It is commonplace to observe that this is an “information age,” that “information literacy” is essential to personal success and that “information” rather than timber, wheat or petroleum is our most precious national resource. Obvious technological changes evident in communications hardware the personal computer, the fax machine, the laser printer, and so on adorn homes and offices. Intrusive language, featuring concepts such as the “information superhighway,” reconstructs our daily business routines.
The prevailing ideology of the information age is that information is power. It is at least a powerful commodity, for the amount of information being mass produced annually doubles every four years. Knowing how to acquire it, analyze it and generalize from it empowers the individual. Yet, despite all the talk about contemporary young people being well informed, worldly and sophisticated, a disquieting reality remains. There is a serious gap between the skills students bring into libraries and the skills libraries demand of them in order to make use of their resources to pursue a personal interest or to complete an academic assignment. An alarming number of college students simply do not possess the skills needed to make proper use of a library.
To deal better with the current discrepancy between available and required skills, it is important to understand the basic strategies that college students must master to use libraries effectively. A useful inventory would contain the following student competencies:
- Search Strategy: to create a formal search strategy aimed at getting information appropriate to their assignment;
- General/Specific: to take an idea and find a more general or more specific term or concept;
- Keyword and Synonym Skills: to identify a word or phrase that reflects the idea;
- Question Formulation: to ask questions that will elicit appropriate information;
- Sources of Information: to comprehend the variety of forms of information available and to be able to gain access to that material;
- Computer Experience: to know the basics of computer use in order to locate books and periodical literature;
- Directories and Databases: to understand what they are and how to use them in order to generate research sources;
- Indexes: to be aware of the many types of indexes (including book, periodical and encyclopedia) and to understand their use;
- Reading and Comprehension: to read critically and understand material acquired;
- Evaluation: to judge sources for bias, timeliness and authority;
- Interrelationship of Subjects: to realize that information can be cross-media and cross-curricular, thus avoiding unnecessary and artificial limits on one's search;
- Functions of Libraries: to appreciate that libraries are more than storehouses of answers and that they are but one of many community services, some of which may have the information needed.
Students cannot become effective users of the library without ample opportunity to practice their skills. Practice is essential if they are to become an integral part of the student's skill set and allow for generalization. Generalization must occur for any skill to be applied to a new situation or experience.
This much needed practice calls for excellent library assignments and excellent assignments for the library, no matter what the subject. Experience teaches that certain pitfalls must and can be avoided so that teachers can provide the best possible opportunities for student growth and development. These include:
- being sure that assignment questions and instructions are up-to-date and do not ask students to use obsolete technology nor sources;
- checking to see that the information is available in the library;
- being cautious about asking too many students to research the same topic, thus exhausting library resources;
- not asking students to work independently in the library when there is no possibility of them achieving their goals without some guidance;
- being wary of “scavenger hunt” assignments that result in library staff being asked a series of unrelated questions with no useful pattern or coherence in mind.
What the above-mentioned signals is a need for teamwork between teachers and librarians. Communications between these two sectors of college faculty will enable us to provide challenging, effective and interesting assignments that will prepare students for their futures. Librarians will be pleased to discuss the purpose of teachers' assignments in advance and will be able to assist in the identification of pertinent available sources. Assignment questions, to be of value, must be answerable and the required sources must be available to all.
Finally, it is helpful if students are provided with an introduction to their topics before being set loose in the library. The best time for basic groundwork to be given is before students have set foot in what too many consider to be an alien intellectual labyrinth. The time spent in consultation and preparation will take time for teachers, but will bring visible rewards in the form of competently completed assignments and better developed skills that can be confidently taken into the workplace.
Rhonda Roth is Campus Librarian at the Newnham Campus of Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario.