Archive for the ‘research skills’ Category


by ktylerconk on Flickr, CC BY

One of my favorite things about the old beaux-arts Carnegie libraries is that they usually feature inspirational quotations inscribed deep into their marble friezes, architraves, and whatnot. For example, you may recognize the line in the image above from the New York Public Library. “But above all things Truth beareth away the victory.” Sounds pretty awesome, right? It’s almost as if the library is gently reminding visitors that it’s in the truth-business and since truth is the most powerful thing in the world, if you just stop in and look around, you’re bound to come out a winner! Actually, that’s exactly what it means; the line comes from the King James version of 1 Esdras and the dude who said it ended up winning a speech-writing contest hosted by King Darius I.* (For any millennials reading this, Darius was the dad of the evil king in 300.)

Anyway, inspirational quotations are sort of a mainstay in libraries and, to that end, the new library here at UTC will feature around 100 quotes in and around the building. To facilitate the short turn-around given by the architect, we recently asked the campus community to submit quotations related to libraries, learning, education, and the like. Of course, the last thing we want is to chisel something into granite only to have a student or professor loudly declaim against a misquotation. So, we’ve been attempting to verify as many quotes as possible and, to date, we’ve fact-checked 298 quotations, proverbs, aphorisms, and sayings. In the process, I’ve had time to think about how something as simple as a quotation can act as a barometer of how we understand truth and knowledge in libraries. Allow me to explain…

First, here’s a quote we received that has been attributed to Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

You know, that would look pretty cool in one of the group study rooms. Poking around Google, you’ll see the quote repeated in most of the popular quotation websites. It’s included in dozens of books of quotations. It’s listed at wikiquote.org as appearing in the 1984 book Curing Nuclear Madness, edited by Frank Sommers and Tana Dineen (Toronto: Meuthen, p. 158). The American Library Association includes it at libraryquotes.org. It even sounds like the kind of thing Margaret Mead would say. And, to top it off, it’s quoted on literally every page at the official Institute for Intercultural Studies website. You know, the institute that Margaret danged Mead founded. Obviously, I marked it as verified and I approved it for use in the new building.

Except, I didn’t. Even with multiple sources–some highly reputable like the ALA and the IIS–I marked the Mead quote as unverified and unfit for use in the new library. Popular quotation websites are, as most librarians know, filled to the brim with misquotations. The book mentioned on WikiQuote is an incredibly obscure book of New Age social psychology written by a sex therapist. The ALA list of library quotes lists “The newsletter of the Friends of the Largo Public Library, FL” as the “primary” source.** Even the IIS admits (on the FAQ page) that “we have been unable to locate when and where it was first cited.” The one thing missing is a primary source. Without a book, article, interview, or other work by or featuring Margaret Mead, I’m not going to call the quote verified and it won’t go in the library.

Am I being stubborn? I suppose some librarians may think I am. And here we can point to a rather mundane example of how our philosophical theories and attitudes inform professional practice. In contrast to the common argument that librarians need more discussion of practice and less theory, I want to show how deep philosophical convictions play a real role in professional practice. Let’s look at three common librarian attitudes towards truth: constructionism, pragmatism, and realism.

First, if you consider the massive amounts of agreement regarding the Mead quote to be sufficient verification for using it in a library, then you are most likely a social constructionist. This is a somewhat common view and it holds that the truth is whatever we have agreed is the truth. Typically, this agreement takes place through social processes. For the social constructionist, we are justified in believing that Mead said it…because everyone agrees she said it. Further, the social constructionist approach is highly skeptical of authority or credibility. To the social constructionist, what matters is reliability or consensus (Lankes, 2007)*** so it’s the consensus about Mead’s quote that matters, not the nitpicking about primary sources. Dave Lankes of “new librarianship” fame is a good example of a social constructionist.

Second, you may believe that the potential value of the quote for students and the lack of proof that Mead didn’t say it are enough to consider it verified. In this case, you are most likely a pragmatist. That is, you probably believe that truth is whatever we find most useful to believe. For the pragmatist, the quote should be verified because Mead said it for all intents and purposes. Practically speaking, adding Mead’s name gives the quote social and intellectual cachet and doesn’t deprive anyone of their claim to authorship. Likewise, practically speaking, attributing the quote to Mead helps spread Mead’s rather important and compelling worldview. Nitpicking over primary source documents misses the point: truth is about what is most practical and useful to believe, not what is “out there” in the world, and believing that Mead said it is more useful than attributing it to an anonymous source.  Lots of librarians identify as pragmatists (see Crowley, 2005, Spanning the theory-practice divide in library and information science. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.).

