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Empowering the researcher

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Joe Tragert explains how to leverage discovery platforms as information literacy training tools

The university’s ability to demonstrate that its institution can help develop graduates with strong information literacy skills places an added value in today’s education environment. 
University libraries can strive to be a part of this process by helping undergraduates understand how to develop information literacy skills in today’s age of modern information. 
 
Today’s undergraduates, otherwise known as the ‘Google Generation’, may be technologically savvy, but because they’ve grown up in the age of the internet (where fast facts are easily available), they’re less likely to be able to conduct proper research and may even be considered ‘information illiterate’. They may not fully understand the different types of information resources available through their library, or have the proper knowledge to conduct valid research, because they tend to search quickly and find what they need in just a few minutes.
 
This tendency is manifested in the significant gap of information literacy skills a student has gained by the time they graduate, compared to what’s expected of a new employee in today’s workplace.  
 
The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) surveyed employers in 2018, asking them to rate the skills they valued most in new employees and to rate their mastery of those skills. Some of the largest gaps occur in skills that employers rate highest. They include soft skills, such as critical thinking and analytical reasoning, or the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real world experiences, or how to find, organise and evaluate information from multiple sources.  
 
Even if not directly engaged in the classroom, the library can do its part to promote information literacy to students. Since many students do not enter the library itself, but instead access library resources remotely, the library needs to determine how to promote information literacy skills through online research applications, namely the discovery platform, asynchronously with the end user. 
 
The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) defines the steps of information literacy as follows: a) determine the nature and extent of the information needed; b) access needed information effectively and efficiently; c) evaluate information and its sources critically and incorporate selected information into his or her knowledge base and value system; d) individually, or as a member of a group, use information effectively to accomplish a specific purpose; and e) understand many of the economic, legal and social issues surrounding the use of information and accesses, and use information ethically and legally (ACRL, 2014).
 
The librarian ideally empowers the researcher with a reference interview, which meets the first three steps – helping to define their research questions, to identify the best sources to use, and to create queries that best exploit those sources. However, when the undergraduate does not speak to a librarian, the reference interview advantage is lost. Undergraduates conduct their library research much like they do on Google, alone and unaided.
 
To avoid this issue, librarians can offer an online proxy for a reference interview via their discovery application. Many of these interview tools are already present in the discovery application. For instance, the discovery index typically includes all the resources the library has to offer. The platform returns results in relevant order. The application typically allows users to isolate specific sources and content types, and it usually includes query building functionality. What’s more, the library offers LibGuides and other reference guides on how to conduct research. The problem is that these features and resources are not easily located on the interface and are typically not presented within the context of a researcher’s workflow. 
 
Often, they’re hidden behind tabs in toolbars, and can take two or more clicks deep into the interface.    
 
There are simple things the library can do to facilitate the reference interview. Members of the Google Generation are accustomed to entering a simple query, receiving a list of results, and working with what they get. The key is to encourage the user to be more demanding of their results. The interface should prompt users to ask themselves if the results are sufficient for their research needs and if not, the interface should encourage users to revise their query, change their sources, or step back and reconsider the question they are hoping to answer.  
 
Librarians can also work with their discovery vendor to facilitate a ‘virtual reference interview’ by exposing the features that exist in the user experience but are not obvious. For example, LibGuides can be presented clearly with the initial search. ‘How to conduct research’ guides can also be presented. Not all students will open these, but if needed they are clearly available. The ‘Ask A Librarian’ link should persist with the result views, so that the end user can receive help along their research journey. Enabling the “Did You Mean?” feature in the search box can assist the undergrad with query terms. 
 
There are also more elaborate ways the library can leverage its discovery solution to facilitate a virtual reference interview. Working with the vendor, librarians can insert a dialog box in the result list that prompts users to consider whether the results are satisfactory to them. The interface could suggest related content and sources to the initial query as a method to prompt the user to consider additional or different sources to search. 
 
The interface could include a feature showing the most relevant subjects that relate to the initial query. Librarians could also work with their discovery service vendor to develop a widget that consolidates relevant content into one view (to facilitate validating the content), and relevant search aids into another view (to facilitate revising the research question), that can be accessed as part of the research process.  
 
Ultimately, it is a benefit to the library to become present within the undergraduate’s online research workflow. For most undergraduates, this means guiding them through research for a paper or similar assignment. To the extent possible, librarians can work with their discovery service vendor to model the research paper workflow that most undergraduates follow, using customised widgets and features. 
 
If the discovery application is contextually relevant to the student, they will enjoy an improved research process. If the discovery application drives information literacy skills to the student, students will achieve a better research outcome and, ultimately, gain the information literacy skills they need to succeed beyond university life. 
 
Joe Tragert is senior director product management for EBSCO Information Services

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