International Women’s Day, internet arguments and a surprise information literacy lesson

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, so naturally there were plenty of people who feel the need to lash out online when asked to consider the situation of women for one day a year.

One video I saw doing the rounds was this one from “Prager University”, released just in time for this special day. Watch it if you’re curious.

The video claims to debunk the “myth” of the gender wage gap. It has nice production values, charts and numbers, and has the word University in it. Unfortunately, those factors are enough for it to pass the “trustworthy” test for a lot of folks.

I think this video makes a good example of why it’s important to critical evaluate sources. I can imagine students using this or similar videos to inform their arguments at a university level. It looks and sounds similar to other educational videos that you might be able to use in a class presentation or project, but it’s very different.

Let’s ask a few classic questions to help us evaluate this source.

Who is the author/responsible organisation? Spoiler alert: Prager University is not a real university. It doesn’t even have students! It’s basically a YouTube channel that styles itself with the word “university” in its name. But don’t believe me – believe the note at the bottom of the organisation’s website in a blue font on a blue background: “PRAGER UNIVERSITY IS NOT AN ACCREDITED ACADEMIC INSTITUTION AND DOES NOT OFFER CERTIFICATIONS OR DIPLOMAS. BUT IT IS A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE FREE TO LEARN.” Cool. Unfortunately I saw a few people yesterday link to this video as “proof” that their beliefs were legitimately backed up by research from this university. They retreated when someone pointed out the “not a real university” thing (and hey, it wasn’t me – someone got there before me, so there is hope for humanity’s critical evaluation skills.)

What is the agenda/purpose of the video? PragerU explain on their “About Us” page that their mission and vision is to “explain and spread what we call “Americanism” through the power of the Internet. Our five-minute videos are conservative sound bites that clarify profoundly significant and uniquely American concepts for more than 100 million people each year” and to provide “intellectual ammunition they need to defend and spread those values.” Provide intellectual ammunition. Spread “Americanism”. Ponder those phrases. Then compare them to “inform and educate”. Obviously the video is putting forward a certain point of view, informed by a worldview that PragerU wants to defend.

Does the information have any biases? Hahahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA.

Does it cite its sources? Where do they come from? This is the tricky one. The video references real studies and statistics. That makes it legit, right? But ask yourself: are the conclusions the video makes backed up by the facts, or do they put forward their own assertions to argue their agenda? Anyone who’s fluffed their way through an essay knows that you can cherry-pick references to back up any argument you wish you make, it doesn’t make it a good argument.

In this age of “alternative facts”, we’re more divided than ever and just seek and share information that backs up our existing beliefs, or worse, gears us up to attack others and their points of view. PragerU seems set up explicitly to foster this, providing “intellectual ammunition” for Facebook soldiers. With so much biased information out there, masquerading as authoritative, it’s so hard to seek and find the truth! I’m not sure people even want the truth sometimes.

Please, think about the information you hear/read/watch. It’s more important now than ever.

 

 

Google for research: If it’s wrong, why does it feel so right?

In the uni library world we encourage students to use the library’s discovery layers and database interfaces to search for information. We tell first-years over and over again not to use Google. Is this the right thing to do?

Here’s an information retrieval story from today when I was looking for journal articles on a certain topic:

  1. Used library discovery layer. Didn’t like my results.
  2. Used most recommended database #1, which is small but specialised. Simple 2-term search connected by AND. Some success, but not exactly a jackpot of relevant articles, but a few that were of interest.
  3. Added some synomyms to my search strategy to broaden. Results were the same.
  4. Used most recommended database #2. Large, but multidisciplinary. Had to add more terms to refine the search and experiment with my keywords a bit more. Not much success.
  5. Went back to discovery layer and fiddled with my keywords a bit more. Still not satisfied.
  6. Went to Google. Put in my 2 keywords, no syntax or synonyms or anything. Based on the nature of my search terms, suggestions from Google scholar appeared at the top of the results list. It suggested two articles that were basically my ~dream articles~ in terms of relevance, and highly cited.
  7. Clicked on them. Paywall.
  8. Copied and pasted the article titles into library search. There they were, in databases I hadn’t looked at in steps 3 or 5. Clicked through to full text, and downloaded the pdfs in all their glory.

Now, Google was by far the most helpful tool in terms of discovery (step 6). It was very simple. I didn’t even intentionally go to Google Scholar, just plain old Google. The Scholar results were presented right in my face, there was no effort on my part in doing this. But in terms of access, Google let me down (step 7). I happened to know there was a good chance that the library would have access, so I went looking there, once I had the article titles.

