Information Literacy Outside the Walls of the Library

by Paul Gatz

The news is fake, truth is dead, and facts aren’t even a “thing” anymore. A blunt initial assessment, but perhaps it can be fine-tuned. Yes, it can be difficult to distinguish between news items from reputable sources and those from less-than-reputable sources. And surely the correspondence of a given proposition to an actual state of affairs is far less persuasive than a rhetorical appeal to emotions, biases, and prejudices. Finally, those in power have often found denying the existence of objective reality to be a useful tool for delegitimizing their opponents’ criticism. In many ways, none of this is new.

What is new is that the institutions traditionally responsible for conveying reliable, authoritative, and accurate information – journalists, publishers, and librarians – no longer play the same dominant role that they once did. In ways undoubtedly familiar to the readers of this blog, the explosion of Web technology, and social media in particular, has flattened and broadened the information ecosystem on which public discourse relies. Anyone can publish anything, and everyone can read it, share it, or like it. Every man or woman is his or her own media curator – within the bounds of the almighty algorithm of course.

This is not to suggest that certain monolithic social media companies should take on the responsibility of telling their users what is and is not fake news; others can make those arguments more forcefully. Rather, the online bubbles and echo chambers that amplify the signal of fake news stories, misinformation, and propaganda are a human problem, not a technological one, and they likewise require a human solution. Librarians comprise one set of humans that is well situated to play a major role in addressing this problem, particularly through providing information literacy education.

In the past several weeks, many have commented on the fact that an information literacy skills deficit is at the heart of the “fake news” problem. In particular, my former colleague (and editor of this blog), Jamie J. Baker, recently highlighted an interview on The Verge with Professor Nicole A. Cooke of the University of Illinois diagnosing information overload as part of the problem and reviewing the efforts, sadly limited by resource crunches, of school and public librarians to teach information literacy.

Teaching information literacy at all levels, in all libraries, is undoubtedly a key to ensuring that citizens can critically evaluate resources and distinguish between good information and bad. I am likely not alone in reviewing my syllabus and plans for my next semester ALR class to make sure that my students will be afforded opportunities to deepen and further develop their information literacy skills.


Art installation at the Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus, Ohio.

However, simply providing instruction to the patrons of our own institutions seems inadequate when the library, as an institution, no longer occupies the central role it once did in the information environment. In an earlier post, I characterized the work of a public services librarian as a nexus between the user and the information system represented by the library. The skills that enable us to provide those sorts of services are transferable to other information systems. And what is the Web, if not a larger, less controlled, more fragmented information system?

Perhaps we need to take information literacy instruction outside the walls of our libraries, to the places where public discourse, for good or ill, occurs: social media. I don’t mean to suggest that we should all turn our social media accounts into full-time fact-checking enterprises, or that you should comment with unsolicited information literacy instruction on every post that’s asking for it (although if this is how you wish to spend your time, by all means, please do).

As Professor Cooke notes in The Verge interview,

For those who are concerned, those in the media, we have to prioritize this as something that’s really important. This is a headline right now given recent events, but will it still be a headline past January?

It is incumbent upon librarians to keep this conversation about information literacy going, and I do not mean “librarians” in a broad sense, as a profession, or even in the context of an individual’s career. I mean individually, within the context of our own personal social networks. One of the consequences of the flattening of the information ecosystem is that we are all part of “the media” now; we should be concerned and we should speak up.

A good start may be to simply share articles and other content that discuss the importance of information literacy and critically evaluating what you read online before you share it, like it, or retweet it. People in my own networks have posted helpful things, including a list of False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources compiled by Professor Melissa Zimdars (recently profiled in the Chronicle of Higher Education); a LibGuide on Fake News from the Campus Library at Indiana University East; and a slightly-too-clever article from the Huffington Post with the completely serious headline, Bernie Sanders Could Replace President Trump With Little-Known Loophole.

