Information and the Future

This is the blog of the Information and the Future task force of the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University. The IF task force exists to explore the role of libraries in the future of Christian higher education.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Research in a Digital Age

So far, we have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have, the abundance of information technology and the proliferation of digital information resources make conducting research uniquely paradoxical: Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times.
This is the preliminary conclusion of Project Information Literacy, a research project from the University of Washington. A project that is interviewing students across the country at a range of schools from community colleges to Harvard and UIUC.

The researchers suggest that the biggest struggle for students is "context" - understanding the big picture, the appropriate language, the task, and the tools available. The study also looks at similarities and differences between academic and non-academic or personal research with the former being rated much harder by students. The study is interesting and you should read the report.

I wanted to briefly relate this report to the conversation we've been having on this blog. I think that one reason research is perceived to be harder today is that traditional research at least in the humanities, is rooted in a world of books and presupposes a practice of reading that seems increasingly rare, esp. in undergraduates. Rebecca helpfully asks if courses like college writing, already cover this which is not something I'd thought about previously. But when I talk about reading below, I have in mind a set of skills that are developed by practice and may (ideally) nurtured by a community. I think of it like learning music. You may have a course that explains music theory but you only become a musician through a cycle of practice and performance.

If research dependent on traditional ways of reading is valuable (as I suggest here) then as librarians, I think it is part of our task to foster the type of community that nurutures the practice of reading. This may in part be explicit instruction, but also has to do with the type of space we provide, making book review and literary publications available, having space for people to intentionally discuss what they are reading and probably much more (ideas?).

Participating in this reading community and developing good reading practice will be helpful for understanding the context of research - how reference books relate to journals and monographs for example and for learning to understand and question text.

Finally, it is not my position that this is all the librarian is about - we also need to help people understand digital technology and appropriate it effeciently and constructively. This is where I cycle back to the need to articulate what research is and why it is important as the first step towards tying together these disparate strands (i.e. our responsibility with respect to both print and digital technology).

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