Finally, if you withhold judgment about the quote and refuse to verify it in the light of massive social and practical agreement, you may just be a realist. The realist takes as a starting point the belief that Mead either did or did not say something about thoughtful committed people. There is an objective fact of the matter and determining that fact requires absolute a high degree of certainty. A recorded interview, a text written by Mead, a letter…the bar for the realist is set fairly high and a verified quote can only be one with a clear, direct, and unambiguous provenance. No matter what people agree she said, or what practical exigencies require, the realist approach hinges on (for lack of a better term) objective evidence. True, some may argue that a book or letter or interview are just texts and texts can be wrong. This is why realism (at least in fact-checking quotations) is very concerned with authority control. This is also why realism does give preference to expertise in the forms of authority and credibility. Interestingly, the realist (and the pragmatist, to a certain extent) does think that consensus and reliability are important. But, that’s qualified as consensus by credible sources and reliable at leading to truth. Ultimately, the realist position is to only call the quote verified to the extent that objective, authoritative evidence supports it.

Now, in many (most?) cases, all three theories will agree. Did Francis Bacon say that “knowledge is power”? To the constructionist everyone agrees he did, so he did. To the pragmatist, it makes the most practical sense to accept that he did, so he did. For the realist, you can find “nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” in the original text of Bacon’s Meditationes Sacræ, so he did. All three theories agree that Bacon’s immortal words are verified. It’s only in the difficult cases that theory or worldview will start to distinguish decisions. This is especially visible in quotes attributed to the most famous and prolific thinkers: Einstein, Twain, King, Angelou, Jefferson, Franklin…anyone whose name can lend gravitas to a pithy saying. And, I should add, this isn’t just a library issue, as the recent proliferation of Tea Party misquotations adequately demonstrates. Indeed, as a realist, I get pretty ticked off when politicians and pundits misattribute or just invent quotes from people like Jefferson, Paine, Madison, and other important folk. Especially when those false quotations stand in direct opposition to what their supposed speakers actually believed (as is usually the case). For those interested in a decidedly realist approach to fact-checking and verification of famous quotations, I recommend the Quote Investigator.

In the end, does any of this matter for practicing librarians? Aren’t we more concerned with the day-to-day practice of librarianship, not abstract philosophical navel-gazing? Well, I suppose that depends on what you want to take away from it. I, for one, think it matters to a certain degree. In information literacy, what do concepts like credibility, relevance, or accuracy mean if not in light of these philosophical worldviews? In scholarly communication, isn’t the emphasis on impact factors and citations evidence of the social constructionist push for consensus building? Isn’t research in evidenced-based librarianship evidence of pragmatic or realist tendencies? Where you fall on these and other issues in large pat depends on your philosophical outlook. So, does philosophy guide practice? As Sydney’s Paul Redding just wrote, in response to Australian MP Jamie Briggs’ assertion that philosophical inquiry isn’t practical,

“In the division of intellectual labour, philosophers work mainly at the level of the hinges between thoughts, on those concepts deeply embedded within the argumentative threads weaving through our culture. But these are threads that have started somewhere with the formation of beliefs, and end somewhere in actions. As the concepts on which philosophers work are typically located a long way from where these threads start or terminate, philosophical research is generally described as “pure” rather than “applied”. But “pure” does not mean “irrelevant”. Who would question that the activity of finding and attempting to fix problems in our collective thinking was a relevant thing to do?”

Yes. Philosophical worldviews affect practice. It’s called praxis and it deserves as much attention as it can muster. You can quote me on that.


by DennisM2 on Flickr. CC BY

* Actually, he won so hard that Darius gave him financial and political backing to lead the Jews out of Babylon and build the Second Temple. Dude’s name? Zerubbabel.

** Just an aside: the ALA libraryquotes.org website treats newsletters and desk calendars as “primary sources.” Of all the professional organizations you’d expect to understand “primary source” you’d think the ALA would be right at the top.

*** However, Lankes’ discussion seems pretty inconsistent. He argues that “the most common way to become an authority…is through reliability” (681) and then claims that “reliability and authority can be seen as opposite ends on a spectrum” (681). Are these interlocking concepts or polar opposites? Lankes is unclear. In any event, the realist advocates for authority and reliability, not authority instead of reliability.

