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.

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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.