But it’s important to do more than share or retweet existing content. You should share your own thoughts on this subject. The great value of social media is that it provides a platform for all users to express themselves, and your own voice will make a greater impact on the people in your network than anything you merely endorse, quote, or otherwise react to. So share your own thoughts and words on what information literacy is, how to practice it, and why it’s important. Get the friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances in your social network to start thinking and talking about it, and don’t let the conversation stop.

Posted in Current Events, Information Literacy, Social Media & Web 2.0 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight!

by Christine Anne George

Ages ago, otherwise known as February 2016, I wrote a post-binge post on Making a Murderer. Among other things, I mentioned how the show created a teachable moment where people (hopefully) learned about the limits of the presidential pardoning power. When news broke on November 14 that Brendan Dassey was going to be released to await the appeals process only to be—spoiler alert—reversed by an appellate court, I thought back to that post and teachable moments. Given everything that has been going on in the country and the question about the public’s ability to discern real news from fake, it seems like there’s more of a call than ever for teachable moments with information and media literacy. That thought led me to something that’s been on a low simmer in the back of my mind for a while. Yup, that’s right. Amidst all the thoughts of season 2 of Making a Murderer (It has to happen, right? And what about Serial?) and reeling from the election, I did not for a second forget about Greta Van Susteren. Vanity projects indeed. Greta, this teachable moment is for you.

I’m fairly embarrassed to admit that I’ve only become acquainted with Bunny Watson over the course of the past year. Awash in the fervor of the newly converted, I believe that everyone who goes into librarianship should know of Bunny Watson. She’s smart, quick-witted, and the best librarian out there, bar none. I also think we could be best friends, but there is the slight issue of her being a fictional character. For those who are not familiar with the 1957 classic Desk Set, I highly recommend opening another window and streaming it immediately because there are spoilers ahead. Also I’m pretty sure you would enjoy it.

desk-setBunny runs the Reference Department at the Federal Broadcasting Company. She and her fellow librarians are wary when Richard Sumner stumbles onto the scene. There’s about an hour’s worth of office shenanigans and then our intrepid heroine and company discover Sumner’s electronic brain, EMERAC, is going to take over the Reference Department. Bunny and her staff receive their pink slips and watch at EMERAC and its minder, Miss Warriner, struggle with reference requests. But wait. After an incorrect command to gather information on Corfu, EMERAC begins to spit out the poem “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight,” Bunny and her team are able to prove that there ain’t nothing like the real thing. But wait. In yet another twist, we find that EMERAC was never meant to replace the reference librarians, but rather to assist them. After an incident in which everyone in the building is accidentally fired, we end on a happy note with librarian and machine facing a happy future together. Also Hepburn and Tracy.

The struggle between librarian and technology is real, but the situation is a lot more nuanced than saying that librarians and technology are at odds. We go together. (Like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong.) Yes, there can be entire libraries available on smart phones, but guess what makes them available. Libraries. And guess who makes them navigable. Yup, librarians. Even the free stuff is there because of the efforts of libraries and librarians—both academic and local. In a time where more and more students are having difficulty navigating truth from lies or bogus stories, librarians and libraries—even the ones sans books and chock full of the latest technology—are needed more than ever.

Earlier this month, fellow RIPS blogger Paul Gatz wrote about the service aspect of librarianship and how librarians are “at the nexus between the system and the user, benefiting one no less than the other.” A huge part of our service is to connect patrons to information, and not just any information, but relevant and accurate information. We are the navigators, we are the beacons, we are the silent, mostly unacknowledged, partners in research. Take away the librarians, strip down the libraries, and there will be consequences. Maybe not 80 stanzas worth of them, but consequences none the less. We are in the day and age where finding information isn’t a problem—it’s the next step that matters. No matter what you type into a search box, you’re bound to find an answer. Is it the correct answer? Is it the best possible answer? The fact that so many aren’t able to determine that shows that what some mistakenly classify as vanity is actually a necessity. This is not the time to follow the lead of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to print the legend. When the people don’t know what’s fact from fiction, Gotham is in trouble and Commissioner Gordon’s got to light up the book signal to bring in the librarians.

