Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teaching Digital Literacy in the Library

In the past, one of the many jobs of the librarian was to teach customers the skill of searching for information.  Utilizing the card catalog and sifting information out of stacks of books was the old school way of researching.  Now, information is at your fingertips and study after study shows that people come to the library as a last resort.  The customer trying to write their research paper comes to the library expecting the nice librarian to hand them a book or two.  Most of the time, the information they need is not in a book at all but in a subscription database or, sometimes, even on Google.  It never ceases to amaze me at how incredulous the customer is at the little nuggets of information I find for them.  The librarian isn't there for just academic research, though.  In a public library most people seek assistance for their legal, medical, or business needs after their online searches return very little.

The idea of using a search engine to find the answer to all your questions seems pretty simple, but even 'digital natives' - those persons who have grown up using the web - are still flummoxed by how search engines retrieve results.  The problem lies in the lack of research fundamentals, or digital literacy.  Students are set up to fail from the very beginning with as little direction as "don't use Wikipedia" or "use scholarly resources."  Wikipedia, however, should be the least of their worries.  Using search terms, quickly analyzing data, and understanding content is a learned skill that librarians have mastered (hence why you need a masters degree) and students who have not been taught these skills cannot be expected to succeed.  It is obvious that instruction must exist in this area and yet librarians are routinely overlooked as teachers, leaders, and trainers on this subject.  Sound like an academic problem?  It's not.

The amount of time spent with customers aiding them in research, whether it be for educational or recreational interests, is great.  In the time of online degrees where students do not have a brick and mortar library to use, the public library becomes a stand in.  It is that librarian who must teach the student how to research.  Additionally, the public librarian must aid hobbyists looking for information on their recreational interests or start-up business owners who need help getting licensed.  Because using a search engine can often lead to conflicting advice or result in paid-for information services, the Public Librarian can be a trustworthy advocate to help customers wade through all the baloney.  So how can we, as Information Specialists, help instruct the public at large and lessen the digital divide all the while advocating for ourselves and our profession? Here's a few suggestions.

1. Computer Classes: An obvious answer to the problem of digital literacy, computer classes will allow customers to become more confident in their searches and learn to help themselves.  Any library staffer who is comfortable in this setting can easily develop a lesson plan, block off a predetermined amount of public computers, and teach.  It really is just as simple as coming up with a lesson plan and determining how long the program/course will run.

2. Specialized Instruction: Sometimes you just can't Google it.  The library offers loads of subscription databases that most people just do not know how to use, if they even know they exist.  Offering specialized instruction for specific hot topics will surely help people's digital literacy skills and help them in their specialized field.  Have a great business database that you'd like to showcase?  Offer a business program for the computer un-savvy. Use a forum like this to instruct on digital literacy highlighting relevant resources the library offers and show attendees how to navigate the world wide web of business.

3.  Social Media Instruction: Sometimes using Google IS the answer.  Along with Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, YouTube, etc, these sites and more are accessed quite frequently at the library.  Acknowledging the usefulness of these sites and helping customers familiarize themselves with how they work may help cut down on the amount of time you spend helping customers upload/download images to/from their profiles.

3. Personal Reference Experience: Sometimes digital literacy instruction is just as simple as one-on-one reference transactions.  Library staffers often move quickly from one question to the next and when someone has a genuine reference question it slows our pace down, the line begins to form, and our work gets shoddy.  It may seem faster to just do the customer's research for them, but your customer will be more satisfied and equipped for the future if you work with them and show them all your tips and tricks to finding the right stuff.

These ideas are straight forward and simple, the application is easy, and the reward is great.  Don't wait on the ALA and FCC to come to your rescue.  If you can do anything to bridge the digital gap, then go for it. 2011 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, John Palfrey, is quoted saying "librarians have to get in front of the digital mob and call it a parade."  If people do not see librarians as teachers, leaders, and trainers, then we need to advocate for ourselves within our communities and show customers that we are still the gatekeepers of information - digital or otherwise.

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