Website Wednesday: Library of Babel

Website Wednesday is a (mostly) weekly feature in which we highlight one (or a couple) of sites from the Billions floating around the Intertoobz that just might help you with your Herculean task of educating inquiring minds. Any and all suggestions for future editions are welcome.

I love Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Library of Babel” as much for what it is as for the literature it has inspired–especially Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose–but because every time I read a book with a library in it–from Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore or The Strange Library to Carlos Luis Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind (which I didn’t even like that much) to children’s literature like Lissa Evans’ Horton’s Miraculous Mechanisms–I can’t help but think about it again. And there’s so much to think about!

Anyway, you can imagine my delight when I encountered this article about a Brooklyn author who has created a virtual Library of Babel. And then, I found this explanation by the creator himself of his project and motivations.

And then I went to the Library of Babel, itself.

I browsed around a bit, and then decided it would be more fun to search. What did I search for? This: “When others paint a biased and incomplete portrait of all of our contributions, it is critical to state the facts clearly so that everyone at CCC and all of Chicago can continue to rightfully take pride in the great endeavor in which we are involved” and there it was on page 56 of Pkjyfjzj.pbfen Qdbxcp located in 137y3o6u9dvns
xb8l7n393oqcbc2i6djh1nu2ys…-w1-s4-v02

Though, to be honest, that’s only one location. According to the search engine there are approximately 10 to the 29th power other matches, too. Kind of a goofy way to spend time, but it beats stewing, I guess, and it definitely beats grading midterms. At least for a little while. And if it doesn’t, then go find some Borges (or something) to read…

Pseudo-Academic Publishing, Astroturfing, and Google Scholar

According to the article “Scientific Articles Accepted (Personal Checks, Too)” (thanks Tom Higgins for the tip) appearing recently in the New York Times, there is an entire industry built around the appearance of academic qualification, “a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously-titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events.”

Unwitting scholars are solicited to publish in the journals and attend the conferences only to find after the fact that there are substantial fees for doing so.  Of course, while I am sympathetic to these individuals, I am more concerned for the net impact on academe as a whole.  For as the article points out, “[S]ome researchers are now raising the alarm about what they see as the proliferation of online journals that will print seemingly anything for a fee.”

The problem seems to lie in the abuse of the “open access journal” concept.   Open access journals are defined by Peter Suber as scholarly writing that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”  While open access journals and their attendant online scholarly communities are a boon to the free flow of information and the collaborative sharing of knowledge–things I think most of us can see the benefit in—the open nature of the internet allows for abuse.  One kind of abuse stems from charlatans running vanity presses who seek to divest academics from their paychecks.  A much more insidious kind of abuse, I think, is the creation of academic seeming fora in which those who actively seek to obfuscate knowledge have a new megaphone to disseminate misinformation.  There is, for instance, no shortage of evidence about rightwing think tanks and pro-corporate forces trying to muddy the water of the science behind anthropogenic climate change.  If we have already witnessed well-funded think tanks astro-turfing (simulating grass-roots movements) for political causes, then why shouldn’t we expect similar assaults on academic discourse?

Jeffrey Beall, a research librarian at the University of Colorado in Denver, has developed his own blacklist of what he calls “predatory open-access journals.” He warns that their numbers are growing.   There were 20 publishers on his list in 2010, and now there are more than 300. He estimates that there are as many as 4,000 predatory journals today, at least 25 percent of the total number of open-access journals.  To be sure, not all of these sources are “bad” sources or even incredible ones.  The problem is that it is very difficult to tell one from another without a high degree of subject-specific knowledge and a savvy understanding of information literacy.  As the article points out, “[Researchers] warn that nonexperts doing online research will have trouble distinguishing credible research from junk….They will not know from a journal’s title if it is for real or not.”

And that, for me, is where the rubber meets the road.  I often hear teachers telling their students to use Google Scholar, and though GS is in no way connected to shady open access publishers, a cursory search on GS turns up a number of the journals listed on Beall’s blacklist.  Is all the information found in those journals wrong?  No, not necessarily.  But it IS suspect, and if our students have been told that GS is a good source, they are unlikely to realize that fact and evaluate accordingly.  I would caution that Google Scholar is never a substitute for a database search limited to peer-reviewed sources.