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(This is part of my Life after Google project which, as you’ll recall, allows me to use Google for the purposes of illustrating a point. So, don’t start ragging on me because I used Google.)

by mikeandanna on Flickr

If you’ve taught any library instruction sessions over the past few years, you’ve probably had that helpful student who points out that “Google has everything!” I had That Guy this past Friday and he wouldn’t back down: library instruction is unnecessary because he can get everything he needs using Google and Google Scholar. “I don’t really need to use the library ’cause it’s all in Google anyway,” he said. Maybe you’ve had the same student in a recent class? Maybe you’ve had a faculty member or administrative-type express the same sentiment? Maybe you’ve given in to your anger and lashed out in a cardigan-bedecked fury, leaving behind a room of broken bodies covered in cat dander? Maybe not, but whatever the case, it sure is annoying, isn’t it?

So, how do we counter the popular belief that everything is in Google? Sure, we can talk about credibility, about the cost of subscriptions, about search engine optimization, about the difference between the Surface Web and the Deep Web…I’m sure you have approximately ninety bajillion responses to the Bill Mahers of the world. But you know what sticks? Numbers. If you really want to drive the point home that Google is only a moderately helpful research tool, why not quickly show your students that, far from being “everything”, a Google search returns fewer articles than a fairly standard library database? It goes like this…

When Friday’s student insisted that Google has “everything”, I decided to call him on his bluff. I looked him straight in the eye and coolly said, “Boy, I’m ’bout *this close* to smacking the taste out your mouth.” And, out loud, I said, “Want to put that to a test? What’s your topic?” “Alcoholism,” he replied. Now, this was the part of class before we talk about narrowing topics, so I indulged him in his overly broad topic. I pointed down the middle of the room and asked everyone on the left side of the room to go to Google and look up “alcoholism”. The students on the right were to go to the rather ordinary Academic OneFile database and do the same, limiting just to full-text articles. Here’s a screen capture from Google:

A regular Google search for the term "alcoholism"

Notice, there are supposedly 5.07 million articles available. Wow. What does Academic OneFile have in full-text?

Academic OneFile keyword, full-text search for "alcoholism"

Academic OneFile has  5,272 academic journal articles, 3,531 magazine articles, 11,875 news articles, and 669 other sources at 8:13 p.m. on November 7, 2011. That’s a rather paltry grand total of just over 21,000 full-text articles. Crap. The Google kids are right: Google has everything! Needless to say, the students on the left felt vindicated…until I asked them to scroll to the bottom of the page and look at the next page of results. And then the next page. And the next page. On the smartboards in the front of the room I advanced through Google’s results ten at a time until we all got to this:

Page 87 of Google search for "alcoholism" at 8:16p.m., 11/07/11

868 web pages. That’s it. Adding the omitted results brings it to an even 1,000. Now, about that 5.07 million? Maybe Google can reduce their figure by, oh, I don’t know, about 99.9998%. Google may index more than five million websites related to alcoholism, but the search results are capped.

It’s as simple as that. If your students argue that Google has everything, show them that a basic library database offers 20 times as many articles in full-text. Even a Subject Search for ‘Alcoholism’ yields more than 13,000 articles. Heck, the narrow subject of ‘Alcoholism, Genetic Aspects’ has almost 657 articles, compared to Google’s 703 articles for ‘Alcoholism and Genetics’. I’m telling you, letting the students see these numbers for themselves can quickly sway them back towards the library. Add in the cherry that they won’t have to worry about whether the library source is acceptable as one of their minimum of 15 sources, and you’ve got a compelling argument that will sway even the most die-hard Google fan.

That is, of course, assuming the Google fan is relatively inexperienced in academic research. With an experienced understanding of how to manipulate Google results, you can get some amazing things. Try playing A Google A Day if you don’t believe me. An experienced researcher knows how to tweak filters, pick the right keywords, and get freaky with the Boolean operators. The trick I’m suggesting isn’t for them; they already know that Google has a lot, but it doesn’t have everything. The trick I’m suggesting is for the novice researcher. It’s for library instruction classes, not one-on-ones with faculty and graduate students. It’s for students with broad, Freshman-level topics. It’s just a rhetorical trick designed to call into question the commonly held belief that you can find more in Google than in the library. And, as a rhetorical device, it introduces valuable questions. Why does Google cap their results? How useful is it to have millions of results? How does Google decide which 1,000 results to display? Sure, Google may have 50 billion pages indexed, and you may find websites on just about everything, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to show that, from a practical standpoint, the library has more.

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Image by liquidnight, on FLickr

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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