All posts by troyswanson

Clive Thompson Talks Librarians on Circulating Ideas by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

Recently, journalist Clive Thompson was on the Circulating Ideas podcast with Steve Thomas. They discussed Thompon’s book Smarter Than You Think.

I wanted to share this because I have read the book and found it to be very appropriate and timely for libraries. (I also wanted to share it because Steve does a great job!) The book’s main point is a shot across the bow of the Google-is-making-us-dumber argument (Nicholas Carr). Thompson builds a compelling argument that technology (including Google) is, in fact, making us smarter. Many new technologies are a form of extended cognition that enhance and ideas. Thompson is not a technological idealist by any means, but his thoughts are timely and well-supported.

He spends several sections of his book acknowledging libraries and the role librarians play in leading the charge on information literacy. In the podcast Thompson notes,

There’s this structural disconnect inside schools…
Library science is more important on an everyday level than ever before but schools haven’t figured out that they need to integrate that and their librarians into everyday teaching.

swansonphotoThis podcast (and book) compliment many developments within librarianship. Specifically, I think they connect well with the thinking of David Lankis (and others) in the conversations around new librarianship.

If you’d like to find the Circulating Ideas podcast featuring Thompson, you can find it here: Circulating Ideas, Episode 37: Clive Thompson

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book,Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at@t_swanson.

One Book, Many Zombies by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

In May, I posted about our simulated zombie outbreak (see:
Humans vs Zombies as an Active Learning Event by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson). We adapted the popular Humans vs Zombies game into an experiential-learning event. I am happy to report that we survived our own zombie apocalypse.

I wanted to share our write up in American Libraries, One Book, Many Zombies . I am also wanted to share this video we created that summarizes our zombie game.

World War M: Humans vs Zombies (Summary Video)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Problems with Evaluating: (Part 3) Threshold Concepts

The concept of “evaluating” information runs throughout the existing ACRL Information Literacy Standards for Higher Education. They highlight the different ways we teach students about information at different points in the research process. Here are the primary points:

Standard one: The information literate student determines the nature and extent of the information needed.

  • Performance indicator 2:  The information literate student identifies a variety of types and formats of potential sources for information.
  • Outcome C: Identifies the value and differences of potential resources in a variety of formats (e.g., multimedia, database, web site, data set, audio=visual, book).
  • Outcome D: Identifies the purpose and audience of potential resources (e.g., popular vs. scholarly, current vs. historical).

Standard two: The information literate student accesses needed information effectively and efficiently.

  • Performance indicator 4:  The information literate student refines the search strategy if necessary.
  • Outcome A: Assesses the quantity, quality, and relevance of the search results to determine whether alternative information retrieval systems or investigative methods should be utilized.
  • Outcome B: Identifies gaps in the information retrieved and determines if the search strategy should be revised.

Standard three: The information literate student evaluates information and its sources critically and incorporates selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system.

  • Performance indicator 2: The information literate student articulates and applies initial criteria for evaluating both the information and its sources.
  • Outcome A:  Examines and compares information from various sources in order to evaluate reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, and point of view or bias.
  • Outcome B: Analyzes the structure and logic of supporting arguments or methods.
  • Outcome C: Recognizes prejudice, deception, or manipulation.
  • Outcome D: Recognizes the cultural, physical, or other context within which the information was created and understands the impact of context on interpreting the information

Of course, the problem with these standards, performance indicators, and outcomes is how do you transform them into something that is teachable? More importantly, how do we take this list to faculty members?  I’ve wrestled with these questions for many years. This is a problem that ACRL has also acknowledged in their call to edit these standards. They are recommending a set of standards that are more simplified and more connected to practice.

Lori Townsend, Korey Burnetti, and Amy R. Hofer have suggested a move away from standards and a move toward threshold concepts which are more attuned to practice (see Townsend, L., Brunetti, K., & Hofer, A. R. (2011). Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 11, 3, 853-869).

“…threshold concepts are the core ideas and processes that define the ways of thinking and practicing for a discipline, but are so ingrained that they often go unspoken or unrecognized by practitioners” (Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer, 2011, p. 854).

In terms of “evaluating” information, Townsend, Brunetti, and Hofer suggest a couple of threshold concepts that shed useful light on the topic. These are:

Format as Process
“A threshold concept relating to format, then, would focus on the student understanding that format is the result of a process. Information is packaged in different formats because of how it was created and shared. Shifting the focus from the end product to the pattern of events which define information production fundamentally changes the conversation” (p. 861).

