August 29, 2014

Thrown a Curve: Our Anti-Social Graduates at Work | Peer to Peer Review

Project Information Literacy’s new report, Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace is a fascinating look at what information skills employers want from recent graduates and what our graduates will encounter when they go to work. I’m excited that this is the first in a series of “passage studies” looking closely at periods of transition as early adults negotiate information. Librarians will find this report worth discussing in the library and sharing with department chairs, the career center, and anyone else who has a stake in graduates’ future. Give it a read. It’s thought-provoking and very well done.

Employers are wowed by graduates’ technology abilities, but quickly realize that tech skills are not enough. New hires need to be able to dig deeper than the first page or two of Google results, need to tap into human information sources, and need to share the search process with colleagues, who often can help refine and direct the process of searching and winnowing. Students, in turn, feel that skills they learned in college are absolutely critical to their work life, but are thrown by tight deadlines, lack of specific guidelines, and the sheer ambiguity of looking for information when the answer isn’t already known and published somewhere. One lesson from all this is that students need to learn that information isn’t something that exists out there. Information is social, and so is the process of creating knowledge. This has made me think this finding might shape our instructional approaches.

But I think there’s another lesson for libraries in this. We need to stop thinking in terms of inventory control, of storage and retrieval, of information management. Knowledge doesn’t work that way.

The social side of learning

In the last couple of decades, we’ve been rediscovering how social student learning is, that the library as a place is valuable in ways that we have largely recognized only after the majority of our current collections dematerialized and became accessible from anywhere. We now know that we have to make room for students who want to learn together, that we even need to accommodate students who want to study alone, but in the company of others. There’s something inspiring about the library. How did we figure this out? Well . . . remember how we were all looking nervously over our shoulder at big box bookstores back in the 1990s? How concerned we were that students were studying there instead of the library? The giant bookseller had borrowed the library’s architectural language that we’d abandoned and people fell in love with it. Okay, serving coffee helped, but we librarians didn’t think people cared about library spaces until library-inspired interiors were adopted by booksellers.

We learned the hard way that search is also social. Catalogs were an uninspiring inventory system that the public used to look up call numbers. We didn’t know catalogs could be fun until Amazon made them a colorful place to share opinions about books, squirrel away references for later, or make and share obsessive lists. Long before Amazon, we had a gigantic online catalog with millions of entries, but it didn’t occur to us to make it public until after Amazon became the go-to source of bibliographic information. Now we’re scrambling to catch up.

We didn’t learn from scholars’ actual research behavior—or from Vannevar Bush’s visionary 1945 essay “As We May Think,” which imagined hyperlinked “trails of association” for researchers to create and share long before the World Wide Web—that the literature organizes itself socially through citations. Stephen Stoan pointed this out back in 1982, but we weren’t paying attention. Our idea of an online index was more or less like a really big descriptive catalog: list the particulars of each published item, then assign subject metadata. Only Eugene Garfield’s citation indexes actually made use of the trails of association created by  scholars themselves, but those indexes were hard to use and far too expensive for smaller libraries. When Google entered the field with Google Scholar, citation relationships were built in, a natural way to connect one publication to related ones, to enable social searching. Databases are beginning to include these relationships, but as an afterthought, a specialists’ frill.

From the user perspective, library databases are user-unfriendly shopping platforms where you go to get the five scholarly articles you need by Wednesday. Rather than develop better ways to pull together sources that are in conversation with each other, we are making it easier to throw search terms into a bigger pool of sources, calling it a “discovery layer.” (This, by the way, seems completely contrary to what earlier Project Information Literacy research indicates—that students don’t want more, they want help reducing the number of choices they have to make.)

In short, we recoil from the idea that the library is a warehouse for books, but treat digital information as stuff to store and retrieve, and search as a shopping site for a digital warehouse that gets bigger all  the time.

Lessons from Learning Curve

Author Alison Head and her team of researchers found that the most important skill lacking in new graduates was “engaging team members during the research process.” New graduates are used to thinking of research as a solitary task and were unaware that the group possessed useful knowledge that could make the search process more successful.

From the new graduates’ side, the demands were both challenging and frightening. Their jobs depended on tasks that weren’t defined for them. Two quotes from former students stand out for me:

  • “my job is literally about finding information that doesn’t exist.”
  • “the biggest hurdle for me was getting used to talking to strangers.”

When we make our systems and the instruction we provide for navigating them all about finding sources, we forget that good questions don’t have easy answers, that what we come to believe is socially negotiated and often ambiguous. Roy Tennant famously said “only librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find.” Though that statement makes some sense, I’m not sure anymore that it’s true. We want to help students translate their inchoate needs into a concrete set of sources they can take away and use in a well-defined task. They use those sources to solve a problem—being able to turn in a paper of a certain length, citing the requisite number of sources, by a particular date. But real life doesn’t work like that.

I’ve often thought that we spend too much of our time helping students be students, neglecting lifelong learning. This new report gives me some concrete ways to think about what comes next.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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