Monday, April 02, 2007

Information Illiteracy

Any librarian who has worked with law students know that they have an unrealistic perception of their research abilities. For instance, they think they are efficient users of the online services, when, in fact, many of the searches the students use are practically guaranteed not to retrieve what they want; the searches tend to be too broad or too narrow. Law students tend to ignore the other specialized databases to which the library subscribes. They rely on Google unquestioningly, and think Googling equals scholarly research. I could go on, but everyone reading this blog has his or her own horror stories about law students' research skills. These stories are consistent with reports that document law students' overall poor level of preparation for the practice of law. See, for instance, Gene Koo's report issued by the Berkman Center at Harvard.

Once upon a time, research skills were taught in high school; I remember learning about Reader's Guide in a high-school class taught by one of the school librarians, and I remember having to use it when I wrote research papers in high school. Today's students have never heard of Reader's Guide. I know this for a fact because I ask my students when we talk about legal periodical indexes if they have ever heard of or used Reader's Guide, and no one has. In college, we had library tours, learned about the resources available to us (even what was in the Rare Book Collection), and later had more specialized bibliographic training when we declared our majors. It is true that I went to a college where writing pervaded the curriculum, and thirty-page research papers (frequently requiring the consultation and citation of primary sources) were the norm. I don't know whether the culture at my alma mater has changed in response to the Internet, but I do know that many students are graduating from college without any idea about how to do research; this makes it very difficult for them once they get to law school and are expected to write research papers and law review articles.

Given this situation, it was heartening to see an article in today's Inside Higher Education discussing an intiative being undertaken by eight Midwestern colleges that focuses specifically on liberal arts (First Year Information Literacy in the Liberal Arts, or FYILLAA). Students' proficiency at research is tested and then improvement is tracked over the next four years. Many librarians feel that the problem with efforts to improve information literary so far is that "librarians are focusing on solutions rather than measuring the skills gaps they're up against." Until we know where the deficiencies lie, it is hard to design targeted training programs; FYILLAA is designed to identify students' research deficiencies.

The article points to several approaches that might "bridge the gap between the library and the classroom." They include holding classes in the library, "building research requirements into grant applications," and creating online tutorials "which like FYILLAA can be used to track individual improvement." Other suggestions for improving information literacy are put forth in the Comments that follow the article. As someone who works with law students on a regular basis, I hope that the movement to promote information literacy will spread to more than just the handful of colleges that are taking part in FYILLAA.

1 comment:

Rob Darrow said...

Interesting that your concern focuses on law school students. The same issues you describe - they only use Google and not use any of the subscription databases - is the same problem we face with high school students. We do teach them about subscription databases, but they still want to just use Google. It will be nice when someone figures out a way to search across subscription databases via Google so that the reliable articles in subscription databases are at the top. It still boils down to teaching information literacy skills!