Urgent request for help! LIS 101, IAI, and what you need to do now!

Update:

We are sending this response to IAI in the next few days, so if you would like to add  your name to the growing list of endorsers and cosigners, please let me know today!

Original Plea for Help:

As many of you know, we have created a three-credit hour library course, LIS 101, to debut in the Fall of 2013.  I am thrilled that it will be part of a 12-hour cohort on global warming alongside Bio 114,  Phys Sci 107, and Eng 101.  Though we have struck articulation agreements with a number of our main feeder schools, we do not yet have IAI status.  They provided some reasons for their decision not to grant status, to which I have responded below.

Your endorsement of this letter could add meaningful support to the cause of information literacy courses state-wide.  If you agree with the letter below, please email me your name and title, and I will add you to our response.  My email is theldt@ccc.edu.

The Letter:

Dear IAI Panel Members,

We were initially disappointed to learn of your decision not to create a new GECC category for our first LIS 101 course; however, we assure you that more LIS courses are forthcoming.  We feel confident of the value of LIS courses because fellow faculty members from across the curriculum are quite interested in building learning communities with us.  Not only are English classes signing up, but biology, physical science, and others as well.  Likewise, we have struck articulation agreements with a number of the schools our students most often transfer to.  After some internal discussion of the matter, we decided that this would be an excellent opportunity to discuss with you the merits of creating a new GECC home for Library and Information Science (LIS).  We wish to inform you about library and information systems and information literacy, in general; look to the future of the workplace; and to demonstrate that current measures for teaching information literacy are inadequate.

Your central objection to the creation of a new GECC category for LIS is that a course taught at a community college would be inadequate to prepare students for the information demands of a 4-year university.  It appears that your understanding of library systems is that the “basics” of library instruction would remain the same, but that students would have to “relearn appropriate processes” at their transferring institution.  On its face, this argument has some merit.  We certainly would not encourage students to take a course of such limited value.  However, all library systems are built upon the architecture of MARC records, Z39.50 protocols, and Boolean logic.  This means that all online public access catalogs (OPACs) and databases behave the same way.  Though individual databases and OPACs have different graphic user interfaces (GUI), the components are necessarily the same across all systems.  While it is true that students at a four-year university will very likely have access to a greater breadth of databases than their fellows at two-year community colleges because the databases must have the same architecture, our students will be prepared to perform research in their new environment with little or no assistance.

This scenario, however, depicts the role of the library and information literacy as being entirely functionary, e.g., the ability to retrieve information required for an assignment.  In our judgment, that is a very limited part of all that LIS encompasses.  The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) neatly defines information literacy as the ability to know when information is needed, to access information from a variety of sources, to critically evaluate the credibility and usefulness of the information, to use that information to accomplish a task, and to do so in an ethical manner.  These are complex skills, involving critical thinking and other advanced taxonomies.  The ability to perform a search in a database or OPAC is the least demanding of the skills listed by the ACRL.  Consider the uninformed student who goes to Wikipedia and thinks he knows all he needs to write his research paper.  Consider the student who starts with a thesis in mind, finds evidence to the contrary, and quietly pretends he never saw that evidence.  Consider the student who makes important academic or life decisions based on biased, untimely, or incredible evidence.  In our estimation, these are the more substantial concerns. Unfortunately, if librarians only get to spend one to two classroom hours with students, it is unlikely that we will be able to address them. Increasing librarian classroom contact hours will benefit students, better preparing them for their other college classes. June Pullen Weiss (2004), in her “Contemporary Literacy Skills,” notes that years of documentation have repeatedly shown that information literacy skills have a “positive impact on curriculum and student achievement in schools that have strong library media programs” (Pg. 13).  Furthermore, she ranks information literacy as one of the most important skills called for in economic forecasts for 21st century jobs (Pg. 14).

Information literacy has been a concern since the 1980s, and in recent years the drumbeat has only gotten louder for schools to prepare students for the information economy and for “21st century jobs,” or in our case at City Colleges of Chicago, to offer “degrees of economic value.”  No matter what we call these changing demands, we must respond to the new needs of job markets and employers.  As early as the mid-1990s, businesses were recognizing the importance of information literacy to future operations.  Business writer Peter Drucker (1995) correctly assessed that businesses in the future would be built around information, and that the sources of that information would have to come from within  the company as well as from outside. (Pg. 55).  Indeed, companies increasingly recognize the value of information literacy and the strategic value of their employees having access to “the right information at the right time” (Cheuk, 2008, p. 137).

