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.