Information Literacy in an era of web-scale discovery

The era of web-based discovery resources is not new – its been here a while. A large number of libraries now boast the much sought after single search box that will unlock the doors to the library’s full wealth of collections (however decreasing they might be).

And it has led to some librarians questioning how these web-scale discovery services impact on how we teach information literacy. There’s a real dichotomy at play; do we put on our librarian hats and scoff at ‘real research’ being done with one search box; a lack of Boolean operators and search syntax commands? Or do we put on our users’ hats and think about how they search (and use information) and why the single search option is so appealing?

Web-scale search products should give us the chance to rethink our concepts of information literacy teaching. If we’re lamenting the single search box because it means it’ll be harder for us to teach students complex search skills, then we’re missing the point. If we think our students aren’t going to find the single search box on our website, and not use it, we’re wrong. If we think that students are going to choose an A&I resource over a discovery service that finds full text resources, we’re wrong. If we think students are going to choose the complex, confusing and never-ending list of search options from the single database, versus the simplicity of a single search box, we really don’t understand our students.

There’s a great paper by Lucy Holman (subscription required: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.acalib.2010.10.003) that really highlights the main problem. And it’s this: students think they’re great at finding stuff. But students really do overestimate their IL and information seeking skills and understandings. Holman found that students’ lack real robust mental models of searching. Holman concludes by saying that it’s time for IL and teaching librarians to rethink how we teach students. Lucy rightly wonders if we should be focusing on teaching students why their searches went wrong, how they could refine and amend searches, rather than construct the perfect all-encompassing search from the beginning.

Holman’s suggestion means we shift not only what we teach, but how we teach. Information literacy teaching has to meet the students where they’re at, right in the middle of their own search problems. And if that’s going to be on any library resource, that’s going to be in the Summon, EBSCO Discovery and other web-scale discovery services.

We can’t ignore discovery services, and we can’t ignore the opportunities they afford us to rethink our own approaches to teaching information literacy.

EDIT: In the lastest edition of College & Research Libraries News is a short piece reflecting on teaching Summon. Beyond simple, easy and fast: reflections on teaching Summon, by Catherine Cardwell, Vera Lux, Robert J. Snyder.

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5 Comments on “Information Literacy in an era of web-scale discovery”

  1. Michelle says:

    Great post Alan. I have not read the article you mention but I note this line which you paraphrase:
    “Lucy rightly wonders if we should be focusing on teaching students why their searches went wrong, how they could refine and amend searches, rather than construct the perfect all-encompassing search from the beginning”
    I must say, I would still love to be able to construct a perfect all-encompassing search from the beginning myself :) I have to say I sometimes think I am a little too pragmatic with my IL training – I am sure many would shake their heads in disapproval at me for not mentioning MeSH terms at some introductory sessions. The truth is, many people will never really search like that, no matter how we try to persuade them. Some will depending on their academic or research aspirations, but the majority? It is far easier to start from a baseline of what people understand and attach meaning to and to work on enhancing that, rather than trying to impose a supposed ‘better’ model instead.

    I don’t work in an academic library myself, but I always think it is an interesting dilemma – do we teach IL for students or for life-long learning? Both in theory! But some current approaches focus on the student as a researcher, when in many cases, once they enter the workforce they probably will not have access to the world of subscription databases and subject headings and instead will really have to start refining and critically evaluating what they can find through the web.

    • alancarbery says:

      Excellent points Michelle. And you’re right; we have an obligation to teach IL for both purposes: for the student’s (or the public/medical/law/whichever library user’s) immediate research needs as well as for lifelong learning. Sarah Cohen and Janet Cottrell spoke about Real Deal IL at LILAC. This is exactly what they were referring to, I think.

      “It is far easier to start from a baseline of what people understand and attach meaning to and to work on enhancing that, rather than trying to impose a supposed ‘better’ model instead.” I don’t know whether it’s easier, but I think it’s where we need to start looking. And this is really where I’m at with this blog post. I don’t think we (collective we) spend enough time trying to figure where our students’ minds are with their particular information need. We can’t teach students to be mini-librarians within 50 minutes, or whatever. And really, what’s the point of just showcasing a database or two for 50 minutes. That’s not IL teaching.

      Thanks so much for the comment.

      P.S. Can you ever be too pragmatic in teaching IL? :) We need pragmatism.

      • Michelle says:

        Yes Alan I meant ‘effective’ rather than easier really – or easier for the students (as in easier to learn and make use of) rather than the teacher. If we can’t connect with our students’ real information needs, at the right time (rather than what we perceive their needs to be – which is often dramatically different!) we will never be able to deliver effective teaching in my view.
        More pragmatism posts please! :)

  2. [...] might know my views on the whole area of IL and discovery services. We’ve just launched Summon in our library, so September 2012 is going to be a really [...]

  3. […] Just a quick plug for Alan Carbery‘s recent blog post “Information Literacy in an era of web-scale discovery“… […]


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