Facts through Fresh Eyes

Gaining a new perspective on information

June 1, 2017

Joseph Janes

This winter, I taught a large introductory undergraduate class, Intellectual Foundations of Informatics, for the first time. Many of the topics we covered will feel familiar to library folks: information behavior, database design, information architecture and search, privacy, and intellectual property.

The course also covers things you’re less likely to find in Libraryland on a regular basis: design thinking, user experience, interface design, accessibility, data science, visualization techniques, information assurance, and cybersecurity.

As an exercise, I gave students several excerpts from the World Almanac, ranging from birthstones to home-run leaders to statistics on homeschooled students and genocide. For each, they had to seek other sources to corroborate the almanac. This led to a class discussion on the nature of “facts”—this was in late January; timing is everything—and moreover on how knowledge and authority are constructed, individually and collectively.

I was quite pleased with the list of types of authority they generated in brainstorming, based on institutions, consensus, social position, expertise, and direct observation. They included things I didn’t expect, such as “reach” (number of followers), wealth, track record, age, and the degree to which something was cool or interesting.

The students were indeed facile and comfortable with technologies, though not always with information. One of our most difficult sessions was on vocabulary control and bibliographic database searching; I assumed they’d be receptive and see the opportunity to improve their own abilities for other settings. I was wrong. The search demo I planned—to use PsycINFO, which works beautifully with MLIS students—landed with a dull thud.

I can’t say why for sure. My instinct is that it came across as disconnected from or irrelevant to their interests and backgrounds. On the other hand, sending them out to scour the campus for half an hour to look for examples of information behavior was quite successful (including the student who came back and reported seeing “people looking for examples of information behavior”—which I could very much see myself doing somehow).

If something comes from the right kind of authority, that ground has to be prepared and fertilized for a long time before it can reap a harvest of trust and confidence.

Lights went on every week. Students came to office hours to ask thoughtful questions: One young woman asked about protecting her online privacy. I suggested turning off her phone’s GPS, but when I suggested just leaving it at home, she was shocked and seemed never to have even considered the trade-offs of these devices. Other students asked why information products are often poorly designed, or why people believe things that are patently untrue and unsubstantiated.

That last point has been on lots of minds lately. My own perspective here is that people believe what they are ready to believe; see the list of aforementioned “authorities.” If something comes from the right kind of authority—be it a friend, a news source, the Encyclopedia Britannica, Google, the president, Facebook, you name it—that ground has to be prepared and fertilized for a long time before it can reap a harvest of trust and confidence. And it would likely necessitate an even longer period of undoing.

I was pleasantly surprised at students’ open-mindedness, receptivity to the information perspective, and interest in the multiple aspects of our field. More than one came to office hours saying that “everybody should be required to take a class like this,” proving once more there’s no zealot like a convert.

The deeper question for all of us is this: Why don’t more of these bright, talented, information-interested students see themselves and their future career paths in libraries? There would be great opportunities for them, and for us, so we all have some work to do to make that more obvious … but that’s another story.


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