Information literacy: the work of librarians past and present

Information literacy

As long as there have been public libraries, librarians have been involved in education. They have helped people choose what to read for leisure and helped with their information needs. The recent emphasis on information literacy is more of a new term than a new concept, but as technology has transformed everything in society, information literacy needs to be done differently.

For most of the twentieth century, the best way for most people to identify books on a particular subject was the card catalog in the library. Specialists could use various published bibliographies or the Cumulative Book Index among other tools.

Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which began publication in 1905, helped the general public find information in magazines, etc. As the century progressed, publishers brought out more, and more specialized, indexes to periodical literature, including some of the major newspapers.

Encyclopedias have been around since the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, encyclopedia publishers aggressively marketed door to door. Many families owned a set, but the library always had up-to-date editions of several different encyclopedias.

The foregoing describes the kinds of tools available up until the Internet went public. In every case (except for the family encyclopedia), people who wanted to use them had to go to the library, and could easily ask librarians for help when they needed it. Librarians also excelled at helping people clarify just what kind of information they needed. And since not everything ever published is well written or reliable, librarians helped people learn how to distinguish good information from bad. Now, of course, people can look up all kinds of things online. What has changed for the librarian and information literacy now that we have computers? Lots. And not much.

The online library catalog has replaced the card catalog. That gives library patrons the same advantages as any other online searching, but it operates on different principles from search engines. Librarians love to explain how to get the best use of both,

New online databases have replaced the Reader’s Guide. Several serve the same kind of general purpose it used to. Many are much more specialized. They all work a little differently. Patrons who find them confusing can still ask a librarian for help. It is no longer necessary to visit the library personally in order to use them, but as they are prohibitively expensive for individuals, people can only access them through subscribing libraries. All of this new technology has changed people’s information-seeking habits. Not everyone today is even aware that the flood of print publications continues. Fewer people know about the databases or any other online information sources that are not free to the public except at libraries.

Generally speaking, finding information is now much easier than ever before. Finding particular information and knowing how to evaluate its reliability is as difficult as ever. People still need the help of trained experts–librarians–for that. So in a sense, information literacy means doing the same things libraries have done for generations, but the public no longer has to visit the library to find information. Therefore, librarians can no longer foster information literacy by passively waiting for patrons to come in the door. Librarians have recognized the need to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach–like blogging!

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"85 reasons to be thankful for librarians," and counting

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I found a fun page I’d like to pass along. It’s a semi-serious list of reasons not only to be thankful for librarians, but to use the library. It also lists reasons to be grateful for all the print materials in the library, as well as the wealth of electronic information it offers.

I say semi-serious because of the tongue-in-cheek writing style and because while most of the reasons relate to the real services librarians offer, some don’t. No. 7, for example, is “‘Sexy Librarian’ is still a popular costume at Halloween.”

The list appears on a site devoted to college information, but most of the more serious points apply just as well to school libraries, public libraries, and probably at least some special libraries. As I write this post, the article has attracted 340 tweets and 32 comments. Some of the comments add more reasons, continuing the original numbering up to 101.

Perhaps one of the best things about the list is that whoever compiled it is clearly not a librarian. Some librarians expressed regret over entries mentioning spinsters or learning the Dewey Decimal system, but I think a vast majority of librarians appreciate the love more than they wince at some of the comments.

All in all, it’s great to see evidence that someone who is not a librarian loves libraries and librarians enough to take the effort to compile a list like this.

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How to find titles in an online library catalog

Some online library catalogs, trying to imitate Google, show only a single search box, which works as a general keyword search. If you want to look up a title, you need to switch to “advanced search,” which is actually less frustrating to use.

Google is a search engine, and the online library catalog is a database with multiple indexes. You need a screen that will let you choose which index to search. The better-designed catalogs offer a choice between “title” and “title keyword” search boxes.

For “title,” type the beginning of the title, omitting the initial article if any. In English, articles are “the,” “a,” and “an.” If any of these are the first word, leave it out. Omit initial articles from all other languages, too.

If the item you want has a long title, you do not need to type it all so long as you put in enough to get to distinctive words. For example, if you want to locate The trumpet & trombone in graphic arts, 1500-1800, you need go no farther than the “gr” in “graphic.” Simply searching “trumpet and trombone” will turn up more titles, but the one about graphic arts will still probably be on the first screen of results.

Don’t worry about whether the title has “and” or “&.” You can safely type “and” (or the equivalent in another language); a cataloger has (or should have) put the title in the record both ways. And don’t bother with capitalization. Nothing but the first word, proper names, or German nouns will be capitalized in the catalog. Search boxes, whether in Google or in an online library catalog, are not case sensitive.

“Title keyword” comes in handy for long titles where all the distinctive words are at the end or for when you don’t remember the title exactly but remember several important words. Enter only keywords from the title and separate them with “and.” For the title in the last paragraph, the search “trumpet and graphic” should suffice to get the record you want.

