Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Teaching how to choose and evaluate sources: some thoughts

Barbara Fister provides some food for thought in her article "Choosing Sources in the Library of Babel." The article was featured in the LOEX Quarterly (vol. 31, number 4). The article opens with the description of the Library of Babel, title library from Jorge Luis Borges's 1941 short story. It is actually one of my favorite Borges stories, so the reference to Borges definitely caught my attention. Also, summer is a bit slower in terms of instruction (it means I don't teach as much), so for me this is a good time to reflect on my teaching practices, study, reflect, read, and thus add to my repertoire for the Fall. Reading this article served to give me some validation to some of my pracitces, but it also gave me some reminders of things to keep in mind as I teach as well as food for thought. Ms. Fister uses the description to show us that libraries actually have a lot in common with the internet. She makes some excellent points that I think any librarian who does instruction will find interesting and valuable. I would like to post some of her statements with some comments on my part.

On the common elements share by libraries and the internet, she writes that "both hold a vast amount of material, much of it contradictory, of poor quality, and out of date. Both also require researchers to make constant choices as they examine their options" (6).

If the weeding I have been working on at my library is any indication, the first part of that statement is certainly true, at least the part of out of date material. If you work at a large research library that tends to keep a lot of stuff, that issue is multiplied. I see weeding as tending to my part of the knowledge garden; you have to remove some things for the garden to flourish. In our own situation, we do have a space issue, so I have a bit of an additional incentive, but I am sure many librarians view the need to weed as the balance to the need to collect and add. In terms of adding, I am sure that all librarians strive to acquire excellent materials. However, anyone who relies on reviews knows that the occasional not-so-good book slips "under the radar" once in a while. Even if a certain book had excellent reviews, it does not mean it was a great book. It just illustrates the fact that we are not infallible, so we should not expect our students to be infallible in evaluating sources. The idea is to teach them how to evaluate what they find, be it online, in print, or in some other format. Keep reading.

The issue of convenience. Fister connects this idea with Ranganathan's Law of Save the Reader's Time. She points out that students find the internet convenient and familiar. This is a familiarity that students bring with them to college. In contrast, they have little or no familiarity with an academic library or how it operates. Fister writes:

"But students usually find the web more convenient to use than libraries, and far simpler in its organization. After all, through one simple interface you can find newspaper articles, government reports, recipes, and recycled term papers, and send them straight to the printer without leaving your computer. When we try to tell them that it's not all on the Internet, they aren't impressed. They don't want it all--they simply want enough to get the job done. And they'd often rather scan through fifty pages of Google results to find what they want than search unfamiliar databases, check holdings, chase down books, and photocopy articles" (6).

I can attest to this both from the reference desk and from the classroom. Tell a student that they may have to seek and photocopy an article from a periodical, and you might as well be telling them that they have to go on a quest through the forest of darkness past the river of eternity while defying the dragon of fire. And if the article is on microfiche, you might as well be condemning them to meditate truths on the Tree of Woe (and if you happen to be a "younger" librarian who never had to touch a microfiche reader, it may feel like woe to you too. Yes, some people go through library school without ever touching one. I had to touch them for my Gov. Docs. class for one, and boy, am I glad). Remote storage? Let's just say the voyage of the Event Horizon will look like a stroll in the park by comparison. I work at a small library; we are located in one story of a building. Readers can then imagine the feelings increasing if periodical stacks are on separate floors, or even a separate building. I am not completely pessimistic. In my experience, I can usually reassure students that the process is achievable, and I can often walk with them to the stacks, which helps to demistify the process a bit. And of course, there are things like J-Stor, which make slaying that fire dragon just a little easier. This issue does reflect some of the comments and observations I have been seeing on the blogosphere and the literature about how libraries need to improve their access points and be more like search engines (a search on a good library science database will likely yield many articles on this, or search for what librarians say on their blogs on a tool like Technorati). Regardless of where readers stand, it is something to think about. I only know the answer is not putting everything online nor discouraging use of online sources. It comes down to balance and education; it also comes down to giving students credit for their abilities. Fister seems to agree with this, which I think is common sense for any teacher.

Fister also writes about student exposure to the Internet and the need to be sceptical. She does so in the context of the many articles available about how students rely too much on tools like Google. She writes:

"The irony is that students are far more likely to have been exposed, at some level, to the need for skepticism when reading a website. They are essentially much more likely to have authored a website than to have published their writing in a traditional form. They have a grasp of where websites come from" (6).

In my experience, I have noticed that information literacy programs tend to assume that students simply take the Internet as it comes with no critical thinking or evaluation. Students are knowledgeable when it comes to using the Internet, so this is not a good assumption to make. Having said that, there are the students who do grab the first five results off Google without even thinking. As a former composition teacher, I graded my share of papers where that was the case. Overall though, to be blunt, students are not as clueless as librarians think they are (insert news flash neon lights here). It is necessary to note that this assumption is often reinforced by the students' professors. For instance, I often get the request from professors to "show them how to evaluate the Internet." I wonder to myself, "just the Internet, huh?" I never vocalize it though. I have some materials I use for such requests, but I also try to show them examples of websites. I find that asking students to find flaws with some websites is a good exercise. True, I get a share of blank stares, but I also get excellent answers. So I know they know how to look at a website, even if they have to put a bit of effort into it. I have discovered that what students often need is some reinforcement and refining. Show them some good tools, give them a good checklist maybe, then let them practice and rise to the ocassion.

On print sources, I agree with Fister that students need to know more about evaluating books and magazines. Fister uses this illustration: "Though we can give them checklists of what makes a journal article 'scholarly,' we don't always mention that a shabby piece of trivial research published in a third tier journal may be less valuable than a rigorously researched and imaginative article in Harper's. The fact that a text has been 'edited' or 'has gone through the peer review process' doesn't make it true" (7). Indeed. This is a challenge that I often face when I teach, and it was there when I was a professor. I find that demistifying (there goes that word again) the process works well. I bring samples of journals and magazines to my classes; I have students look at them. When I can, I have them do quick assessments of some of the content. My idea is to teach them, or rather show them, how to question everything. The idea at the end of the day is to show them how to think for themselves and to do so in an informed and intelligent way. I have my work cut out for me, but I would not have it any other way.

Fister concludes the article by listing traits of successful student researchers. She writes:

"How do undergraduates who succeed at research evaluate their sources? First, they start with an understanding of the rhetorical power of using well-chosen references. They know that the goal is to marshal evidence to support their argument, and they realize that strong evidence is more persuasive than weak or second-hand evidence. . .Second, they look for patterns and connections among the sources they examine. . .They don't need to research the authors' backgrounds to find out if they are credentialed. Instead, they look at how the authors are situated within the literature they are examining. And finally, they read their sources to see if the ones on which they rely offer a well-framed argument supported by evidence" (7,5).

This is quite an undertaking, but it is by no means impossible. As experts on information, librarians stand in a good position to assist students with their research. We can help them with our expertise on sources to help them make the best possible sources. We can serve as sounding boards now and then. We can strive to model and show them ways to engage in the conversations that make new knowledge. I am thinking that rather than gatekeepers, we are more like guides, and eventually, they will take the pebble from our hand. At least, as an educator, I like to think so.

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