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What’s in a Name? Collaborating for Consistency

February 10, 2023

Early in my library career, I heard the phrase “work like a patron.” These words have come to mind frequently since then, often in conversations about user experience. Considering the language used in information literacy instruction is especially important. After all, terms like databases, peer-reviewed articles, periodicals and search filters are not often part of undergraduates’ lives outside of school.

Fortunately, a recent Niche Academy webinar, “Systemic Problems With Information Literacy Training” presented by Mary DeJong, covers these and other concerns related to engaging with students and faculty. If you haven’t seen the session yet, a description, recording, and (entertaining) slides are available online.

Many of DeJong’s observations about research assumptions and motivations — or lack thereof — resonated with us. At our library, this presentation reaffirmed our views on the need for wider conversations about a specific issue: communicating source types with students.

Why this focus? Consider these scenarios, based on a mix of past experiences:

  • During a research consultation, a student notes their instructor wants them to find at least three peer-reviewed articles and no more than two online sources for an assignment. They don’t know how they can meet these requirements, given that their peer-reviewed articles were all found online. Doesn’t that make them online sources?
  • When limiting a search by source title, the filter is labeled “Journal Title” — and newspapers are among the titles listed.
  • A student assumes anything in a library database search meets the criteria for an assignment, because articles within a library database are listed as required sources. After a database search, the student chooses the first three results, including a book review.

The webinar and subsequent discussions brought us back to working like a patron. When students are presented with an assignment or working on activities in an information literacy session, what are their experiences like? From their perspectives, what could be more clear or consistent? Are we providing explanations for jargon-y words or acronyms that may be unfamiliar? We certainly try to. But just as important — do our explanations match those of their professors?

We’ve had conversations with faculty individually about their assignments, with good results. However, we decided to plan a more focused effort by meeting with a group of writing instructors. We work with their classes frequently, so this seemed like a good starting point. We asked how they were describing different types of sources to their students, heard about what was most effective, and listened as they shared ideas with each other. We agreed to meet again, and may collaborate on a faculty workshop about this topic in the future.

Given our small campus and existing rapport with faculty, developing these ideas with them made sense to us. Down the road, we may develop a module or tutorial about this topic. Other institutions may start with tutorials and modules. Whatever the route taken, the end goal of reducing student confusion in a sea of information is a worthy one.

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