In my previous posts about finding names and subjects, I have had to explain the concept of controlled vocabulary. Generally speaking, titles are not controlled. If, for example, a book has one title on the title page, a different one on the cover, and something else again on the spine, the cataloger simply enters all of them in the record. Type in whatever you know, and if the library has the item, your search will turn it up.

But what if you want something that is available in more than one language? For example, English translations of Dostoyevsky’s novels may be available with different English titles. In that case, librarians regard the original language as the preferred title, subject to vocabulary control so everyone always uses the same one . You will recognize a preferred title in a cataloging record because it is a hot link.

Suppose for example, you find his A raw youth. The record also shows the preferred title Podrostok. English. It has been translated into English at least three times; the other titles are The adolescent and An accidental family. If your library owns all three titles, you can choose which you want to read. If someone else has its only copy of A raw youth and you have no need of a particular translation, you know that the other titles translate the same book.

Beyond information seeking: ways the library meets some other needs.

In earlier posts to this blog, and other places around the Internet, I have written about how to ask reference librarians questions, how to use a library catalog, and some of the differences between libraries and other ways of finding information. All of these articles have assumed some kind of information-seeking, or at least literature seeking. That is, if you want something in particular, I have given pointers for how to find it. Today, I will look at a random sample of a few other good reasons to visit the library.

1. Libraries are cool in the summer (in case your air-conditioning is not working), a warm place in the winter, a dry place in the rain, a quiet place away from the noise of traffic or the hustle and bustle of working or shopping. There are lots of things you can do in this peaceful and comfortable refuge.

2. Libraries are a great place to browse. They subscribe to more newspapers and magazines than you’ll find anywhere else–and not just current or recent issues, either. Only libraries offer the relaxing pleasure of leafing through fifty-year-old issues of Life or some other magazine. Think of the library as a vast StumbleUpon, where you can choose exactly what you want to browse.

3. With a library card, you can see an unlimited number of movies with no rental fee–and very likely find things that the video store, or the Red Box, or Netflix doesn’t have. (Plus, if you still have a VCR and no DVD player, the library probably still has cassettes!)

4. Even though libraries offer peace and quiet, the days of, “Shhhhh” are long over. The library is a good place to meet with friends. More and more libraries (academic libraries, at least) hold game nights from time to time. Just think, you can socialize without having to make arrangements for anyone else.

5. Libraries offer other public programming, too: concerts, lectures, public discussions, rooms for meetings, all kinds of things. And while the web is no particular place–basically the same sites are available to users anywhere in the world–the library caters to its own community. Programs reflect the interests of local people. You’re local in your own home town, aren’t you?

How library classification systems work

books online

Some people find libraries confusing places. They bigger they are, the more intimidating. I have written about asking reference questions and using the catalog, but once you identify something to read, you must decipher KFI1376.L5 V47 2002 or 346.043096761 M891p. These strings of characters are derived from two different library classification systems. Library classification has two functions. It puts every item in the library close to related items, and it tells patrons exactly where to find what they have found in the catalog.

Libraries are not organized like book stores. Book stores use ordinary language, such as Religion, History, Reference, etc. to categorize books. The system works well enough for people who want to browse a broad subject or who want a particular title and can easily identify the category. It works less well for people who want a narrower topic or who want something that crosses categories.

Whatever you find in a library catalog, someone wrote the description, analyzed the subject, and classified it according to strict rules. Most American libraries use one of two classification systems. Academic libraries usually use the Library of Congress Classification (LCC), for example KFI1376.L5 V47 2002. Public libraries usually use the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC), for example 346.043096761 M891p.

Both of these systems attempt, in different ways, to classify all of knowledge so that any book (or other material) can be kept with others on the same topic. Library classification systems enable catalogers to define very narrow topics.

A bookstore may have a section for law. So does the library, but within that subject, it has a special place for intellectual property law, and within that, for copyright, trademarks, and  patents. At any level of detail, the classification can differentiate between a dictionary, a treatise, or a work intended for non-lawyers. It can also separate United States copyright law from, say, Japanese copyright law.

Library patrons do not need to know the exact meaning of every element of the classification number in order to find what they need. In LCC, the first letter represents the broadest subject, and other letters (if any) narrow it. The following numbers narrow it further. In DCC, the numbers before the decimal point work the same way, proceeding from broadest (the first digit) to narrowest (after the decimal point).

Once the classification number has been assigned, the cataloger adds more information to put all of the books with that classification in alphabetical order by author. (V47 in the LCC example, M891 in the DDC). The LCC number in the first paragraph also adds the year of publication.

Items in a library that use DDC are filed in strict numerical order. Anyone who understands decimal numbers in general should have no trouble finding a particular Dewey number.

LCC numbers may look more complicated, but they are not. First, look for the letter prefix in its ordinary alphabetical sequence, then look for the number. The part after the decimal point, even though it begins with a letter, is a decimal number. That is, .L49 comes before .L5.

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