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.