Now, more than ever, what we do, what we teach, matters. The collections we cultivate, the search tips we provide, it all matters. So, in response to Greta’s unfortunate comment, I say in my best Hepburn impression (which alas isn’t very good), “Curfew shall not ring tonight!”

Posted in Current Events, Information Literacy, Issues in Librarianship (generally) | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Reference Librarians, Institutional Memory, & Bluebook Common Law

by Beau Steenken

A significant portion of the reference work my colleagues and I do involves assisting students on our two journals, the Kentucky Law Journal and the Kentucky Journal of Equine, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Law. While some of the work we do with journals is helping students with research for writing their required notes, the majority of the time we spend assisting journal students dealing with the pre-production of their issues; the process they refer to as “source and cite.”

When the students refer to “source and cite,” they really mean two separate actions: gathering digital copies of all the sources cited in the article the students are editing, and correcting the citations to those sources, some of which the author of the article will have  invariably mangled.521348_4955391803550_446507204_n Obviously, one of these activities– gathering the sources– necessarily involves using library resources (e.g. books, database subscriptions) and services (e.g. inter-library loan, reference assistance in identifying precisely what an author is attempting to cite), while the other– interpreting and applying the Bluebook— on its face could be conducted without using the library. In fact, when I deliver a mandatory presentation at journal orientation every year, I focus solely on the “source” step, other than giving the new journal students a little pep talk about how they’re capable of “editorial decisions” when it comes to bluebooking. Pragmatically, however, my colleagues and I find ourselves assisting with the both steps of the source and cite process.

There are two reasons why I think we sometimes end up engaging in librarian mission-creep, and they are both related to the nature of journals as institutions. First, because law journals are run entirely by non-first-year students, their institutional memories tend to stretch back to only the prior academic year. Thus, while we librarians may remember in great detail the article on privacy from 18 months ago that cited a large amount of E.U. material, new journal students presented with an article using similar sources will have no recollection of the past efforts. In this case, it will naturally be more efficient for the journal students to ask us to help find the materials than it would be to reinvent the wheel trying to research on their own. From there, it’s quite easy for the law student in question to then ask something along the lines of “do you remember how they cited this last time?”

The second factor in our mission creep is the culture of fear that seems to permeate journals. Journal students are often unsatisfied with being told that the Bluebook does not expressly cover their particular source and that they will have to extrapolate and/or make up a citation that makes sense.  They seem to live in constant fear of receiving strikes from their editors, and I gather that the accumulation of  three strikes ushers in some sort of unspeakably dire consequence. Thus, journal students often want confirmation from trusted librarians that they are citing things in good form.

While I used to view walking students through Bluebook rules as an opportunity for extra LRW instruction in an informal setting, I have come to appreciate the method my library director uses for answering citation questions. He has the students look up past instances of how their journal cited a similar source. If their particular journal has not cited the source before, he suggests finding it in a different journal. In essence, this is Bluebook common law.

When presented with a conflict in which it is possible to apply a vaguely worded rule in more than one plausible way, the student can look at past decisions and follow them. If the goal is achieving consistency through time stretching longer than one’s institutional memory , there are certainly worse models to follow than stare decisis. The best part of this approach is that it still affords me the opportunity for extra LRW instruction, just at a more metaphorical level. Bluebook rules mirror statutes; earlier citations mirror judicial decisions and can be either mandatory (if from the same journal) or persuasive (if from a different journal); earlier citations can be distinguished factually (e.g. print vs. online editions of a source); and students may even have to settle circuit splits (if different issues of the same journal cite a single type of source differently). Really, the possibilities for educational allegory are endless!