Authority is Constructed and Contextual
“An authority threshold concept makes explicit the idea that authority is both constructed and contextual, based on evaluative criteria specific to the situation. An understanding of this concept enables students to critically examine a sources–be it a Wikipedia article or a peer-reviewed conference proceeding–and ask the relevant questions about its origins, context, and suitability of the information need of the moment” (p. 863).

A list of information literacy threshold concepts would necessarily include additional concepts focusing on the “evaluating” information concept (teaching students about information) beyond these. I include these because they were included in the 2011 Townsend, Burnetti, and Hofer article.

It is no secret that the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force (of which I am a member)  is looking at information literacy threshold concepts as an alternative framework for understanding learning related to information. When I consider “evaluating” information and the decade spent teaching students about information, I find these threshold concepts to be refreshing. They do not assume a mechanical process that is disconnected from reality. They also flush out understandings that are vital to successfully making decisions around information.

(Note: This post is not connected to any role I may have as a member of the ACRL Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education Task Force. My thoughts do not necessarily represent the thoughts of the committee.)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.



Problems with Evaluating: (Part 2) Affective Science & Information Literacy by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

I have long been interested in the idea of why we believe what we believe. I have been interested in this relating to information literacy instruction. How do we evaluate sources and how do we make decisions about what counts as truth? Recently, I have been doing some reading in psychology and neuroanatomy focusing on the complex ways that the brain utilizes outside inputs to make decisions. This research highlights some disconnects and points where our practice, as instructional librarians, may be falling short with these new developments in the literature.

Over the history of the 20th century the emotions and affective reactions were largely ignored by psychology. In the last two decades, researchers have presented a broader understanding of the fact that emotion plays an underlying role in all kinds of decision-making. Our moods and emotions color all of our interactions with the world whether we realize it or not. It wasn’t that long ago when most cognitive researchers believed that each region of the brain performed a specific function, and it was generally held that the limbic system dealt with emotion/affective reactions and the frontal lobes dealt with cognition and analytic thinking. Recent research has shown that the picture is much much more complex. The picture that is emerging is one where personality, decision-making, emotions, etc result from combinations of activity within the brain. Importantly, analytic activities (such as interpreting information) activate a whole range of brain regions especially those more associated with affect.

swansonphotoI am concerned that many librarians (myself included at times) still hold the view that our brains are like recording machines capturing all that happens around us. The learning process is then equated to information processing as if we are walking computers. Students simply absorb data, compute this data, and arrive at the logical conclusions. Naturally, we know that this view does not represent reality. In the abstract, we know that different people will reach different conclusions. But, in practice, I wonder if we think that given the same facts, all of us would achieve the same answer? I often hear academics speak with trepidation about the online, political echo chamber. We rant about anti-scientific views that are shared across social media.. What underlies these rants and fears? I often suspect that it is the assumption that the computational machines that we teach do not agree with us.

Increasingly, brain research is showing us that not only are we not computational machines, but we are more life belief machines. Our beliefs are our shorthand to understanding the world. Our understandings about how the world works and that emerge within specific situations greatly influence decision-making. These beliefs help us filter what we see help us recognize what is important and help us know how to handle particular situations. Clearly, psychologists have been building the picture of the believing brain for many years, but the revelations resulting from brain imaging are starting to reveal the mechanisms at work.

This quote from The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convictions by Michael Shermer is telling concerning right and wrong:

“In fact, research now overwhelmingly demonstrates that most of our moral decisions are grounded in automatic moral feelings rather than deliberatively rational calculations. We do not reason our way to a moral decision by carefully weighing the evidence for and against; instead, we make intuitive leaps to moral decisions and then rationalize the snap decision after the fact with rational reasons. Our moral intuition – reflected in such conservative-liberal stereotypes- are more emotional than rational. As with most of our beliefs about most things in life, our moral beliefs come first; the rationalization of those moral beliefs comes second.”

The jump from neuroanatomically-based brain research to a one-shot, information literacy classroom may feel like a quantum leap, but I have always felt that teaching students about information is at the heart of what instructional librarians do. If information literacy is truly a vital skill for lifelong learning, then it is upon us to make these leaps and recognize the implications for our practice and for our learners.

