The importance of information literacy, continued

I knew it had been a little while since I posted here but didn’t realize until just now that it’s been since just before the Presidential election here in the U.S. A combination of being understaffed at work and having a lot of other things going on in my life have prevented me from taking time to blog. I’ll try to post more regularly!

In my last post, I talked about librarians’ role in educating people about filter bubbles, distorted perceptions and other information issues ahead of the election. Last week I launched a new semester of library instruction, and I’m using a new tab I created in our Evaluating Online Information LibGuide. I created this tab about evaluating news as a resource for students in the wake of a mass outcry about “fake” news. But I agree with Snopes.com, which ran a piece called “We Have A Bad News Problem, Not a Fake News Problem.” Misleading people with information is not a new problem, and the distortion of real news is as important as the fakery out there.

The message I gave my students this week — and that they responded to with enthusiasm — is that they already have the tools to spot misleading, poorly reported, distorted, or fake information because they know how to use the C.R.A.A.P. test (see the left hand tab in the LibGuide). What it boils down to is who created this website/post/article/tweet and why? What is the point — to persuade? Obscure? Confuse? Provoke? Inform? Who authored the information, on what authority, and with what kind of information to back them up?

The Computer Scientist pointed me to two episodes of a podcast we both listen to this week. These two episodes of On Being speak to the way people are feeling about online information these days. The first was with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings. Popova once said literature is the original Internet, because the way literature speaks to what came before it is a kind of hyperlink. Her thoughtful approach — bringing the best of a thinking life to the medium where many people are thoughtless — is an antidote to clickbait. The other episode, from last week, is with Anil Dash. He speaks to the lack of ethics education in computer science, and the ways that the tech industry acts to create and deploy cool technological innovations without thinking through the human impact.

I think these are both things I can help my student see — the Internet, I tell them, is wonderful in many ways, but we have to be deliberate in our interaction with it, we have to be intentional and critical (in the thinking sense of that word) about what we find there, and we have to use it for good, which requires the hard work of determining what that means.

The good news? The young people I work with seem to really get this and care about it. They were really amazed by some of the things I showed them this week, including a white supremacy group’s website about MLK Jr.which appears at first glance to be a site dedicated to his memory (I refuse to link to it here) and a NYT article about a person their age who created fake news stories about Hillary Clinton and profited wildly. But their amazement was tinged with indignation of the best kind, and I feel good about this part of my work. I am hopeful that one person at a time, I can arm at least some of my students to take back their own futures from those who want to distract, numb, or fool them.

 

Advertisements

Information literacy, millenials, and the presidential election

I recently posted on my Facebook page that the current election campaign is a helpful example in my library instruction classes, because when I tell my university students that they need to think critically about what’s true when they search online, and really examine the source of the information, the motive and intent behind a post or website, etc., they really get it. An article in the Columbia Journalism Review , “What the News Media Can Learn from Librarians,” seems to validate my point.

Journalist Louise Lief refers to “the framework of information literacy” in her article, by which I believe she means the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education which replaced a previous set of standards and thresholds for information literacy. Academic librarians have critiqued The Framework for being a bit vague, unwieldy to apply, and hard to measure and assess. Lief made it seem quite practical and smart, and suggests that journalists could learn from it.

First she notes that according to The Pew Research Center, 18-29 year olds are fairly skeptical of the media. Contrary to the over-reported notion that young people believe everything they see online, Lief notes that “Although they prefer to get their news online and are more likely to see it on social  networking sites, many don’t trust information they get there. They are more likely than other age groups to sense media bias.”

She goes on to say that in her view,

“The information literacy framework offers them a more meaningful way to engage with and manage information. The librarians encourage users to focus on inquiry rather than opinion, to evaluate a range of sources, take into account diverse viewpoints and perspectives, and to develop the ability to pursue new avenues as they gain new understanding. They also urge users to assess the value of information in its various forms. Is it being used as a commodity, a way to understand the world, a means to influence, a path to educate, or some combination of these? They regard users not only as knowledge consumers, but also as knowledge creators.”

At my university we teach students the C.R.A.A.P. test for evaluating information on the web. We ask them to consider the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a site. Most of my students haven’t thought much about why online ads exist, or why a site with ads* may be selecting what and how to post in order to attract the highest number of clicks (and thus ad revenue). Another thing I don’t think students have generally thought of, and I admit I myself have given scant attention to, is that the very act of finding information online is rigged by corporations, as Angela Merkel pointed out this week. In case you missed it, the German chancellor said at a media conference that popular (and profitable) search engines like Google, and social media outlets like Facebook, are “distorting perception.”

What Google returns when you enter a search string is based on their proprietary algorithms. In other words, a huge corporation decides what you find out when you search for something online. And don’t forget, they are also harvesting information about your searches and profiting by providing that information to advertisers and companies eager to sell you things.

On Facebook, where many people get their news, according to the same Guardian article linked above, you are even more limited:

“This month, President Barack Obama’s former social media adviser Caleb Gardner highlighted the danger of filter bubbles – a phrase invented by the internet activist Eli Pariser. ‘More likely than not, you get your news from Facebook,” Gardner told students at Northwestern University in Illinois. “Forty-four per cent of US adults get news on the site, and 61% of millennials … if that doesn’t frighten you, you don’t know enough about Facebook’s algorithm. If you have a parent who’s a Trump supporter, they are seeing a completely different set of news items than you are.'”

