Information Literacy Is Stuck in My Craw

Yes, I know, it’s really the “crop” or gullet but that doesn’t give the rough edge I want to my phraseology! There is a lot of discussion about information literacy in libraries. I didn’t really understand what the big deal was, although I was exposed to some ideas at a Canadian Association of Law Libraries dealing with “neteracy” and the need to educate law students on better online research habits. As I was digging around, I came across Stanley Wilder’s 2005 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and, of all the other materials I’ve seen on this, it was this article that resonated with me the most.

Stanley Wilder, who was at Rochester University in 2005 but is now the University Librarian at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte, titled his article, “Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions“.  If you Google the title, you’ll find plenty of discussion about why Wilder got it wrong.

But when I think about Google, or new products like Thomson Reuter’s WestlawNext, or listen to people talk about usability (especially in the library context), it makes me wonder why information literacy is such a touchstone.  Wilder says:

The premise of information literacy is that is that the supply of information has become overwhelming, and that students need a rigorous program of instruction in research or library-use skills, provided wholly or in part by librarians.

But why don’t students need that sort of instruction in using Facebook?  or Google?  In fact, why is that we are asking our researchers to conform to our systems (whether it’s our physical presentation of books or online Web presence) rather than doing more to conform to our researchers?

I am sure there is a mountain of scholarship to explain why.  And I can certainly see that young, impressionable minds need to be taught what an index is (and more importantly, how it speeds up research) and other information-related concepts.  It’s like teaching a foreign language.

I’m not persuaded that’s the case when you are dealing with special libraries and the specialist researcher.  When I think of the average lawyer who walks into a law library, I can imagine a baseline of information literacy they already have.  They don’t need me to tell them about the legal system and explain what a case is or how to search for it.  They have been doing that for years.  Yes, even the older lawyers because I haven’t seen any recent statistics that suggest that older lawyers don’t do legal research online.

What they need from me is to reduce the amount of time it takes for them to get to the information.  So that’s my challenge.  Not only do I need to provide value to their library experience if they ask a reference question, but I need to add value by getting them to the information faster if they don’t need me to mediate their experience.  And most don’t.

So shouldn’t we be thinking about the library experience from the stripped down point of view of Google?  Just because it’s a simple box to search in, doesn’t mean that the results are limited to that simplicity.  The search you put into Google is contemplated in a variety of ways (adding boolean logic, looking for plurals, etc.) even though the searcher doesn’t have to know how to tell Google to do that.  A hoary practice in libraries is the tour, where new researchers are shown the nooks and crannies, introduced to the arrangement of the physical information containers, etc.  Once comfortable with the physical, they might get oriented to the online databases that contain the additional information they need.

But why should they have to get a tour?  Given a simple map, why can’t the average lawyer or paralegal (or even the public) navigate a law library collection?  The onus should be on us to present that collection in a way that reflects how it is used and valued by the researcher.  I am always surprised when I go into a law library and find that their law reports (case law) are the first thing I experience.  That goes against the basic legal research education, which is that lawyers should begin their research with secondary (texts, commentary) materials.  And yet, there they are, front and center.  The researcher then has to orient themselves to locate the commentary, which may be on a different floor or location separate from where the library has provided research tables and space.  Why isn’t the commentary placed so that, when the researcher comes into the library, it is readily apparent that everything they need to get started is right in front of them.

We can’t control what the publishers do with their online research tools but WestlawNext is an admirable future direction, if you can afford it.  It looks to simplify the experience of getting in and finding information.  It goes away from the current environment where each research tool requires specialized training and continual use or else you will be unable to find information and replicate your experience.  The unnecessary complexity of the systems appears almost to be designed to ensure longevity of librarians as trainers rather than showing any attempt to reflect researcher needs.

Librarians can provide far greater value than ameliorating defective online experiences.  Where they have control, they should shape their collections so that the researcher’s experience is valuable.  Put the content and services that the researcher needs as close to your entry point as possible.  The content and services thus displayed may change, but your researchers will show you by their behavior what they need and what they don’t.  A law library reading room is likely to have a lot of secondary material lying around, because the lawyers are likely to use computers for their primary law.  If that’s the case in your library, get the print primary law out of the way.

Similarly, if you’re a legal publisher, don’t expect your complicated online system to get used.  Lawyers want to deal with as few systems, and they will be the most comprehensive.  After that, they are likely to flow to the ones that have the interface that is easiest to remember and use.  If your company can’t design an online product that is (a) comprehensive (all of your published content) and (b) easy to use, then expect your potential customers to use other products.  I’m not sure that information literacy in law libraries makes much sense.  I would expect the market of legal researchers to migrate to the environments, online and off, that best reduce the barriers to finding information, and avoid the ones that require an intermediary who provides no additional value other than clearing the brush from the path.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.