Posted by: Maria | May 24, 2008

the (in)stability of authority in the library instruction classroom

When I teach a library instruction session, I usually discourse at length to my students about the superiority of library materials, noting that basically the whole point of the library is to collect high-quality information sources and make them available to students. I make a point of explaining that the information that students can get at the library and through the library is stuff that Google can’t see, because it’s available only by subscription, so if students are relying only on Google to do their research, they are missing out on a lot of information. I tell students that there is definitely a lot of information out there on the Internet, but because there is no system of quality control or organization in place, they have to be critical thinkers about the information they find. I then list a number of criteria students can use to evaluate the authority, reliability, and quality of information they find online.

All the while I am explaining this to students, I am aware that I don’t talk about evaluating the authority, reliability, and quality of information students find through library databases. I do teach them about evaluating information in terms of appropriateness for their topic and satisfaction of information need, but that’s about as far as I go. The assumption is that since students are using library databases to find articles, or the library catalog to find books, they are of course going to find reliable information, because the library has done the selecting for them.

I realize that this is wrong. But I am uncertain of how to talk about this in classes. I understand that authority is not a stable concept. I know that the articles found in a database are not automatically authoritative just because they are available in the database. I understand that information is created, collected, and disseminated in the context of the dominant culture, a culture that privileges certain kinds of knowledge and marginalizes others. Especially in this age of Web 2.0 (a phrase which, by the by, typically provokes in me some amount of internal eye-rolling and kind of makes me want to throw up), this sense of authority is disrupted by user-centered information tools. Hierarchies are destabilized and decentered in our current Web culture; instead, most users are empowered to create, organize, describe, and publish information.

I am grappling with how to reconcile these things I know to be true with the way I teach and the things I want students to know. I want students to be critical about the information they find, no matter where they find it or though what means. At the same time, I really really want them to be using library tools to find information, as do most of their teachers. This is a conundrum I am thinking about, and one for which I have no solution, yet.

I have been reading and thinking a lot about critical pedagogy as of late, and I think that my grappling with this idea of the authority of information has been inspired, in part, by what I’ve been reading and thinking about.  Joe Kincheloe’s Critical Pedagogy Primer has been very helpful to me as I think through what exactly it means to be a critical teacher. Kincheloe states:

Such critical pedagogical ways of seeing help teacher educators and teachers reconstruct their work so it facilitates the empowerment to all students. In this context, critical educators understand that such an effort takes place in an increasingly power-inscribed world in which dominant modes of exclusion and continuously ‘naturalized’ by power wielders’ control of information. (4-5)

What would such an approach look like in a library instruction classroom? Would library instruction even benefit from this way of seeing, as Kincheloe calls it? My answer to the latter question is: Yes. My answer to the former question is: I don’t know yet, but I am thinking about it, and what do you think?



  1. Yep. But you already know I think about this all the time.

    I think part of being a critical library instructor is teaching students to approach the production and dissemination of information with a critical understanding of the social and economic structures that undergird both. Why does some information cost money while other information does not? Why is some information easy to find (who got kicked off so you think you can dance) while other information lives in an inaccessible box (where does the united states send people who are subject to ‘extraordinary rendition’) and who/what decides? How can we shake free hidden information?

    I went to an interesting presentation of research findings by Proquest at last year’s ALA annual. They told me something I hadn’t realized: Students these days are fairly competent searchers. We spend a lot of time teaching students how to search when really they’re pretty competent. So what about spending more time teaching them about what what’s under the hood (to add yet another metaphor) rather than spending a whole lot of time telling students that the car is red, or shiny, or a Buick. Am I making sense?

  2. You are, of course, making lots of sense.

    I am curious about ProQuest’s research findings–what kind of students they researched, and in what kind of scenarios, using what kind of tools, etc. I think I can buy that students are fairly competent researchers, maybe. I’m hesitant, because based on the assessment data from this past semester in my library, first year students aren’t totally competent researchers. The most interesting finding, to me, was this: it appears students benefited the most from instruction on how to formulate a search query. Normally, students sit down and type in a string of words, pretty much how they’d do in a Google search, but that approach doesn’t really work in databases. So when I demonstrated how to translate their information need into workable search queries, this seemed to make a big difference (if the pre-/post-test results are to be believed).

    I mean, I don’t know. I’m not dismissing PQ’s findings. I’m just going on what I have personally seen in my own students in my own classroom. Given how central this step (figuring out your search query) is in the research process, I don’t know if I’m willing to use the word “competent” to describe students who don’t know how to do that effectively.

