December 1, 2015

Fun with the Internet, Library Style

I’ve been exploring some of the tools Phil Bradley shared in his “What Phil Has Found” presentation from Internet Librarian 2015. I thought I’d share a few thoughts about some of these tools.

Some of these I already knew about (DuckDuckGo, Paper.li), some I have no need for, and some were apps or Chrome extensions and I’m on the reference computer. But a few of them really stood out to me, either for their incredible usefulness, or because they missed the mark.

First, on the subject of meta-search. I think there is something wrong with me, or un-librarian of me, that I don’t really like meta-search engines. Generally speaking, most of the search engines are going to give me pretty much the same results unless I’m really using a lot of complex search strategizing. And the way most meta-search engines present results tends to be either one-at-a-time click-on-each-logo or a blanket here-are-the-top-five-results-from-each (and they are all the same). So I’m maybe not the best person to judge this category, but I was generally unimpressed with these. If someone wants to explain to me why meta-search engines are a wonderful thing, go for it, I’m willing to listen.

Second, y’all, can we talk about Charactour.com? First impression – OMG, this is super-fun! Second impression – where are all the book characters? Seriously, they need some librarians on their team, or maybe a spinoff website for readers. But yeah, this was fun. Apparently, I’m the Wesley of my friends. I can live with that.

Third, and I’m sure plenty of librarians will disagree with me here, but I LOVE RefMe.com! I think everyone should use it. But then, I also think that learning how to cite is far, far less important to college students than understanding when and why to cite. I will definitely be recommending this to students.

Finally, I have to say a word about Hshtags. I was so excited when I saw this on the list. And then I tried it. Sigh. Hashtags make me feel like the dorky kid hovering around the cool kids, but not quite fitting in. I don’t have a hashtag I need to track. I want to know what hashtags are out there already being used. Someone give me a search engine that lets me search a topic or phrase and find out what hashtags are already out there for it and which one is preferred. Where I can search for “library jobs” and find #alattjob (and the dozens of other library job related hashtags), and see which ones are being used the most. Why doesn’t this exist yet? Or does it exist and I just don’t know about it? Anyone? Please?

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October 16, 2015

We Talk the Talk, but Do We Walk the Walk?

Is it just me, or does it feel like, in practice, our focus as librarians is overwhelmingly on the mechanics of information literacy rather than on the big picture? Let me define what I mean when I say “mechanics” and “big picture.” The mechanics is the how-to stuff: Boolean, database search limiters, proximity searching, the tell-tale signs of a scholarly source vs. a non-scholarly source. The big picture is the critical thinking, evaluation, and ethics stuff. Put another way, the mechanics is concepts one and two of the old ACRL Information Literacy Standards. The big picture stuff is all the rest of it, and pretty much all of the new ACRL Information Literacy Framework.

Without being too anecdotal (read: leaving my workplace out of this), I’m struck that librarians are very territorial about these mechanical things. If someone in the writing center or tutoring center dares to teach a student about using search limiters in a library database, we cry foul. “That’s our domain!” we shout, “Stop encroaching on us! You can’t do it right! We’re trained in this!” As if only someone with an MLS can navigate the complexities of EBSCOhost. This seems petty to me. In this age of the flipped classroom, can’t all these mechanics safely be left to someone else so that we can focus our attention on those higher level concepts?

In addition, we need to realize that we’re not the only ones on campus who think information literacy is important. Those folks in the writing center? They have a stake in this too. As do the faculty members teaching the classes. And yet, according to a very interesting Dissertation by Grace Veach at the University of South Florida, librarians think that four out of the five original info lit standards outlined by ACRL should be taught by librarians, not writing faculty (see figure 13, page 79 of that study).

So here we are, focusing most of our attention on standard 2 (the mechanics), and getting upset whenever anyone else on campus tries to teach the mechanics, yet ostensibly thinking that we should have responsibility for all of information literacy instruction except for teaching the purposeful use of information. And then along come these complex new Information Literacy Framework concepts. Where does that leave us?

I don’t know the answer to that. And frankly, I’ve been brooding over this post for days, trying to make it sound less angry, less confrontational, and more coherent, and I’m ready to let go and send it out into the ether. So I apologize for coming off angry, confrontational, and/or incoherent. That’s just the kind of week this has been.

September 24, 2015

The “Why” of the Library

On Monday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece on transparency in teaching. On the same day, a coworker told me a story about a student in her information literacy course. A little context – my coworker’s story came up during a conversation about students who, when given an assignment to find a specific article in a specific database, go out to Google and find the same article on the web.The student said he could “save the university a lot of money” by cancelling all the library subscriptions because he (a graduating senior) had never used a library resource, instead finding all of his resources with Google. Now, that story could prompt a lot of different blog posts. Why did his professors not insist on scholarly sources? Or maybe they did and he managed to get everything from open access sources, and how does that affect the library? But the thing that struck me was my coworker’s response to the student. It was a response of frustration. She told him, essentially, that SACS (our accrediting body) would not approve of us not providing these resources. Her intent was to make him realize the importance of library resources (if a regional organization charged with ensuring the high standards of education thinks the library is important, you should too), but more likely she failed to convince him.

