The Evolution of Library Instruction

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

The other day I read Lane Wilkinson’s excellent post about his thinking as he and others are tackling revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. This is important work since, as Lane points out, they were approved 13 years ago. Much has happened since that time and this is a document that affects a lot of libraries. Libraries around the country use it to guide their own teaching, college competencies, and accreditation. Lane talks about the idea that instead to simply teaching skills and abilities such as evaluating information, we teach intellectual virtues and dispositions.

This got me thinking about library instruction more generally and the way that it has changed through history and even the way my view of  it has changed since I was in library school. It seems to me that library instruction has undergone an evolution over the years in both the way we talk about it and the way we approach it and teach it. This evolution has been a three step process and each of them build on and are informed by the previous one.

1. Bibliographic Instruction

This type of focus is very tools based. In bibliographic instruction, students are taught how to use our catalog or our databases. They are taught how to do Boolean searching and how to use a table of contents. Many pieces of this instruction are necessary and also inform the other evolutionary iterations. Students need to know how to use our library specific tools to find and evaluate the information they need. It’s much easier to teach tools, but if we simply stopped at teaching students that we have stuff and how to use it we would be doing them a disservice. That is why an evolution was necessary.

2. Information Literacy (ACRL standards from 2000)

For the most part, our current evolutionary step, as Lane points out, is focused on teaching skills. These are important skills like locating and evaluating information. We use tools like the CRAP test and we teach research strategies. Much of the way we devise our own local competencies is based on the language of teaching student the skills and giving them the abilities to succeed in challenging research and in meeting their various information needs. But this language can be limiting. If we are only providing them the skills and abilities and not aspiring for something greater, students may be able to succeed in college but when they get to the real world will they be able to continue that success?

3. Information Sophistication

Something we talk a lot about at Champlain College is fostering “habits of mind.” This sounds similar to the idea of intellectual virtues that Lane was putting forward. I’ve heard other librarians talk about this same idea in different terms as well. We want to help students become not  just literate but sophisticated and fluent in their use of information. This involves not just learning skills but applying and practicing those skills to develop certain habits and dispositions. A student who is sophisticated when it comes to information does not just know how to evaluate a source of information, but would have have the habit of regularly questioning and critically examining information they come across instead of taking it at face value.

Teaching habits of mind is not something that is simple though, and it might involve different pedagogies. At Champlain we often try to use the inquiry method which is directed specifically at teaching habits of mind and helping students to form “an educated response.” Our awesome new Assistant Director for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Alan Carbery has had significant experience with Problem Based Learning and I’m excited to learn more about it and try some new methods. In both of these cases the methods focus on giving students experience in working through problems and doing critical questioning. These methods allow students to practice the habits of mind needed for someone who is sophisticated in their use of information.

Each of these evolutionary steps are necessary for students. They cannot develop skills if they cannot use tools to find information. They cannot develop habits of mind unless they have skills that they can practice. But when students leave college, they shouldn’t just be literate–they should be fluent, sophisticated. It’s an aspirational view of library/information instruction. I hope to hear more librarians continue to talk about it and I’m glad that Lane’s view will be represented when the ACRL standards are being revised. We have to remember that we are not just trying to help students succeed while they’re in college. We want to prepare them to succeed in life.


Information Sophistication

moet & chandon champagne

CC image from naotakem on Flickr

Our institution was recently in the New York Times for the focus we are placing on financial literacy. We require students to attend multiple sessions about how to manage their money and make sound financial decisions. I think this is a forward thinking initiative, and wish that I had something like this when I was an undergraduate. What really struck me about the article, though, is the language that is used to describe what we’re teaching:

“Champlain… doesn’t actually use the term financial literacy. The opposite of literacy, after all, smacks of ignorance. Nobody wants to be ordered into a classroom for being illiterate. So the college speaks of its “financial sophistication” offerings…”

This is something I am going to begin adopting in the way I approach information literacy and teaching. As terms, I think ‘financial literacy’ or ‘information literacy’ are fine. People know what you are talking about. But they carry a lot of baggage, especially when used around students.

I almost never use the term ‘information literacy’ in the classroom, because I don’t want students thinking that I believe that they are information illiterate. If they think that, I’ve lost them. And in truth, I don’t think they’re information illiterate. I think they’re bright as hell and often they teach me things. They are really comfortable and adept at searching the web. I just think they’re not as sophisticated in their use and evaluation of information as they should be.

As part of our information literacy assessment, librarians got to look at annotated bibliographies handed in by first year students. In some of them there were rather questionable sources being used. Some included websites from high schools, some included only websites. People with a high level of information sophistication would include sources from a variety of formats. They would try to find sources that argued against their thesis, anticipating arguments. They would recognize bias and approach their problem with balance and objectivity.

I don’t believe that students are information illiterate, they simply need a higher level of information sophistication. At first students are only drinking the Pabst Blue Ribbons of the information world. These are things like Wikipedia and biased blog websites, and sites in the top five hits of a Google search. This is fine is many instances, but I want to help them develop more refined information palettes. I also want them to enjoy the Moët et Chandons of research articles, reports, and information presented in a scholarly, balanced way.