Our Information Literacy Program

Since an earlier post on Our Library Facebook Page has turned out to be my most popular post so far, I thought I would post some similar tales of some of our other services and initiatives. The description below of Our Library Instruction Program was originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Imprint magazine, a publication of the Stanford University Libraries. As I re-read the article, I am pleasantly surprised to see that the description of our workshops comes at the end of the article and is really only a small section. That is a pretty accurate reflection or our holistic approach to information literacy, where we use multiple approaches and kinds of contact with students to inject information literacy skills into the curriculum.

Lifelong Information Literacy:
The Information Center’s Gift to Undergraduates


Much has been made of the fact that today’s college students, often referred to as the Net Generation or the Millennials, have grown up with technology, and that they spend unprecedented amounts of time online. Stanford University students are no exception to this trend. Recent surveys show that 99% of Stanford undergraduates own a personal computer, and 75% spend at least four hours a day using it. While students certainly use their computers for social or entertainment purposes, 70% say that their computers serve primarily academic ends and are used for course work and for related information searches.1
Although the Millennials are often praised for being more technologically aware and more digitally literate than prior cohorts of college students, many educators fear that the explosion of online information may be overwhelming for students. Faced with massive amounts of such material to navigate, college students are relying more and more on familiar and easily used resources such as Google and Wikipedia.
While these resources can help with quick retrieval of facts, academic research of the kind required of Stanford students relies on information and resources that are not usually available on the public web. Although many scholarly journals offer online access to their content, most do so through licensing agreements managed by libraries. Projects such as Google Book Search, Open Content Alliance, and others, are scanning thousands of books a day. These resources make the online discovery of books much easier, but copyright restrictions mean that if you want actually to read the scanned book, you still must go to a library or a bookstore. The content available through Google searches, Wikipedia articles, and other publicly available internet sites represents a small fraction of the world’s information.

Beyond Google
Stanford students soon learn that they must move beyond Google to discover the resources they need to conduct the kind of scholarly work they came to Stanford to do. They find, as one junior noted, that “Google tends to come up with all kinds of nonsense as well.” A sophomore put the problem this way: “I’m always kind of worried a little bit about finding random sources [from Wikipedia] … I trust what is at the library more.”2
As the second response shows, students also quickly realize that the library offers them a source of trustworthy and valuable information unavailable on the public internet. Whether from their own experiences or from the admonitions of faculty, they also develop a healthy skepticism about the information they find through Google or Wikipedia and a trust for the quality of the resources available through the library.
Knowing that the library is a conduit for scholarly materials usually unavailable publicly is only the first step for most students. The vast number of resources available through the Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources (SULAIR) can sometimes be overwhelming. Learning how to navigate the library, both physically and virtually, can seem like a daunting challenge to some. “Frustrating” is a word that often turns up in typical student responses. A sophomore complains that, “It gets frustrating in trying to know how to find things sometimes … there are so many different databases,” and even a senior, looking back, says, “At first you find them frustrating if there’s like 900 databases.”

“I found the library. Now what?”
While the number of databases available through the Stanford Libraries is actually a little fewer than 900—it was 799 at the time of publication—students and others are often awed by the sheer volume of information available through the libraries. Stanford is home to more than thirty libraries and programs supporting research, teaching, and learning at Stanford University. The libraries’ collections number more than nine million volumes, including nearly 30,000 current journals, more than 280,000 cartographic holdings, nearly six million microform holdings, as well as access to thousands of digital resources. In addition, students have access to our large and varied Department of Special Collections and University Archives, our heavily used video collection, and the current and historical content from hundreds of newspapers and periodicals.
Students working on class papers, honors theses, or independent research seek out library resources because they know that the Stanford Libraries provide them with access to a rich and varied collection of scholarly materials. Learning how to navigate this world of information effectively and how to use both general and scholarly sources of information is a crucial part of any college education. One of the goals articulated as part of Stanford’s current Capital Campaign is to produce graduates who are independent thinkers and problem solvers. Librarians make a critical contribution to this goal by giving students knowledge about available sources of trustworthy information and the skills to use that knowledge not only in college but throughout the rest of their lives: lifelong information literacy skills. One key resource in teaching these skills is the Green Library Information Center’s instruction program.

Lifelong Information Literacy
A vital point of first contact for many undergraduates, the Information Center provides answers to research questions in person, by telephone, by email, and by instant messaging. The center’s instruction program also gives students the skills necessary to discover, evaluate, and use information from a variety of sources and in multiple formats. All freshmen attend information literacy workshops as part of their class work in fulfilling the university-wide writing requirement, whether through the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) or through the residence-based Structured Liberal Education Program (SLE). Honors students also attend advanced information literacy workshops as they prepare to write their honors theses. Students have access as well to more than thirty of the libraries’ subject specialists who provide advanced research assistance in specific disciplines.