    Does being a fairly competent researchers also include knowing which tools to use? This is something else I see with students: they don’t know which database to use, or why they should use the library catalog. Once they figure out which thing they should be using, they are okay and can proceed from there, but they need guidance getting to that point.

    Anyway, this has gotten kind of long and probably could turn into a separate post. I am in total agreement with you about approaching instruction with a the critical understanding of the social and economic structures in which information is produced and disseminated. But I’m not totally willing to let go of the practical instruction altogether, just given what I know about the students I see in my library. I’d like to figure out a way of combining these two approaches: critical + practical. I’m not sure what that would look like for me, yet, but it’s something I think about pretty much all the time.

  3. I think the point of the ProQuest research was that students are competent at trying and failing and then trying again–that they’ll type in “muslims in the united states” and get nothing, and then try “muslims united states” and get something. I agree with you, though, that one of the key things I teach in my BI classes is the concept of keywords in the first place–searching by concept rather than by sentence. I actually find the structured searches in most database interfaces to be helpful pedagogical tools in this regard, e.g. “you’ll want to break your topic into three aspects, the way you see here in advanced search,” etc.

    That said, I still don’t get how to escape the ‘banking model’ in an essentially vocational classroom. Part of it for me seems to be in just embedding the critical in the practical. So that when I start to explain what a database is, I also explain about why they cost money, e.g., information is produced under capitalism, therefore, this is a closed system, like a Starbucks, where you can get lots of choices of Starbucks coffee, but you can’t get a cheaper cup of Bustelo.

  4. Ah, I see. Okay, that makes sense: students will try and fail and then try something else and eventually stumble into a workable search query. I believe this to be true. And I agree with you that embedding the critical in the practical is probably the best way to try to avoid the banking theory information dump. Hmmmmm. This has me thinking about things.

  5. I’ve been trying to think about how to handle discussions about authority for students & courses that aren’t served well by library databases (as primary tools for searching). For example, what counts as an authoritative source for a student doing research on punk communes in the 1970s? I have some ideas, but this isn’t the kind of thing I can bundle up & present in the context of a banking model instruction session — and maybe not in the context of a session articulated through critical pedagogical praxis, either.

    I’ve ended up doing a lot of this kind of instruction one-on-one, because it doesn’t work well (or I haven’t found a way to make it work well) for a class of 8 or 12 or 24 students.

    This semester, I’ve tried to start doing what Emily describes as embedding the critical in the practical. I was motivated to do this because I could tell the students came into our sessions with the understanding that research instruction = learning how to use a new database = we’ve done this before, so why do I have to be here?.

    But where I get stuck is around the question of expertise. In other teaching contexts, I’ve been able to successfully be the ‘expert’ when I need to be, and step away from claiming sole expertise most of the time. In the research instruction session, I think there is room for shared expertise, but I’m also operating with such time restrictions that it’s hard to make it happen than in a discussion-based class. And sometimes I wonder if it might be more reassuring for students to feel like I’m an expert for the time being, while they develop their own expertise as searchers (I can be an expert guide, in other words).

  6. Interesting. What’s especially noteworthy to me from your comments, Alana, is the suggestion that the traditional library instruction model doesn’t really work for the kinds of things you’d like to do. You mention one-on-one instruction–and this something I did a lot of at SLC, so I get what you’re saying here. And then, as you observe, the time constraints of the library instruction session close off the opportunity for any kind of extended discussion.

    I’ve always known and felt that the time we are given in the library do instruction is insufficient at best, and this seems to be a tension you’re putting your finger on as well. If we can’t get more time in the classroom (and I really don’t know how we could, given that we have to fight hard enough to get what little we do get), I’m wondering what other tools or forms of media we can use to have this kind of discussion. And if we do create some way to have this outside-of-the-classroom engagement, would students even participate and care?

    It seems like so much of what we do in library instruction is a battle governed by scarce resources, limited interest, and time constraints. It’s a wonder we get anything done at all.

  7. Thanks for the post. I recently began teaching a few different library instruction courses and have definitely been thinking about some similar issues. I’ve also been struggling with how to present these ideas since “talking at” students isn’t enough. How should they begin to engage a critical eye if they’re just sitting there? I’m looking for activities that can help students consider some of the questions you are posing without falling asleep. I’ll be checking out Kincheloe’s full work now to consider a larger context for these concerns.


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