If you are curious about some of the books at the top of my reading list, I would suggest

  • Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman
  • Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
  • The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley

Feel free to add additional titles in the comments below.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Problems with Evaluating: (Part 1) Predictive Judgments by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

The study “Judgment of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the Web“ by Soo Young Rieh is one of those studies that I keep coming back to throughout my career. (I have mentioned Rieh’s study in previous TTW posts Things We Do in Private,  and I Don’t Get Discovery Platforms)

I like this study, because Rieh gracefully hits upon a key difference between expert and novice searchers, which is the ability to make predictive judgments. Expert searchers have a feeling for the domain of knowledge in which they’re searching. They have an expectation for a quality and scope of information and therefore are able to make predictions about what they should find.

swansonphotoAdditionally, they are able to use this knowledge to select appropriate places to do the research. They purposefully select between Google, Google scholar, subscription tools, library catalogs, etc based on the information they expect to find most useful. Not only are experts able to navigate the information world more efficiently, but they are more able to recognize context and meaning.

I have found Rieh’s work (and others like it) to be compelling, because it highlights the complexities around “evaluating” information. It also highlights the failings of the “evaluating information” construct.  I think most instruction librarians who think about information literacy recognize that the research process is non-linear. Even if we write “finding, evaluating, and using” information, we do not really mean working through these steps linearly. This whole “evaluating” information concept is actually infused throughout the entire process:

Topic conceptualization: At a basic level, this involves thinking about what is worth knowing and ways in which I can actually know about these things.

Tool selection: This is a value judgment based on my predictive judgments. What kind of information has value and where does it live?

Evaluating search results: After I have performed a search, I must review the results and make another predictive judgment about the appropriateness of my search. Are the results relevant to my need? If not, should I change my search terms or search in a different tool?

Evaluating sources: Once I have a source in hand, I then need to make a value judgment based on the source’s authority. Do I trust this source, and if I do, how does it fit with my existing knowledge.

Reading a source: As I read and take notes on a source, I draw on my expectations for credibility/quality as I interact with the ideas presented by the writer.

Using/synthesizing information: As I write/create, the value judgments I have made about sources direct the ways that I use and incorporate outside ideas into my own ideas.

It may be an understatement to say that new undergraduates do not often think along these lines. Instruction librarians working with faculty members have an opportunity to point out where predictive judgments must be made in the research process. Teaching students about information is important, and even in one-shot, information literacy sessions, there are opportunities to highlight the hidden decision-making processing within the research process.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


Things We Do in Private by TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

Everyone gets naked every once in awhile. Everyone has to squat on the toilet. There’s nothing shameful, deviant or weird about either of them. But what if I decreed that from now on, every time you went to evacuate some solid waste, you’d have to do it in a glass room perched in the middle of Times Square, and you’d be buck naked? Even if you’ve got nothing wrong or weird with your body ­­and how many of us can say that? ­­ You’d have to be pretty strange to like that idea. Most of us would run screaming. Most of us would hold it in until we exploded.
—Cory Doctorow, Little Brother

Today, I was doing an information literacy session for a speech class and the Doctorow quote above came to my mind. Yes, everyone was dressed. No, nobody was performing any inappropriate bodily functions in class.

swansonphotoHistorically, speech has been one of our information literacy challenges on our campus. Students tend to take speech at two different points in their college career, either at the very beginning to get it over with or at the very end after avoiding it for years. Thus, our speech classes tend to be a mix of students with first-year students sitting next to students who have been on campus for three or four years. We have worked with our speech faculty on a range of different approaches. A basic session aimed at new students causes riots from the experienced students. Advanced searching sessions aimed at the experienced students loses the new students. Our compromise has become an active-learning refresher where the class works together to find sources on the library site followed by a discussion. The searches are basic enough to help the new students, but we also include some stumpers that remind experienced students of the things they might not know. After the refresher, the instructor and I circulate through the room helping individual students who are stuck as the class works on their individual speech research.

So, during this session, I stopped to help a student who said that she couldn’t find any articles on her topic. I sat next to her and watched her search. Instead of selecting a specific database, she went into our online catalog, did her search, ignored the catalog results, and scrolled down to the article results that were part of our “discovery” tool. (Read my thoughts on discovery tools here.) When I asked her why she went to our catalog as opposed to selecting a specific database (which was the focus of our refresher), she just shrugged and said, “that’s what I always do.”

This is something that reference librarians see fairly regularly. Patrons find one successful avenue through our website or through a research tool, and they will use that avenue all of the time. I remember helping a student doing literary research who kept trying to use PscycArticles, because it had worked in her last class.

