Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is it really true that only librarians like to search and that everyone else wants to find? (No)

I have been irritated for a while by the statement about "librarians being the ones who like to search", as there seem to me to be several things wrong with that idea. Going back to what seems to be the original source, Tennant (2001) said "isn't it true that only librarians like to search? Everyone else likes to find".

This statement has been used by people such as Wilder (2005) to bash information literacy advocates. As usual, when you do return to the source, it is immediately apparent that the original author was not making such a straightforward statement (as has been noted already by other commentators like the Pragmatic Librarian). However, I still see this phrase quoted and paraphrased nowadays, usually when we are being told that we've got to make things simpler, shouldn't overcomplicate information literacy education etc. etc.

I would say there are three problems with this statement.

Firstly, I don't think it is literally true. For the moment I am just basing this opinion on my own experience, i.e. I have friends who are nothing to do with the information or library profession, and who don't work in education, who have talked about the process of digging out and hunting for information as something enjoyable. Some people seem to like rooting around in stuff to find things out. I'm pretty sure that if I started rooting around, then I could find something in the research literature that gives some evidence for this as well (so I will have to try that).

Secondly, the statement seems to be grounded implicitly on the idea that the best way to find stuff is to search for it. There I do know that there is research literature that shows that people often prefer to browse, and also people may use "bumping into" (or "encountering") information as a major way to acquire information. However the statement seems to be saying that if you don't like to search, then all you want to do is find. It doesn't take account of the fact that you might just prefer browsing to searching. By the way, I am not saying here that people don't like the "finding", obviously they do (unless they are patent searches hoping no-one has had their idea before). I'm just saying that you shouldn't pretend it is either/or; search/find.

Thirdly, the statement doesn't take account of the fact that you can learn through searching for information. As an educator, that is one of the things I aim people to help people discover and understand: that if you open your mind during the process of searching, you can start to learn more about what the search is all about, what the context of your search topic is, all the different ways it is being talked about, and so forth. If you pick up these clues as you go along it can feed back into your search strategy (I know I don't need to make this point for most of the readers of this blog!). Importantly, it can also deepen your understanding of the subject of your search, and (depending on what you are looking for) learn more about people, your neighbourhood, society ...

Sometimes you may just be in search/find mode (e.g. when I wanted to know the show times of the new Harry Potter film, I didn't see this as a learning journey: although it must be said I learnt what the new name of one of the cinema chains was, along the way). However, I think that people who always see information acquisition as a matter of "show me the answer" are missing out. They are going to miss out on a way of learning things; their lives may be the poorer.

I don't think this is a question of wanting to make them "mini librarians", and it is not all about getting them to use the "correct" search strategy. It is about the process of getting information being part of learning and life. Or (as it says in the Prague Declaration) about information literacy being part of the basic human right of lifelong learning.

Tennant, R. (2001) "Digital Libraries- Cross-Database Search: One-Stop Shopping." Library journal. 15 October.

UNESCO (2003) Prague Declaration: Towards an Information Literate society.

Wilder, (2005) "Information Literacy Makes All the Wrong Assumptions." Chronicle of higher education, January 7th.
Photo and article by Sheila Webber: Photo of hydrangeas, Sheffield, July 2011

1 comment:

weltkulturerbe said...

I like Wilders remark. There is no doubt: Searching can be an enjoyable experience. You may find interesting things, you didn´t expect. Or you´ve found what you wanted and can be proud of your research skills.
But in education and especially in schooling time is a very valuable factor. You only have a limited amount of time there. I rather use it to speak about, to discuss and decode “content”.
I appreciate teacher-librarians who provide teachers and students with resources rather than tell them how to use Google or an OPAC.

Guenter Schlamp, Potsdam, Germany