On Google as a Tool for Information Literacy

Here’s a question for librarians: do you ever use Google during an instruction session?

I’d had a draft of a post on this topic for a while; a recent experience I had during an interesting session on Virtual Reference at ALA-Midwinter convinced me that this might be something worth posting about.

I started thinking about Google as a tool for information literacy a few weeks ago when I was putting together a library research assignment for one of my classes that included some stuff about searching in encyclopedias, books, and articles, and realized that I’d actually have liked to include a section on using Google (not Google Scholar) for scholarly research. I’d never really thought about it much before, but I realized that in my classes I often start off modeling a search by using Google and, only after I’ve done that, will I make my way to the library databases or the catalog. In fact, I sort of prefer doing this.

The Mid-Winter discussion got me thinking about why: because doing so, especially with first-year students, is student-centered. That is, it takes where students are coming from as a starting point, and, from within students’ own frame of reference, teaches them more sophisticated research skills. This, I submit, is just good pedagogy.

Initially I started doing this, I think, because I felt like it was really disingenuous to start off one of my searches using the library website. It’s simply not how students are going to go about searching, and I’d rather work with them, not against them. But, more than that, I think I realized that it’s not really how I go about searching. For example, I was doing a session that had an open inquiry topic, and used a Drake lyric

I was so busy playin’ I didn’t realize I was winnin’.

from Take Care.

as the basis for what I wanted to develop a paper on. I wanted to show students how I’d take this song lyric I like, think a little more deeply about it,  and develop a research paper on it. So the first thing I did was Google “living in the moment” (because, I explained, that’s ultimately what the lyric seemed to me to be about) and came up with some excellent articles from Psychology Today about living in the moment and and happiness. They led me to the term “mindfulness” (the scientific term for “living in the moment”) and, also, to some leading researchers in the field. I could then show the students how to use the library databases and the catalog to take this initial interest and develop a sophisticated research question about how what Drake’s talking about in his work – living in the moment – actually makes you happier, according to recent scientific research.

This strikes me as a very natural way to go about searching – it’s completely intuitive to me – and it strikes me as a very useful way to get students to see the value of why you eventually might want to take it to the library databases. It also – and this is something I directly overheard at the Virtual Reference discussion – allows us not to “fight against the tools” that are out there and that students might naturally use for searching. Rather, we can incorporate them into our information literacy instruction in a student-centered way. Because, look, here’s something I think: there’s nothing all that important about the library databases; they’re just tools that can be used to find information students care about (or, alternatively, bore them to death). There’s no reason to be precious about them. Yeah, we want to take students there eventually, but it’s just because that’s where you can find some of the information that might be valuable for them to have. The tendency to say to students “This is how you search” or “Don’t use Wikipedia or Google; use the library databases!” is just us, as librarians, being too precious about hovering over our esoteric empire of information, and puts us in the position of an expert dictating content to learners. This approach – which is decidedly not student-centered – is one of the better ways I can think of to alienate students, and render ourselves obsolete. Instead, we can put our expertise to good use, by showing students how to take their natural starting points and from them develop more sophisticated search strategies. We can be student-centered educators.



Filed under Bibliographic Instruction is Dead, Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

3 responses to “On Google as a Tool for Information Literacy

  1. Great post, and the process you describe sounds very effective!

    I’ve thought a lot about these issues myself. I like to use Google as a starting point for almost every info lit session in order to give realistic context. I think if you don’t do this, it quickly becomes the elephant in the room. “Okay, I sort of see how these search interfaces work, but I’m just going to go out to my favorite search engine after this class is over.”

    I usually start by asking something like “why should we care about using library databases when we already have Google?” and get into ideas of credibility, bias and even the basics of scholarly publishing. Or it can lead to “how can we decide what to trust on Google” if the session is more on evaluating information in general.

    I totally agree with not framing it as “don’t use X, use the library!” and much prefer an approach that discusses pros and cons of all search interfaces and types of sources.

    • Kevin Michael Klipfel

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Andrew. Yeah, I’m all about the approach of asking “Why should we care about this?” related to searching, and anything we’re doing in library instruction more generally. I’ve written about this before, but I feel like I’m always trying to be very explicit about exactly how everything I’m doing in a session is directly relevant to the students.

      And I think the :Why should we care about the library databases when we’ve got Google” is a smart and engaging way to introduce deeper issues about evaluating information.

  2. Pingback: Of Databases and Deep Structure | Rule Number One: A Library Blog

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