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Reflections from LILAC 2018

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Librarians Information Literacy Annual Conference (LILAC) in Liverpool. I usually try and at least start to write up my reflections pretty soon afterwards but as I went to Spain for a week the day after LILAC (impromptu visit to see my partner’s mum), I’ve had to wait a week before getting a change to blog about it.

That’s actually worked out quite well for me, as it’s given me time to step back from the experience and let a few things swirl around in my brain for a bit before writing them down. I always feel like my brain is a a bit over-stuffed by the end of a conference, especially a multi-day conference with a packed schedule like LILAC, so it’s been good to have a chance to digest some of the new ideas and themes over the past week. Although, as much as the enforced week off has turned out surprisingly helpful, I would not recommend catching a 7am flight (requiring you to be at the airport for 5am) the day after a 3-day conference. That was in no way fun…

I’m not going to do a full recap of every session I attended at LILAC. If you want to see my real-time thoughts and impressions, all my tweets are on Wakelet (which I’m really liking so far as a replacement for the soon-to-be-defunct Storify!). You can check out all the presentation slides and papers in the LILAC conference archive, as well as watching recordings of the three keynotes (which I would strongly recommend – as usual for LILAC, the keynotes were fantastic!). My general impressions and reflections are below…

Using theory in practice

“Putting theory to work in practice” was the theme of Ola Pilerot’s excellent keynote (watch the video!!) on day 2. He spoke about models of information literacy, information seeking and information behaviour, and how these can (and should) inform our practice as librarians. I came away from that session with a very full reading list, but also with a renewed appreciation for actually using all these theory models that I sort-of remember from library school! As usual, Lauren Smith said it best:

This year I’ve been studying towards a PGCHE qualification (kindly funded by my employer!) and honestly, one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most is the excuse it’s given me to actually spend time reading the literature in teaching and information literacy, and immersing myself in theory again. I was having a conversation about this recently with some of my fellow students on the course: I’m the only librarian in the class, all the others are recently-hired academic teaching staff, as my institution requires all teaching staff to be HEA-accredited.

Of the other teaching staff on the course, there are varying attitudes towards the requirement to make reference to pedagogical theory in our assessment, with some considering it a bit of a tick-box exercise to pass the course. My argument, in conversation with a few of the theory-skeptics on the course, is that “theory” is really just a fancy way of saying “why I’m doing this thing in this way”. Engaging with the published literature of your discipline should ideally give you one of three things: a moment of recognition (“oh yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought but couldn’t articulate!”), a new way of thinking about an old problem, or something to argue against (“that’s garbage, AND HERE’S WHY”).

Happily, LILAC has a good balance of theory-based sessions along with the practical workshops, so I went away from the conference with plenty more added to my reading list! In particular, Amanda Folk’s session Drawing on identity and prior knowledge to join the conversation in research assignments introduced me to the idea of “funds of knowledge”, which I intend to read up about. Kathleen Langan’s session on the final day, Code in the IL classroom: moving towards a trans-discipline information literacy, book-ended this nicely, by talking about code/algorithm bias and how this should be addressed within IL teaching.

Jane Secker and Emma Coonan’s workshop on the final day, on ANCIL and the Reflexive Practitioner, also provided lots of references to follow up on about how we think about teaching in libraries, and how we can map our teaching. The workshop also included lots of opportunities for discussion, which was perfect for the final day of the conference!

Recognising different ways of being information literate

The second theme that kept cropping up was about what it means to be information literate, and what expectations we have about what information literacy looks like. This first occurred to me in a parallel session with Meggan Houlihan and Beth Daniel Lindsay, from NYU Abu Dhabi, on some research they’d conducted into the research skills of their international students. They found lots of interesting and useful information about the perceptions that their students held about their own research skills, and what they came to university already knowing (see their slides for full details).

However the bit that really stuck out for me was when the authors mentioned that one of the skills their students were lacking was how to construct a Boolean search. This made me think: is this really a necessary, never mind essential, skill for most students to have? This may be librarian heresy, but I honestly don’t believe it’s useful for the majority of our students to know how to construct a Boolean search (with the possible exception of health/medicine students who may need to construct systematic reviews, but that’s quite a specialist case). This blog post and the research it refers to has informed some of my thinking on this topic. Is it a good use of time to focus on advanced searching skills that are not required for the majority of databases and search engines our students use, and will almost certainly never use after University?

Having had this first thought inspired by this parallel session, the same theme kept occurring to me later on, in unrelated talks. In particular, in Ola Pilerot’s keynote, he mentioned a paper he has currently in press about a comparison between the information literacy of undergraduates in two disciplines, nursing and product engineering design. By analysing the references from 9 theses from each discipline, it was found that nursing students were far more likely to use scholarly sources such as monographs and peer-reviewed journals, and to include more references overall. Engineering students were very unlikely to use peer-reviewed articles (only one was cited out of all nine theses!), and used four times as many websites as the nursing students. (See clipped slide below for the full results).

Clipped slide from Ola Pilerot's keynote at LILAC 2018. Table showing the reference analysis from 9 theses from Nursing undergraduates, and 9 from Engineering undergraduates.

At first glance, this is worrying. I’ve certainly fallen into the pattern previously of thinking that because Engineering students aren’t using scholarly, peer-reviewed sources, that means they’re doing research “wrong”. But as Ola went on to argue, this isn’t necessarily the case. Although the two disciplines are working from essentially the same instructions on how to write a thesis, in reality student nurses are preparing for a community of practice where the body of evidence is in published, scholarly research, and design engineers really aren’t. I tweeted a quote from Ola’s talk that struck me – I was doing this quite fast so I can’t guarantee it’s word for word, but this is what I noted:

We can’t just assume that there is only one way to be information literate, and only one way to do research. Of course, if the websites cited by the design engineering students in this study are poor quality, and not given any kind of critical appraisal by the students, then that is a problem. However I don’t believe that is is sufficient to use “number of peer-reviewed articles” cited as a proxy for information literacy.

Finally, in Barbara Band’s keynote (video link), I was struck by a point she made about schoolchildren being set assignments to “find something out online” about a topic, without being required to evaluate or summarise what they’ve found. As a consequence most school leavers over-estimate their skills in finding and evaluating information online, and are likely to believe information they find online. This made me think of anecdotes I’ve heard from many friends and family who are parents to young children:

I’d never really thought about it from that perspective, but it must actually be quite frightening to realise that something you’d always taken for granted (you can answer any question by Googling it) turns out to not be true. I can’t say I blame our students for being resistant to the idea!

Ideas to steal

As well as all the thought-provoking stuff above, I also picked up a few nice, practical ideas for teaching activities that I would like to incorporate into my own practice. Here’s a couple:



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