However, in order for companies to work well in the new economy, they will demand certain skills from their workers.  In that regard, it is worth noting that Buket Akkoyunlu and Ayhan Yilmaz (2011) define digital empowerment as the ability to use digital technologies “in order to develop life skills and strengthen [one]’s capacity within the information society” (pg. 35). They further affirm that, “Possessing information literacy skills is essential to be equipped for digital empowerment” and that it helps determine the “competitive power of individuals in the business market, as well as their status and earning power.”  (pg. 37).    Likewise, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2008) states that in order for our children to be prepared for the jobs of the future they must learn information literacy, media literacy, and information communications and technology literacy skills (pg. 28). These skills are needed because employees of the future will be looking for workers who can problem solve, make informed decisions autonomously, collaborate, and think critically (pps. 27, 29).  All of which are essential components of this and future LIS courses.

Finally, you state that we should continue to teach information literacy as part of the general education coursework students are required to take already.  Such an approach has not borne the best results.  As touched on above, there simply is not time to teach all of the necessary skills during a single classroom visit, which is the unfortunate paradigm of contemporary library instruction.  The weekly schedule for every class is full, so in its present form, we must cover the important field of information literacy only in the broadest of brushstrokes, and indeed, that does often limit us to the completely functionary role of database trainers. But when we expand our classroom contact to a full semester, we are then able to teach information literacy, search strategies, ethical research practices, news literacy, understanding bias, problems with historical representation, media ownership (and problems therein), the hidden web, data mining, the political misuse of information, copyrights, citation styles, and much more.  The scope of what we do borders at times on composition, historiography, psychology, sociology, philosophy, the sciences, and technology but remains uniquely and completely about information literacy.  All of these considerations comprise the cultural context of information that our students need to be prepared to inherit and interpret.

Though this class is important because it will prepare students for jobs that are increasingly dependent upon access to information, it is important for other reasons as well.  Not to be too grandiose, but higher education has always placed a premium on creating well-informed citizens of the world.  Vassilios Dagdilelis  (2008) unequivocally stated that, “Education is called upon to form the future citizens, who will utilize…new/digital technologies as active members of the society: to have a critical attitude towards the social messages, to actively take  part in the decisions that interest them, to become critical ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ of digital work” (pg. 31).  Information literacy is, of course, a vital component of this education.

Please consider the value of being able to sort the facts from the folly in the area of global warming, of being an informed electorate, and of understanding how to navigate the Internet not just to get an answer, but to get a correct answer.  This is not an area that can be covered secondarily in the classroom.  It is a matter of vital importance. Lewandowsky et al. (2012) discussed the societal cost of the influence and proliferation of misinformation and recommended that, “The processes by which people form their opinions and beliefs are…of obvious public interest, particularly if major streams of belief persist that are in opposition to established fact” (pg. 109). Increasingly, we must arm our students with the ability to critically evaluate sources as they seek the truth.  We ask that you reconsider your earlier decision and create a GECC category for LIS.

Sincerely,
UnofficialFactChecker

Sources Consulted:

Buket, A., & Yİlmaz, A. (2011). Prospective Teachers’ Digital Empowerment and Their Information Literacy Self-Efficacy. Eurasian Journal of Educational Research, (44), 33-50.

Cheuk, B. (2008). Delivering Business Value through Information Literacy in the Workplace. Libri, 58, 137–143.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting (2008). Preparing Every Child for the 21st Century
[PDF document]. Retrieved Online Web site:  http://www.cpb.org/stations/reports/PreparingChildren21stCentury.pdf

Dagdilelis, V. (2008). Information Literacy in Greece: Some Considerations with a More General Interest. International Journal of Learning, 14(10), 29-39.

Drucker, P. (1995). The Information Executives Truly Need. Harvard Business Review,
73(1), 54–62.

Lewandowsky , S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.

Weiss, J. (2004). Contemporary Literacy Skills. Knowledge Quest, 32(4), 12-15.