I thought of the above Doctorow quote because, even if we don’t realize it, searching is definitely something we do in private. It is something we do on our phones, on our laptops, or other devices. Most of the time it is short and discreet. Most search tools have improved enough over the last decade to compensate for our quirks and strange practices. If one approach works, we hang on to it. Because it works, we do not often get the right kind of feedback to force out bad habits. I can recall several times where a student surprised me with a new way to use our site or with a new feature in a database. Over the years, I (like many librarians) have built up a wide range of approaches to research just through interacting with a wide range of searchers.

This highlights some the differences between the expert and the novice. Through experience, experts build up an internal barometer for action. Experts have a bag of tricks to use. Kevin Ashton writes about the differences between experts and novices in this way:

Advanced thinkers think in advance. The expert’s first impression is not a first impression at all. It is the latest in a series of millions. The more we learn from our experience and the experience of others?—?whether in chess, radiography, football or anything else?—?the more selective our attention will become, and the faster we will think.
—Kevin Ashton, “How Experts Think” **

Thus, we benefit by building knowledge when we work with others and (ideally) those we serve benefit when we share that knowledge. Unfortunately, when most searching happens in private, opportunities for improvement are missed.



** Thanks to Lisa Hinchliffe for this link. Lisa also recommends chapter 2 of How People Learn from the National Academy Press free online. For another view on the expert vs novice issue, take a look at “Judgment of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the Web” by Soo Young Rieh


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


I Don’t Get Discovery Platforms: Are We Letting Quantity Win Over Design? by TTW contributor Troy Swanson

Every ILS and database vendor at ALA Annual seemed to be touting their new flashy, single-search discovery tool that groups together all kinds of information sources in a list of search results. Discovery is the hot topic, and your library surely doesn’t want to be left out in the cold. The sales folks have been putting on the full-court press within higher education, and I assume also in public libraries. After leaving ALA, I just don’t get it. The hype doesn’t seem to match the impact.  I struggle to see who these tools benefit.

Who’s the Audience?
Over the years, my library has completed two formal usability studies focusing on new community college students. One resounding lesson from these studies is that students are poorly prepared to recognize differences in information sources on the screen. If new students aren’t really the target audience for discovery tools, then maybe these are really aimed at faculty members and researchers? I am skeptical. Most experts find sources through consulting the literature regularly, contacting colleagues, and attending conferences. They rarely sit down and search a topic from scratch (see Soo Young Rieh, “Judgement of Information Quality and Cognitive Authority in the Web” for an early but useful discussion).

Format as Value
When we consider search from the information literacy perspective, discovery tools also seem to be a move in the wrong direction. Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, Amy R. Hofer, in their work on information literacy threshold concepts,  have found that the understanding of “format as process” to be foundational to understanding research. This means that information literate individuals recognize that the format (news, peer-review, books, web pages, etc) provides an indication to the process used to create the content. This, in turn, contributes to authority and credibility of sources. Format is process, and process is value, meaning, and applicability to need (see Lori Townsend, Korey Brunetti, Amy R. Hofer, “Threshold Concepts and Information Literacy“). The idea of adding value to the research process by requiring searchers to sift through long lists of results seems problematic.

Quantity Hides Quality
Not to mention that user behavior studies indicate that quantity obscures quality. It is pretty well documented that most people rarely click past the first 10 results in a Google search despite the fact that most searches return millions of results (see Danny Goodwin, “Top Google Result Gets 36.4% of Clicks”). Yet, discovery is being sold as a benefit.

Design Thinking
I am willing to admit that discovery platforms may not be that much worse than the search interfaces we already have, but they don’t seem to be much better. They especially don’t seem much better considering the price. Why pay tens of thousands of dollars for something that is just as bad as what we already have?

I wish ILS providers thought more about user interfaces as opposed to search results. Have they really thought about how the user experience might work beyond a single search box that pukes back 1000s of results? The vendors in the ALA exhibit hall gave me the feeling that they had invented a secret weapon to win the technological arms race, but I increasingly wonder if our challenge is not about technology at all. What if this is really about design? What if the thing libraries really need is design-thinking (IDEO-style) focused on how we lay out access pages that are more than just single-search boxes? ILS vendors are missing the real market.

For example, the article by Lown, Sierra and Boyer in College & Research Libraries takes a step toward a single-search option that rethinks how results are displayed.  Perhaps breaking results down into distinct panes is a direction that warrants more exploration?

swansonphotoI know that many libraries have discovery in place so I’d love to hear about your experiences. Currently, my library staff is seriously contemplating our next steps for our ILS.  To me, bringing together these disparate tools is one the most significant challenges that we face. Who is innovating around this? What’s the next step that focuses on design?