Posted in Legal Research Instruction, Reference Services | Tagged , | Leave a comment

ROSS: An Inside Look

by Margaret Ambrose

I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Andrew Arruda, one of the founders of ROSS. One of the more interesting tidbits from the presentation and the Q&A centered around access to justice. Access to justice, I was interested to learn, was one of the driving forces behind the creation of ROSS.  As a small firm lawyer, Arruda wanted ROSS to be affordable for single practitioners. His friend and co-founder was a developer who remembered the financial and emotional toll on his family when, as a child, his parents got a divorce, so he also wanted to make the law less expensive.

Another driving force behind ROSS is changes in the legal industry itself, as more clients demand alternative pay arrangements and are less keen to pay for research related expenses. ROSS is marketed to firms as a way to gain a competitive advantage. It is also marketed to appeal to lawyers (and law students) who find research to be “mundane” and who would prefer to spend more time with clients.


Creative Commons Image

Thus the founding principle of access to justice is closely aligned with the more mercenary objective of competitive advantage. ROSS markets itself as a tool that allows lawyers to be more human, or focus more on their human interactions with clients while ROSS takes over the more mechanical aspects. For big law that means more billable hours. For small practitioners and legal aide offices that serve the general public, that means an ability to serve more in need more efficiently. In this spirit, ROSS is, according to Arruda, priced accordingly to be affordable to small practitioners, and free to those who provide pro bono services.

So what does this mean for law librarians? I will admit it was slightly irritating to hear over and over again during the presentation that legal research is “mundane” or “mechanical.” While I can agree with the access to justice component to ROSS, and even admire its ambition to take on the duopoly of Westlaw and Lexis, it was disconcerting to say the least. Arruda seemed to go to great lengths to assure the audience, that ROSS would not be replacing lawyers, only enhancing their work.  Arruda did not, however, go to the same lengths to assure the law librarians in the audience of the same.

In his defense, Arruda didn’t need to do so, and I think if he had it would have weakened his presentation. At the end of the day, ROSS is not meant to be used by laymen. It may perform some legal research, but it has yet to be able to translate real world issues into discrete legal research questions. It is also unclear how usable ROSS is as a product in terms of out-of-the-box, hit-the-ground-running, all of its features are self-explanatory/intuitive.  In other words, law students and first-year associates may not be able to use this product as efficiently as it is meant to be used, and no user interface is 100% intuitive.

ROSS is also not 100% reliable, nor can it be, and so requires the user to understand basic principles of legal research to “check” the A.I.’s work. In the Q&A session, the librarians quickly ferreted out these and other weaknesses, and they are just that, weaknesses. It makes sense that Arruda when “selling” his product would not focus on what ROSS can not do. But one of the many jobs of law librarians is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a legal product. So on the one hand, I was highly impressed by ROSS, and I do think its application and development can not, and should not, be ignored by the profession if only because it has the potential to move access to justice forward.

On the other hand, I was not so impressed by ROSS as to think that it is the end game of legal research products – there will be a new ROSS on the playground sometime in the not-so-distant future. It is our job as law librarians to demonstrate our worth by accurately gauging the strengths and weaknesses of these tools as they are developed, and help facilitate their deployment. Law librarians need to continue to help our students and our patrons grapple with change and navigate ever changing markets- but to do so we need to be agents of change ourselves.

To see a similar presentation on ROSS by Arruda, please see this YouTube link.

Posted in Access to Justice, Artificial intelligence | Tagged | Leave a comment

“Google Think” and the New Associate

by Erik Adams

In the movie “Edge of Tomorrow” Tom Cruise’s character is forced to re-live a horrible battle against space aliens over and over until he can master the timing and moves necessary to survive and win the day. It’s similar in concept to the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” and an experience familiar to anyone who plays video games: you try something, it doesn’t get you the result you want, so you reset, make a small change and try again. Eventually, you escape the cycle, advance to the next level, or (in Cruise’s case) defeat the enemy. But if you had been really clever right at the beginning, the repetition would not have happened, and you would have gotten it right on the first try. It wouldn’t have made for as interesting a movie, but it would have saved time and money.

