Archive for August, 2011

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By now you’ve probably come across the news that 90% of Internet users don’t know about using CTRL+F to search a web page or document (that’s Command+F for all you hipsters out there). Librarians are jumping on this statistic as a rallying cry for the importance of information literacy, digital literacy, keyboard literacy, or [insert modifier] literacy. Throw in the recent article at Inside Higher Ed about college students’ piss-poor research skills, and…wow…college students are having some serious trouble using technology. It’s starting to sound like the future of academic library instruction will be less about search strategies and more about removing choking hazards from the computer lab.

“Where’s the link to ELMOSTOR?”

Image by Paul Mayne, on Flickr

I’ll admit that I’m skeptical about the 90% figure (simply because I haven’t seen the original research). But, let’s assume it’s true. Why should CTRL+F matter? Well, as Daniel Russell explains, “if you only learn one keyboard shortcut in your entire life, this should be it. Knowing how to rapidly spot the word, phrase or substring you’re looking for quickly will change the way you read texts online.” So, that’s it…CTRL+F will change the way you read! 

I’ll admit that CTRL+F is an integral part of my search behavior. I search through electronic sources all day long for a living, and I couldn’t do it efficiently without the keyboard shortcut. I suspect that the same is true of the many librarians on Twitter who are spreading the 90% story like wildfire. Reference librarians are advanced researchers and CTRL+F is one of our most prized tools. But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, rather than being a simple shortcut, CTRL+F is actually an advanced tool that many student researchers aren’t yet ready for. That 90% figure might not be such a bad thing.
You see, I work with college students, the supposed “digital natives” whose research skills are routinely called into question. When I’m not clearing paper-jams from the printer, I help students find sources for papers. Same goes for library instruction; we show students how to use both web and library resources to find the information they need. Typically, in both reference help and library instruction, librarians only take students to the document level. That is, we show them how to find their way to a relevant document, but we usually do not show them how to search within the document. They still have to read the whole article or book to find the information they need for their paper. 
The problem is that students aren’t actually absorbing what they’re reading. Research through the Citation Project has provided evidence for what many of us already suspected: most students simply scan the book for a relevant quote and then copy and paste it into their “research” papers without actually absorbing or comprehending what they’re reading. As Barbara Fister has recently argued, this is a natural outcome of our insistence that students use a specified number of reputable sources to support their arguments, before they are fully capable of comprehending and presenting arguments in the first place. Growing up in a “teach-to-the-test” environment, students learn to focus exclusively on finding articles that confirm preconceived notions and then parrot chunks of text in the hopes of scoring a passing grade. Fister writes, “This is not research. I’m not even sure it’s writing. It’s more or less organized transcription. It’s kind of like remix, kind of like mashup, only without being transformative.” 
Image by Kalexanderson, on Flickr
Maybe you can see where I’m going with this. The much vaunted CTRL+F is far from a simple, time-saving shortcut. When Russell writes that CTRL+F “changes the way you read long documents” he’s absolutely right: CTRL+F changes the way we read…by making it so that we don’t have to read. This can be a good thing. But, it can also be a barrier to real learning. Why read through a long, boring article when you can search for the exact phrase or fact you want? Are you one of those Luddites who “reads every single word until they find the one they’re looking for“? What kind of n00b actually reads the whole book? Have a book report on Plato’s use of the Sun as metaphor? Don’t waste time reading, simply CTRL+F your way through The Republic!

Of course, I’m only talking about beginning researchers. Skilled researchers realize that you have to use the “Find” command in conjunction with an understanding and appreciation for the text as a whole. There’s nothing wrong with studying the arguments in The Republic and also using CTRL+F as a time-saver to get to that passage that you remember, but can’t find. There’s also nothing wrong with using CTRL+F to perform a meta-search on the frequency and location of a particular string of words in a long document. Skilled researchers know how to use CTRL+F. But, it doesn’t work in reverse; knowing about CTRL+F does not make you a skilled researcher. I know it’s tempting to confuse technology skills with critical thinking skills, but it just doesn’t work that way.

I’m not saying that the “Find” command necessarily leads to sloppy research. I just think that we need to appreciate it for what it is and we should be aware that it makes it ever so much easier to engage in the kind of cherry picking described by Fister and the Citation Project. CTRL+F makes it easy to find a string of words, but it does nothing to help us comprehend a sustained argument. Sure, 90% of Internet users may not be familiar with the “Find” command. But, of the 10% who do know about it, are they using it as an efficient tool, or are they using it as an intellectually irresponsible crutch? With all the hoopla about search engines negatively affecting our memory, the last thing we need is to make it easier to avoid learning.

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A few days ago I shared the following interesting reference question:

“We are trying to find the following book:

Pera, Francesco: Memoria sopra il monument inalzato al Granduca Ferdinando I. in Livorno e relazione sulla presa di Bona. Livorno 1888.”

I chose this question for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the fact that the book in question is not listed in Worldcat or available through Google Books. Even worse, the title is both incomplete and misspelled. Worst of all, Francesco Pera is not the author.

But, still, three librarians responded and I suppose I should hand out some prizes.