This is not to belittle my coworker. Her reaction was pretty standard for librarians. We tend to be on the defensive with students, faculty, and administrators alike. But her story, and the conversation that prompted it, got me thinking – how could we do a better job of explaining to students (and faculty and administrators) what exactly our value is? (I know, I know, overdone topic, but hear me out.)  So my thought was, they should be told the reasons behind the assignment before they do it. Lo and behold, the Chronicle article says exactly what I was thinking.

Now I am new at my job. I’m in my first semester here, first time in a tenure track faculty position. And they are going easy on me by not requiring me to teach this semester. Which means I have loads of time to think about the kinds of assignments I will use, not to mention the luxury of learning from my coworkers’ trials and tribulations. So I want to use this time to really pinpoint why we want our students to use “library resources.” How could be we explaining this is a way that is truly convincing?

Outside of academia, how likely are our students to use proprietary resources? My guess is, not likely. And if they are unlikely ever to come across a proprietary database again after graduation, does it matter if they know how to locate a database’s thesaurus, or if they found an article using Business Search Premier or Google?

As librarians, we talk a lot about authority, accuracy, stability, and the vastness of the free Internet. Let’s look at each of those things separately. Yes, there is authoritative information in library databases. But there are also questionable journals in these databases. Conversely, there is plenty of good, scholarly content available for free on the web, especially in this age of open access. The same could be said for accuracy. In the past two years we have seen numerous retractions in major, well-respected journals. As for stability, journals come and go from the major aggregators due to copyright issues and contract negotiations. I would argue that a respectable open access journal on the web is no more likely to go away than a proprietary journal in an aggregator. Finally, is the vastness of the Internet really a problem anymore? Google’s search algorithm has gotten remarkably sophisticated. With just a little training on the finer points of advanced Google searching, it is possible to find plenty of quality resources without ever using a library. And ultimately, aren’t we supposed to be teaching students how to vet what they find, regardless of where it comes from? Shouldn’t the desired outcome be that a student can identify “bad” information and “good” information when they find it, and know how best to search for it? And mightn’t it be better, in terms of real life skills, to teach them these skills using Google and not proprietary databases?

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest that the student is right and that the university library should cancel all their subscriptions to save money. I’m merely suggesting that the issue is worth thinking about and that we must think about it if we want to come into the conversation on the offensive rather than the defensive. In order to make our assignments more meaningful, students should understand why we’re assigning them. And that means we have to be prepared to explain.

August 27, 2013

The Da Vinci Code With Vampires!

I recently read Sam Cabot's The Blood of the Lamb. I have to say, my initial reaction was to laugh out loud and set it down, but I'm really glad I changed my mind and gave it a chance. It's a well written page-turner, and it manages to evoke both Dan Brown and every vampire novel ever, without feeling like a total rip-off of either one. Despite my general distaste for all things supernatural, I really enjoyed this book and was sorry to reach the end. I highly recommend it to fans of Dan Brown, vampires, or anyone looking for a fun, light read.

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August 10, 2013

Review of Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens

Let me begin by saying that I am not a teacher. I am also very skeptical of the American education system, so much so that I plan to homeschool my own son, not for religious reasons, like so many homeschoolers, but because I don’t think he’ll get a good education otherwise. So in some ways, I was the ideal audience for Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Education. I’m already a believer in the failure of the system.

That said, the book was eye-opening even for me. The author does an excellent job detailing the problems faced by public school teachers in America. He effectively utilizes a mix of statistics, vignettes from public school teachers around the country, and his own personal narrative of his experiences in a Bronx middle school to illustrate how the focus of the school system has changed from students to data. He tells a sad story of ineffective administrators with too much power, scapegoated teachers whose creativity and effectiveness are stifled by micromanagement, and marginalized students. I wish I could say that I thought this book would help to change things. The author’s column on Salon already affected a change in the particular school in which he taught, small changes in individual schools are no longer sufficient. And unfortunately, I fear the book relies too heavily on the author’s own experiences in one school, with one bad principal and not enough on the statistics and vignettes from other teachers to really convince anyone who isn’t already convinced. He makes it too easy for a critic to say, “yes but that was just one bad administrator.” But the book is very readable, and I hope that it ends up in the hands of enough people to at least get the conversation started at a national level. And I hope that Mr. Owens plans to continue his crusade beyond Confessions.

*Full disclosure – I received a free galley copy of the eBook from NetGalley.com.