This week I was reminded of this movie when reviewing a new associate’s online research. I think all law firm librarians have a story like mine: a new associate is confident they know how to do legal research, they get a task from a partner and attack it with gusto, but when the research is reviewed a multitude of inefficiencies are apparent. In my most recent example, the associate ran a search, spent a minute or two scanning the results, and then made a small change to the query and tried again. This repeated many times until the results were to their liking.


Creative Common License

At my firm we call this “Google think,” and it is becoming more and more common. Our new class of associates graduated from high school in 2009. Since childhood they have lived in a world where much of the world’s information is just a Google search away, and there is no cost for refining a search over and over, Tom Cruise style, until they have exactly the right search phrase to yield exactly the right results. There is no need for efficiency with Google; it encourages experimentation as you type in the search (offering to help you finish entering Tom Cruise’s name, for example), and after a search suggests different queries to refine your search (i.e. “tom cruise upcoming movies”). There’s no per search cost, and the search results come so fast it feels as though there is no cost in time.

In a law school environment, where access to Lexis and Westlaw is given to students and the only pressure is to produce research results, Google think is a strategy that can work. Refine your search until you get the results that look right, and who cares about the cost?

But Google think searching is a huge disservice to law students because Google think is a problem in a law firm environment. Many firms bill clients for Lexis and Westlaw research, which generally means that there is incentive to limit the number of searches you run. No partner wants to bill the client for a huge Lexis or Westlaw bill, and no new associate wants to hear from a partner that they have logged too much in Lexis or Westlaw research charges.

It’s also a problem of time. Google think feels fast, but that feeling is deceptive. I’ve experienced this myself many times, after a strong cup of coffee. I entered a search phrase, the results displayed almost before I was done typing, I scanned with a glance and started refining my search. But that feeling is deceptive, and with legal research often 5 minutes of background research can save hours of blind poking about. That certainly was the case with my new associate: had they spent a little time reading secondary sources or just thinking about what they were researching, rather than Google-thinking their way through search after search of case law, they unquestionably would have saved time.

This is, of course, not a new problem, though there is a new wrinkle this year. Some associates are allowed to continue to use their law school IDs even after they have started at a law firm. With my associate, the associate thought the client wouldn’t see any charges. The associate knew there was a more efficient way but thought it didn’t matter. This leaves me worrying that the bad habits my associate has developed when working in a consequence free environment will continue once the client actually does start seeing the bill.

It’s good that we have associates who are comfortable with online research. But it would be better if they came to law firms with an awareness that not all research is free and that often the most efficient tool in a researcher’s arsenal is their brain and couple of minutes of quiet reflection.

Posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction | Tagged | 1 Comment

RIPS-SIS Virtual Business Meeting

The RIPS-SIS Executive Board is pleased to announce that we will be holding a virtual business meeting in the summer of 2017, rather than having our traditional business meeting at the AALL Annual Meeting. We are excited that this change will allow more members to participate in the business meeting, as attendance at the conference will not be necessary. Additionally, our members will be able to view a recording of the meeting afterward.

If you will be attending the AALL meeting in July, and you are worried about losing this opportunity to see your RIPS-SIS colleagues, do not despair! Based on your feedback, the Board is still planning to hold a more informal gathering of RIPS-SIS members. Stay tuned for more details about these events as they are finalized. If you have comments or questions about these changes, please contact us. We love to hear from our members!