Embedded Librarians
The Stanford Libraries have a long history of collaboration with PWR in teaching library research skills to students. A recent redesign of the Information Center’s instruction program emphasizes the teaching of lifelong information literacy skills and increased collaboration with both the PWR instructors and the students.3 Each PWR class gets an assigned or “embedded” librarian who provides support and advice throughout the quarter. Librarians work closely with the PWR instructors before and during the course: assisting the instructor in finding books, articles, and other resources for the class; helping determine the kinds of resources available for students to use in completing class assignments; creating a specialized Research Strategy Guide for each class; and arranging short classroom visits and at least one full workshop from the librarian during the quarter.
The presence of an embedded librarian has resulted in strong collaborative relationships between librarians and PWR faculty, a cooperation that in turn creates a richer classroom and research experience for the students. As one such faculty member put it, “The most helpful thing about the workshop, from my perspective as a teacher, is that it solidifies my sense that [the librarian] is in essence a co-instructor in the course. [The librarian] is not only great at explaining the mechanics of library research; she also is terrific at helping students think critically about their topics, and their arguments. And she does this very deftly, so that the students, after a few subtle suggestions, end up doing most of the thinking.”
Early in the quarter, each class gets a visit from its embedded librarian, who usually takes this chance to introduce a few basic library resources to students (the online catalog and some general newspaper and article databases) and to answer their initial questions about the library and its resources. Student questions can range from the mundane (“How long is the check-out period for books?”) to the challenging (“What book has been checked out the most times?”).
Librarians also produce a Research Strategy Guide for each PWR class. The guides, heavily used throughout the quarter, are designed to provide students both with the information needed to complete the research necessary for their PWR class and with general tips and research approaches they can use throughout their Stanford careers and beyond. Many of the research guides are available on the Information Center website, where students and PWR instructors can contribute their own comments and suggestions. A student who independently finds a particularly useful resource can add it to the class resource guide so that her classmates can take advantage of it as well. The guides provide strategies and resources for picking and refining a paper topic and for finding a variety of resources students might need to complete their papers. Freshman students consistently describe them as “excellent” and “extremely helpful.”

Information Literacy Workshops
Through the Information Center’s collaboration with the PWR program, every Stanford freshman has the opportunity to participate in a hands-on information literacy workshop in Green Library. While the workshops are tailored to the subject matter of the particular PWR class, the emphasis is on orienting students to the array of resources available through the Stanford Libraries and on teaching lifelong information literacy skills.
On the day of the workshop, the class’s embedded librarian greets the class at the entrance to Green Library and takes the students on a tour of key locations and resources throughout the building. In the fall quarter especially, these tours are critical for students who have not yet learned where to check out books, how to get from the Green Library’s east stacks to its Bing Wing, and how to find the best locations for quiet studying. For many students, this is one of the most important components of the workshop.
After touring the physical library, students are then given a tour of the virtual library and provided with opportunities to explore library resources related to their paper topics. The workshops emphasize a conceptual understanding of how information is organized and the use of that understanding to develop effective research strategies. The students are exposed to a range of resources, including reference books, newspaper and magazine databases, special collections materials, microfilm collections, and scholarly books and journals. The interactive workshops allow students first to see general examples of different resources and to assess their potential and then to use library discovery tools to find and access specific resources relevant to their own paper topics. In a typical workshop activity students are asked to compare the results of a Google search on their topic with the results of the same search using the library catalog or a scholarly database. This and other similar exercises highlight the value of library databases in uncovering quality resources not available on the public web. The librarian makes sure that each student leaves the workshop with at least one new source for his or her paper and with the skills and understanding to find additional resources not only for the PWR project but for all future research needs.
In teaching information literacy skills, the Information Center also imparts to students an excitement for research and for exploring the treasures of the library. Typical responses from students give evidence of how well the program is working. One wrote, “It got me really excited to explore the library more widely myself. It made me more comfortable in approaching the size of the library.” Another had this response: “I thought this was incredibly helpful! I came to the workshop overwhelmed and dreading the process. In the last two hours, I’ve found a research topic and learned a huge amount about how to go about researching it. I can’t wait to start!”

1 The data on student computing in Paragraph 1 comes from Stanford’s annual Residential Computing Survey.
2 The faculty and student responses are drawn from two sources: the Program in Writing and Rhetoric’s library workshop evaluations and the 2003 SULAIR Survey of faculty and students.
3 The librarians’ role is more limited in the SLE Program; they provide SLE students with an on-site information literacy workshop in their dorm’s common room.

8 Responses to “Our Information Literacy Program”

  1. 1 Dr. Sanford Aranoff March 28, 2009 at 7:26 am

    In addition to information, we need to teach students how to think. Professors must understand this, and build on it. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.


    • 2 Chris March 28, 2009 at 10:02 am

      Dr. Aranoff–
      I completely agree. I think faculty and librarians need to teach critical thinking skills. “Information Literacy” (which is not a term I particularly like) ought to be about teaching the research process.
      Thanks for your comment.


  1. 1 Students who consult librarian more likely to use Library databases, and more fun findings « Feral Librarian Trackback on July 5, 2009 at 11:56 am
  2. 2 Students tell other students “go to the library!” « Feral Librarian Trackback on May 21, 2009 at 2:57 pm
  3. 3 What do students learn in Library workshops? « Feral Librarian Trackback on May 18, 2009 at 5:34 pm
  4. 4 Research is like cooking « Feral Librarian Trackback on May 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm
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  6. 6 How students use Google Books « Feral Librarian Trackback on March 30, 2009 at 11:44 am

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