Why does any of this matter? Most of us are not going to get partisan in our library instruction. But we can point out, as this Vox article does, that the real scandal this election season is how the repeated use of the word scandal, and others like it, has dominated media coverage, obscuring information about actual policy issues. Authority is constructed and contextual, the Framework begins. In the case of commercial media, publishing, and internet corporations, it’s constructed and contextualized in order to profit, first and foremost.

Should you stop searching the internet? No. But you should take the time to search beyond your own “filter bubble,” and to be a critical consumer of information. Think like an 18-29 year old, in other words.

*If you can see ads when reading my blogs, know that I didn’t have anything to do with them, but they are the cost of having a free space for The Nocturnal Librarian and bookconscious at WordPress.com.

Creating lifelong information seekers

On a library instruction email list I read, there was a recent discussion that included an interesting point: when we teach the use of databases to college students, it’s both worthwhile and in line with our mission of producing lifelong information seekers and users to note that once students graduate, they can often access databases through their public libraries.

The thread stayed with me. First of all I like the idea of fostering a continuum of library use. There’s a natural progression from toddler story times to college library users (although we often lose them in their teens), and if we can pay it forward in academia by encouraging our students to return to their local libraries when they need information in the future, we should.

Second, I think it’s useful to think of what we’re doing in larger terms than just helping students learn what they need for the current assignment. Informed citizens are good for our country and our local communities. If we can play a part in preparing students to find, evaluate, and use information well, and also influence those students to become lifelong library users,  it will hopefully be helpful to them, good for society, and good for our profession.

As I prepare for my first full semester of library instruction, I’m going to keep these things in mind and be sure to remind students that the skills they are applying to their papers can be just as helpful later when they want to learn a new skill, research places to live or work, find out about health concerns for their parents and schools for their kids, and much more, and that their local library will be a resource for them as they go into the world. Do you talk about these kinds of things in your information literacy program? Leave a comment and share your ideas.

 

More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.

 

Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

I have a raging poison ivy/oak/sumac rash at the moment, I’m not sure which & I’m not going back out there to inspect the woods behind our rock wall to find out. In the process of finding information about how to treat my affliction, I found out that people really don’t trust the internet as a reliable source of information. I was surprised, because when I worked as a college reference librarian I heard colleagues and professors lament that “kids today” believe everything they read online. (A related problem: teachers who assign kids’ homework with the rule, “no online sources.” Many libraries are adding more and more e-books to their collections, which leaves librarians explaining to parents, “It’s a book, it’s just online.”)

I’m thinking it’s a little more complicated than that because I had a series of conversations with friends, relatives, and total strangers from different generations in the last few days about poison ivy; specifically about whether it spreads and how to alleviate the discomfort. (FYI, it spreads systemically in your body once you’re exposed to the chemical in the leaves that causes the rash, but you can’t spread it yourself by scratching or contact with the rash; I’m still working on alleviating the discomfort). What I learned is that people are very mistrustful of any information online that doesn’t come from someone they know. 

As reference librarians we spend time teaching people how to look for accurate information online and how to tell if a website is trustworthy. I have come across plenty of patrons (usually not young people) who are a little too trusting of something they found online. But I never realized how many people don’t trust the web at all, even if the information is from a good source (Mayo Clinic’s website, for example) or if the information is essentially the same offline. But if people see something a friend posted, they seem to find it more reliable.

Have you come across this? How do you convince patrons they can trust an online source? And how about the touchy subject of social media not necessarily being reliable — at least no more reliable than cocktail party or break room chatting? Which is to say, sometimes it’s brilliant, accurate, and spot on advice and sometimes it’s, well, not. In fact, it’s like any information: you have to consider the source.

Library instruction, or teaching college students to fish

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him today; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Two of my favorite nonprofits are modeled on this idea: Heifer International founder Dan West was delivering milk to Spanish Civil War victims and realized “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” Habitat for Humanity‘s mission is to eradicate poverty housing with “a hand up, not a handout,” so they partner with families to build a simple decent home purchased with a no-interest loan.

Reference is another form of service; we’re teaching library patrons how to fish for information.  Students who ask me for assistance often want to fish for themselves; they just need a little guidance. But some have always had someone else fish for them and would prefer I catch, clean, prepare, and serve up the information they need, as quickly as possible.

How to handle this kind of interaction? Gently, but firmly. The patron may be somewhat impatient in the short term if I encourage him or her to search a database (with suggestions and pointers), learn to locate a book on the shelf (sadly, some college students claim they’ve never done this, particularly in a library with LC classification), or to find citation information.

But when the library is closed or the student has graduated and needs to assess the reliability of a website, find a key piece of information for a work assignment, or even just look for a good book, I know I’ll have laid the groundwork for independent information literacy.

Class of 2012, may your fishing feed you well for the rest of your lives.

Please note, the semester is wrapping up at the Nocturnal Librarian blog. I will post less frequently during the summer months.