Posted in AALL Annoucements, RIPS events | Tagged | Leave a comment

Stop, Collaborate, and Listen: Supporting Librarian Scholarship within Your Institution

by Ashley Ahlbrand

Librarians are many things: caretakers, teachers, guides, support.  These roles reflect the work that we do and the relationships we have with our patrons. Yet there is another role many of us fill, whether as a requirement for our tenure dossiers or out of general interest (or both): We’re scholars. We write. Whether you’re writing books, articles, or blog posts, writing is a task that takes dedicated, regular time to pursue.  And I imagine for many of us (certainly for me), it’s a task that often takes a backseat to all those other roles we play. Strategies abound for how to carve out time for writing: Set aside two hours every morning. One day a week. Write in the evenings. On the weekends. I even have a colleague from another library on campus who gets up at 3 or 4 in the morning to write first thing (well, maybe she grabs some coffee first, at least!). These can all be good strategies, but we know that life as a librarian can be unpredictable; we don’t tend to have the luxury to forecast how the day will go. I’ve tried setting aside a day a week for writing this semester. Ask me how many times that’s worked out. Go ahead, ask! Like many of you I’m sure, I have several irons in the fire, but sometimes I’m lucky just to keep the embers glowing at all.

A couple of years ago, a few of the pre-tenure librarians at my library – facing this need to publish for tenure, and needing some accountability to keep these projects moving along – decided to form a group that would meet monthly to discuss the status of our writing projects. We could field ideas off each other, edit each other’s works, and consult with our supervisors to ensure that we’re taking the necessary steps to successfully complete this leg of tenure. While the initial conception for the group was to limit it to pre-tenure librarians, we realized that any tenured librarian considering going up for promotion to full librarian would likewise need to increase their publication load, so the group expanded to include all of our librarians. In the planning phase for the group, we jokingly called it “Collaboration Station,” but the cutesy name stuck.

We began meeting in the summer of 2015, first monthly, then once a semester when the school year began. Over bagels and coffee, those with writing projects in the works (or even just in their heads) share what they are working on, ask questions if they are stuck or looking for ideas, and generally open the floor to discussion.  Admittedly, at our first meeting, the cynic in me wondered whether most people would show up just for the free breakfast! On the contrary, over half the room talked about writing projects they were considering or already working on; and even those who did not have a planned writing project had insightful comments to share with those who did.

Writing Stages

Infographic by Ashley Ahlbrand

The first several meetings each began with a short presentation about the different stages of the writing process, highlighting suggested tools or resources to facilitate that stage. This information was gathered into an internal LibGuide for later reference. (I would share the link to the LibGuide, but it contains login information for a few of our electronic resources, and I wouldn’t want to violate our contracts!) The guide contains information on finding a writing topic, getting organized, staying focused while writing, and tips for revising and completing the work. It then includes publication information for several law librarianship publications (Law Library Journal and Spectrum, of course, but also Legal Information Review, Legal Reference Services Quarterly, and more), including the scope of the publication and when and how submissions are received. We did not limit the list to law librarianship publications alone, but those certainly are the focus. As with any LibGuide, this guide is always evolving as new resources come to light.

In the end, has this group moved my writing along? Has it turned me into a more productive and efficient writer? Well…no. This group has no control over the unpredictability of my day or the volume of my workload, so I cannot say that I have magically changed into a prolific writer. What I can say is that meeting regularly with this group, at the very least, causes me to regularly reflect on the status of my writing projects, which typically leads to at least some work on them, whether it’s the creation of an outline or the writing of a few paragraphs. It has also led me to more targeted prioritization and scheduling of my time. For instance, now that my teaching is done for the semester, I am determined to put a new emphasis on completing some of my existing writing projects. I’ll have a manuscript to present to the group at our next meeting if it’s the last thing I do! What’s more, meeting as a group has allowed us to get to know each other as scholars, not just as librarians, which has led, in some cases, to collaborations that otherwise may never have occurred. It’s these meetings of the mind that are perhaps the best product of Collaboration Station because when we share and build off of each other, our ideas have the potential to become greater than we imagined, not only in scholarship, but in service to the library itself.

(Blog post title taken in part from Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”)

Posted in Career, Writing (generally) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment