When I first started my career as an academic librarian over 10 years ago, my “teaching philosophy” when it came to library instruction was simple: Arm students with the tools they needed to navigate library databases, the online catalog, and find information sources needed to write good papers and create good projects. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students over the years, I have found that most students, when pointed in the right direction, are pretty good at searching and finding the sources needed for their own research. Even first-year undergrads and high school students taking college courses for credit can navigate the library’s home page, connect to a “discovery layer” or a large commercial database, and make it do what they need it to do and bring back good results. I credit this to growing familiarity with search concepts in the use of Google and other search engines, better instruction in secondary and elementary education on using library and Internet resources, and better search engines and user interfaces on the Web, on commercial databases, and on library systems.
Increasingly I found myself instructing students on “how to search” or “how to use the online catalog or discovery tools” only to find that many are coming to college with these skills. A trend that I am seeing much more often, however, is a lack of critical thinking skills and the ability for students, undergrad and grad students alike, to evaluate information sources, intelligently and articulately describe why they used a particular source, and lack of a reasoned explanation of why they searched a specific way on the Internet or on more “academic” sources. Students know the “hows” of searching, but not the “whys” of searching or how to determine which results are good and which results are crap. To this end, I have been spending much more time in my library instruction sessions working with students on information evaluation tools, critical thinking skills, and asking many more “why” questions than “whats” or “hows”.
The old adage of “Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime” needs refinement. We not only need to teach students “how to fish” but also how to determine which fish are poisonous, which are too small to keep, and why we are fishing in the first place. The most important skills that academic librarians can teach college and university students, are critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate information sources effectively. The lines between “good” and “not-so-good” information sources have become extremely blurred, and it’s our job to teach our students how to evaluate the “good fish” from “the bad”. We’re not only instructors of search techniques and library research, but instructors in critical thinking and information evaluation. Let’s make our students discriminating fishermen.