my noisy, rattling cart bumped into a protruding slab of concrete and everything but the laptop went flying onto the sidewalk. Gratefully, I had my hand on the laptop. This opportunity for learning prompted me to bring everything in the laptop's suitcase on the second day. I had simply left the suitcase in my office that first day.

Upon entering the Rendezvous I worried that the student at their Information Desk might tell me I couldn't conduct my roving-reference experiment, or that he would
have to seek approval from a supervisor. Fortunately, he had no problem with it; maybe the fact that he hails from my hometown (actually he lived only five houses down the street from me) had something to do with it, but his co-workers had no problem with it the next day, either. So I was good to go.

Basically, I approached individuals with a basic introduction that went something like this: "Hi, I am a Roving Reference Librarian, and today I am answering questions. Are there any questions I can help you with?" Most people responded that they did not, so I would usually go into another line of questioning or public relations for the library. "Do you use the library?" "How do you use the library?" Depending on their responses I varied what I would say.

In a sense, it felt like I was pestering people, but most individuals had the decency to give me at least a minute’s worth of their attention. Yet, I feel strongly that the library can be a significant key to a student's success. I've heard the president of ISU say in a meeting I attended that those students who use the library and its resources are more likely to succeed and graduate. Therefore, whenever I encountered a senior nearing graduation (this week), and they said they had spent many hours studying in the library or had used many of the books/articles I would congratulate them and say that they are proof of this idea.

Here are a few of the questions people asked me:

• My professor ordered some articles for me via Inter-Library Loan. How can I request items through ILL for myself?
• How many books can I check out at a time?
• I need to find out if bacteria grows faster in cow or soy milk. Where can I look to find articles that may address this? This was a difficult one for me; I’m not very satisfied with how I approached this one.
• What is the circumference of the earth? Yes, this guy was being facetious and light hearted, but we had fun finding the answer in the Oxford Reference Online database, albeit in terms of kilometers and not in miles. By the way, the earth’s circumference is wider around the equator than around the poles, longitudinally that is.
• If I check out books now, how long can I have them? I told them that they would be due at the end of the semester, but they could renew them online to extend the loan period.

I think I answered nearly 10 questions in the approximately two and a half hours I was over there. Interestingly enough, I recognized a few student faces as they had been in a recent instruction session I had taught. Their class was meeting about the time I was over there.

For those students who did not have questions, I asked if they ever used the library and what they used it for. I put in a plug for continuing to use the library and to come ask us questions whenever they have them.

Additionally, I met a couple of instructors, and one of them belongs to the economics department. He talked to me briefly about an assignment that he gives his students, and I requested that he send me a copy of it. He has graciously done so, and he gave me permission to share it with my library colleagues. I forwarded it to my colleague who develops our economics's collection.

On my second day fewer persons asked me questions. It could very well be due to my pre-conceived idea that few would have them. When mentioning this to colleagues, they suggested that in such circumstances it might be better to ask open-ended questions like "How is your research going?" Definitely, this roving-reference activity would probably be better during the middle of the semester or at least a couple of weeks before the end of the semester--not the last week.

Anyway, I received lots of valuable feedback on the second day. When I found out one student was majoring in political science I asked her if she had found everything she had needed in the library for all of her projects. In a recent assignment she had not found much on the organizational styles of the US presidency. Apparently, her textbook lists six or seven different styles, and she remembered four or five: collegial, spokes of the wheel, competitive, hierarchical, etc. The following day I noticed that approximately $93 remained in the political-science budget, so I looked for similar types of books in our catalog. We have 29 items that qualify for the search: "presiden? styl?" One of the best subject heading turned out to be "Political Leadership--United States," for which there are 34 titles in our catalog. When conducting similar searches within the University of Iowa's catalog, I discovered a few good titles that seemed to match what this student was looking for, so I ordered a few other titles related to this topic.

Two students had similar ideas, expressing interest in receiving specific information from the library. One suggested that we send a mass email to students, so they can keep abreast of any changes to the library. Later a colleague told me that with an RSS feed, students can receive notice in their emails when the "Library News" gets updated. At the very bottom of the blog is a little link that allows you to receive these updates. The second student remarked that he would appreciate seeing the usage statistics that number how many books have been checked out and how many times people search and find articles in the electronic databases. Again, later I found out the on the "Library News" they post the library newsletters which do include this useful data.

Roving reference turned out to be rather productive and beneficial in my opinion. I hope we pick this up as a regular practice in the future.