The second-runner up was Alison from Johnson City, TN. Alison had the key insight that if an Italian book isn’t in Worldcat, then maybe it’s in whatever the Italian equivalent of Worldcat is. This took her to the National Library in Rome which is close enough to merit a prize of….four fish! Alison, be sure to bring some bags!

First runner-up was Andromeda, from Massachusetts. Andromeda quickly figured out the book wasn’t in Worldcat and turned to Google Books, hoping for a digitized frontispiece from the holding library. That’s a neat trick. Unfortunately, the book isn’t in Google Books, but she did find a bibliography that sent her to the National Library in Florence and to the book in question. Her search moved through search engines, digitized bibliographies, library catalogs, and plenty of Google Translate, I’m sure. For effectively pushing the question through a wide variety of information sources, she deserves to “sing loud, sing proud” with…an autographed Dropkick Murphy’s poster from the 2001 Vans Warped Tour!

And the winner was Elizabeth from…well, I don’t know where, but she correctly identified four libraries in Italy that have the book:
  • The National Central Library in Florence
  • The F.D. Guerrazzi branch of the Public Library of Labronica (Livorno)
  • The Piombino Municipal Archives
  • The library of the Museo del Risorgimento

Moreover, she did so in about the most elegantly simple way possible: she asked her colleagues. I’ll admit, I doggedly pursued the book through online resources for about 15 minutes before I finally got to a list of libraries holding the title. Rather than waste the time, she asked the head of her Interlibrary Loan department, who suggested a search through national union catalogs, something easily done using the Karlsruhe Virtueller Katalog (KVK). I had never seen the KVK before, but maybe that’s because I don’t work in ILL. I’ve sure as heck bookmarked it for future use! For showing us that, sometimes, our colleagues are the best place to start our search, Elizabeth deserves a prize, but I don’t know where she lives. So, I’ll take a random guess that she lives in Ohio and likes venison. Congratulations, Elizabeth, you’ve won a “not too tore up” deer carcass!

It’s really interesting to see how other librarians approach tricky reference questions, and I’ll put something a bit more challenging up in the near future.

Oh yeah, here’s the text of the e-mail I sent when I originally answered the Francesco Pera question:


Ugolino della Gherardesca wrote a historical bibliographyof 18th and 19th century monographs relating to the Province of Livorno. Youcan read Volume 1 here.

The full title of the book you need is Memoria sopra il monumento inalzato al granduca Ferdinando 1. in Livorno : estratta dalla Filza degli affari della direzione del r. archivio centrale di stato in Firenze, anno 1855, e Relazione sulla presa di Bona. It appears that the work is a collection of papers related to thefamous I Quattro Mori in the Piazza Micheli. The papers werecompiled and edited by Francesco Bonaini in 1855, and later edited again byFrancesco Pera in 1888, hence the confusing authorship. della Gherardesca shows available copies of the reportat the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, the Piombino municipal archives, and theBiblioteca Labronica in Livorno.

Here’s the catalog at the BNCF: http://www.bncf.firenze.sbn.it/ (themonograph is catalogued under Bonaini’s name) And the record in Piombino is available through their OPAC (search for Bonaini). I can’t figure out the catalog in Livorno, but theysupposedly have a copy as well. Finally, I searched the British Library on a whim, and there seems to be a copy at the National Art Library in the U.K.; I’ve sent the record in a separate email.

Oh, and here’s the monument in question in Google Street View (just because it’s neat!)

I hope this helps!

Lane Wilkinson, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Have a nice weekend!

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Photo by Tyler Harnach, on Flickr

Fact-checking is a deeply ingrained part of reference librarianship that is often overlooked in all of talk of information literacy, research papers, and printer jams. In days of yore (read: before Google), if you wanted to know the largest moon of Saturn (Titan), the atomic number of nickel (28), or the capital of South Africa (which one?), your friendly, local reference librarian was the end of the line.The modern form of research assistance (in the form of helping to develop topics, navigate databases, cite sources, etc) is actually a rather new development. Still, every now and again, the lucky reference librarian will get an honest-to-goodness, old-school reference question.

I love reference questions, and the trickier the better. And what I really find interesting is that no two reference librarians tackle a difficult question the same way. So, I thought it might be fun to share a recent reference question and see if any librarians want to give it a go and share their search strategies. I’m genuinely curious about how different librarians interpret a reference question, which elements of a reference request they see as the “starting point”, and how they manipulate the tools of the trade. Solving a vexing reference request might require ingenuity, creativity, prior knowledge, logic, all of these, or none…and we all have our preferred strategies.

So, here’s a reference request that came my way not too long ago. In the spirit of privacy, I can’t identify the source of the question, but that doesn’t affect the request itself. Anyway, here it goes, quoted verbatim:

“We are trying to find a library that has thefollowing book: 

Pera, Francesco: Memoria sopra il monument inalzato alGranduca Ferdinando I. in Livorno e relazione sulla presa di Bona. Livorno1888.”

 Can you help find this book?

In a few days I’ll post a list of libraries that have the book, along with my search strategy. In the meantime, I’d love to see what you can come up with.

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