(Thanks to Eric Phetteplace for his conversation on this topic at ALA and for reading an early version of this post.)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

My Advice for New Instruction Librarians

In the last three months, I’ve been interviewed about information literacy by two students. One was working on her MLIS and taking her first instruction course. The other was working on a dissertation, and I was a participant in her study on information literacy programs. These interviews started me thinking about what I’d tell new librarians interested in information literacy instruction.

Here’s my advice for new instruction librarians entering the profession:

At least 50% of being a librarian is building connections with people.
Instruction librarians thrive by connecting with faculty members and recognizing how they can help faculty members reach their objectives. This often means informal office visits, commercials at departmental meetings, invitations to coffee, and noting when students show up at the reference desk with research assignments. If 50% of your job is connecting, the other 50% will be easier.

Quality matters.
We only get a few chances, so getting it right matters. When you have built a relationship and a faculty member has devoted class time for instruction, don’t screw it up. Do all of those things they teach you in library school (communicate objectives, chunk up class time, prepare exercises, and prepare assessments). Work hard to be good at your job.

Caring matters more than quality.
Faculty members can be very forgiving if they know you care. Be available for students. Follow up with faculty. Send faculty members articles and ideas. Care about the content you are teaching. Care about the success of students. This is the kind of thing that is tougher to teach in library school.

Easy is better than good.
(I am stealing this from the folks at the Bibliotech podcast.) As instruction librarians, our goal should be to make faculty members more effective. If our involvement means layers of hassle, piles of forms, and additional complications, then faculty members won’t mess with us. We may hold up idealized views of information literacy, but the reality is that we are one of many interests competing for faculty members’ time.

Write solid, useful rules and then break them often.
Managing (or being a part of) an information literacy program will require rules. These rules will define roles, outline content, and reserve time (and rooms). Rules are never written to drive innovation forward. Rules are written to prevent action. They are often great in the abstract, but require adaptation when applied to concrete reality. New librarians may need time to recognize which rules can be broken, but, to be successful, you will need to break them.

Be bold. (Do not believe the low expectations of others.)
Most people (especially in higher ed) love librarians, but they don’t expect much out of them. This is an advantage, because the value we add will surprise them. However, it is extremely important for new librarians to ignore the low expectations of others (within libraries or outside of libraries). Faculty, administrators, and students do not recognize the evolving nature of libraries, and they are often quick to throw up limitations around our work. Refuse to be held back.

swansonphotoNever give up.
New librarians have trouble recognizing that our work is a marathon and not a sprint. Progress can be slow, and after a while, you can feel beat up. Look for opportunities to refresh. Connect with people who have positive energy. Don’t forget that our work matters. Embrace the moments that remind you of this. Let go of the moments that drag you down.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.

Humans vs Zombies as an Active Learning Event by TTW contributor Troy Swanson

WWMscreen capture 2One of my projects for the fall semester my library will be organizing a special, active-learning opportunity for students, staff, and faculty that is part of our One Book, One College program on Max Brook’s World War Z.

The library with the support of Honors and Student Activities will be organizing a campus-wide game that we are calling, World War M: Humans vs Zombies,

Our game is loosely based on the Humans vs Zombies games played on campuses across the country. We have changed the rules a little bit and tried to give it a technological and academic twist.  The goal of the game is to model a virus outbreak across our campus where “infected” players report their infection on the game website. At the same time, we will be releasing clues to an antidote that will cure the disease. We will use the game’s website to track how the disease and the antidote spread. Faculty members in sociology, microbiology, literature, and mathematics have already expressed an interest in developing assignments around this game.

To play the game, students will receive free playing materials from the library. We will also provide faculty members with playing materials for their classes if they choose to use the game as part of a class project. To kick off this game, several faculty members from our math department and biology department will be hosting a panel discussion called “Zombie Math” where they will discuss mathematical models for how viruses spread and the ways that a “zombie” outbreak can be connected to the real world. We are working to create an engaging & innovative opportunity for students to connect ideas across disciplines.


Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.


Talking Social Media in Libraries on Bibliotech Podcast from TTW Contributor Troy Swanson

I had the pleasure of being a guest on the Bibliotech Podcast. We talked about social media in libraries, library website design, libraries as loosely coupled systems and other topics.

Social Media in Libraries
(here’s a link to the show notes: Bibliotech 26 show notes)

Troy A. Swanson is Department Chair and Teaching & Learning Librarian at Moraine Valley Community College. He is the author of the book, Managing Social Media in Libraries. You can follow him on Twitter at @t_swanson.