Who needs information skills?

Alan Bennett is a fine dramatist. His television monologues can hold your attention with just one character, and can be uncomfortably truthful. In A woman of no importance (1982) office worker Peggy Schofield is a fussy middle-aged spinster obsessed with order. She believes that her skill with the photocopier is indispensable. And what’s more she assumes her colleagues in the office appreciate and value her skills. It’s clear that she overvalues the importance of her expertise. The uncomfortable truth is that her skill has become universal and is regarded by everyone else as no skill at all since everyone these days can operate the photocopier. They don’t need her – she is a victim of disintermediation but she doesn’t know it.
In my early days as a librarian I envied the information wizards who performed online literature searches – they had mastered the arcane system commands and database indexing and could react quickly to adjust their search as results came through. Then I became a wizard myself and enjoyed being able to pull bibliographic rabbits out of digital hats. When disintermediation hit, searching moved from the esoteric to the commonplace. Everyone could have a go at it and they did.
Hence, I think of Miss Schofield sometimes. Perhaps her biggest problem was her lack of self-awareness: she was not self-critical or reflective. Librarians have had to be more adaptable and we don’t jealously guard access to searching but seek to disseminate our skills. We train library users to be searchers and now information literacy is a major campaign in academic and research libraries. Sadly, rather like Miss Schofield’s colleagues, many academics and researchers are still deaf to the message of information literacy. They assume that information searching and handling skills are self-evident and innate and require no added training.
Early in 2008 year the JISC/BL report The Google Generation looked at the information-seeking behaviour of students and researchers. The report found that impatience with search and navigation was common and that people rely on only the most basic search tools. It called for more information literacy programmes and for libraries to respond better to users’ needs.
Now another report, from the Research Information Network (RIN), goes further. Mind the Skills Gap – Information handling training for researchers looks at the information training that is provided for researchers by libraries and other bodies. Although it focuses only on higher education libraries (RIN seem to have forgotten that research goes on in research institutes too!) it finds that training is uncoordinated between the different training bodies, and there is insufficient assessment of training needs. It does re-emphasise the importance of information skills:

There is evidence to suggest that research information skills and competencies have not kept pace with rapid change in this area. Library and information specialists consider that even when researchers regard themselves as competent, they often show alarming deficits in their skills.

This raises important questions about how researchers acquire the appropriate skills in discovering and handling research information resources and services, the training opportunities provided for them, and the take-up of those opportunities.

What do you think – do the modern-day Miss Schofields have anything to teach you about information skills or are they, like her, living in the past?

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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12 Responses to Who needs information skills?

  1. Mark Tummers says:

    Firstly, I loved this blog entry, and I hope I don’t pollute the excellence of it too much with my ramblings.
    Secondly, to be honest, I had the embarrassing situation of discovering an important reference after the publication of my article more than once. Apparently the reviewers never knew about these essential references either, so maybe they are just really obscure, but relevant.
    I tend to be lazy and use basic search and navigation tools. I do try to apply the basic search options on different databases, and that sometimes makes a difference. This often leads to an irrational preference for search engines that give the most rewarding results. Currently I am very much infatuated with JSTOR.
    And finally, I am very much like office worker Peggy Schofield of course in other ways. My brains seems to work a bit like those scientists of a generation long gone, and I tend to value my own excellence in this regard quite highly, since my peers seem to be lacking any of the more philosophical skills that use to come with the definition of scientist.
    Of course there is a reason why we have modern scientists. And maybe I should admit that I am an extant being from extinct times.

  2. Branwen Hide says:

    As an ex-researcher from a research institute, and new employee of the Research Information Network, I can say with authority that we do know that research does get done at research institutes. But I do appreciate the point you have made, and we will try and rectify that in future projects.
    I just wanted to take the opportunity to highlight an upcoming workshop we are hosting with the Leeds Business School, which is a follow up to our Mind the Skills Report. The aim is to get the key people together in one place and not only discuss these issues raised in the report but to begin the process of developing a framework to develop and deliver training programs. There will be a second similar event in London in November of this year.
    The details of the FREE event can be found on our website. Even if you can’t make the event in Leeds, but have some thoughts on the subject, I would be more than interested to discuss them with you.

  3. Frank Norman says:

    @mark – thanks for your comments. I think it’s fine and entirely natural that different people have different ways of finding things. There’s no absolute correct way, so if you try a few different methods and settle on one that works for you that’s fine. The problem is those people that have only ever used one tool and don’t know what they might be missing.
    @Branwen. Thanks for your comments – I’m glad to hear that institutes will have their day! I think the report focuses on a very important area and makes some interesting connections. The workshop sounds very interesting. I shall keep an eye open for the London one.

  4. Branwen Hide says:

    Hi, will keep you posted on the workshop in London. It is important to keep those interested in the area talking and working together.

  5. Maxine Clarke says:

    I think that Google is so good that it has made people in general quite lazy about learning search skills. With the search engines that existed before Google, you had to learn some basics to perform searches and so you had some rudimentary skills that you could develop. Today, Google has made us all lazy (me included), and as we all know, even a wondrous object like Google does not return a fraction of what is out there unless asked properly.
    I think that librarians have an essential role in teaching and training us all to know how to search for information properly, using tools such as Google of course, but defining search terms in accordance with what we really need to find (instead of a casual search which won’t reveal this). Librarians can also educate us about what types of important information search engines might not find.
    This applies to general libraries as well as academic/instutional ones.
    In the UK at least, IT is a compulsory subject at school until the age of 16, and based on anecdotal evidence (my own children), children are taught how to search and how to use/trust information on the internet. All to the good.

  6. Maxine Clarke says:

    PS I agree with you about Alan Bennett and your post reminded me of how much I enjoyed that photocopying monologue.

  7. Henry Gee says:

    ‘Disintermediation’ — great word, that. I agree with Maxine that Google has made us all lazy, but I am sure that there are features of Google of which I know nothing, but which I’m sure would make my life easier. Rare is the day when I search fruitlessly for something I know is there.

  8. Henry Gee says:

    Rare is the day when I search fruitlessly for something I know is there. NOT.

  9. Jo Brodie says:

    Frank are you going to run any ‘extreme googling’ courses? 🙂
    I’m a big fan of sneaking in a filetype:pdf or a site:www.nature.com into my searches if I want to find a word or phrase that I know I last saw in a PDF or I’m looking for it on a particular website. That’s just from the standard ‘Advanced search’ options though, I’m sure there’s loads more I could benefit from finding out about.

  10. Frank Norman says:

    Jo – I think Karen Blakeman and Phil Bradley run expert internet courses. Karen comes up with some amazing tips at her talks at IOLIM each December. Try browsing her “blog”http://www.rba.co.uk/wordpress/2008/06/17/top-search-tips/ for internet search tips.

  11. Frank Norman says:

    Oops. That should be Karen Blakeman’s blog

  12. Jo Brodie says:

    Very useful Frank, thanks. 1 and 3 I already do but the Google Custom Search Engine is new to me.
    This is also helpful Extreme Googling cheat sheet

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