The databases and library search tool were not as good at discovery. It was trickier and more frustrating to find stuff,  I had to use some advanced search strategies, and common techniques like broadening my terms didn’t always work (steps 2-5). The few relevant results that I did get were not as good as what I later found on Google. Of course this is not always my experience.  It depends on the amount of literature available on your topic, how well your search terms match the vocabulary of the databases and the literature, and endless other factors. My topic happened to be a little bit niche on this occasion, which is the kind of situation when I think Google provides a better search experience. The real value in the library search and library-subscribed databases was the access itself (step 8).

I know this is just one anecdote. But c’mon, Google can be a life saver sometimes. Let’s not demonise it. Maybe next time a student is stuck in a rut not finding relevant information in databases, rather than complicate the search strategy, just use the Google workaround!

#BlogJune 25 – How do you explain what a librarian does?

Not gonna lie… I accept all of these.

When I meet new people, pretty much the first question they ask me is, “what do you do?”

I feel like I need a better answer than “I’m a librarian”.

It is sometimes awkward, especially when I supplement this information with the fact that I’m also studying a Masters in… Librarianship.

“Wait, you can get a degree doing that?”

I really don’t mind if people don’t know that much about librarians or their work. I’m cool with that. But I need a way to briefly summarise the actual content of my job, not the name, because for many people “librarian” too riddled by stereotypes. Sometimes I say, “I’m am information services librarian… I help students find stuff.” That usually starts a better conversation.

Sometimes they’re strangely hostile. I’ve had someone say “what do librarians actually DO? Because they seem to be paid a whole lot for not doing very much!” This might have been an outlier response, because I have never met anyone else embittered about overpaid librarians. I’ve also had someone say to me, point plank: “That sounds really boring.” I mean, what the hell? Are people this rude about other professions?

The other manifestation of this ignorance is well-intentioned, but patronising.

“Aren’t you cute! But isn’t it terrible how everything is online these days…..”

(No, it’s not terrible. But thank you for calling me cute.)

“Do you get a lot of time to read the books?”

(No, no-one’s paying me to read books. That would be nice though.)

At a dinner party one time, upon hearing that I’m a librarian, someone said to me, “Oh, a part of me has always wanted to be a librarian!”

I knew what was coming next: “because I love books / I would love to be able to read all day / because it seems like such a quiet peaceful job, etc”.

But the next sentence surprised me.

“…because I like INDEXING THINGS!” And she proceeded to explain how she nerdishly tries to keep a database of all the books, CDs and DVDs she owns, and was actually interested to hear about my library. I was overjoyed. I had found someone who gets it. That the core of librarianship is managing information and resources.

But why is librarianship a vocation veiled in so much mystery? I have a few theories.

  1. The persistent stereotype of the librarian still lingers in many people’s minds. She is a middle aged woman wearing pearls, glasses, a cardigan, a tight bun and a sour expression. Activites include: shelving, stamping due date stamps and shushing people. She thinks computers are straight from hell. She relishes the opportunity to charge patrons with overdue fines, making “tut-tut” noises with an evil smirk, and charges extra if you give her “attitude”. But why hasn’t this stereotype died yet? And how do we kill it?
  2. Most library work happens “behind the scenes”. Librarians are more likely than average to be introverted, and don’t put themselves “out there” as much. Unless you are a student or library enthusiast, you don’t go to an actual library all that often, and if you do, the staff you see are doing shelving, circulation, customer service, etc. So you conclude that’s all there is to being a librarian.
  3. Extending from point 2, people think libraries are just not-for-profit book renting stores. With Kindle, cheap books available everywhere, and the existence of the internet, people think surely this service must be reaching obsolescence. Part of the solution to all this might be better marketing, but it’s proven to be difficult.

Fellow librarians, how do you explain your job to people?

#BlogJune 20 – World Refugee Day

The 20th June is World Refugee Day.

I don’t intend to get political too often on this blog (though it is tempting during election season), but Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers is a consistent source of frustration and heartbreak for me.

A group that I have a huge amount of respect for is Love Makes A Way, who coordinate non-violent protest rooted in the Christian faith. One of their main activities is organising sit-ins in MPs offices, where they pray, sing hymns, and demand to know when children will be released from detention. Civil disobedience is sometimes an appropriate tactic to draw attention to injustice. For those involved in Love Makes A Way It has resulted in arrests in some cases. They have stories about police feeling terrible for arresting pastors, priests, nuns, and the like. But it just goes to show how seriously inhumane our government’s policies are that it would motivate such people to break the law.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

-Warsan Shire, “Home”

Let them stay.

#BlogJune 16 – Hotdesking

 

desk-1283688_1920.jpg

Disclaimer: stock photo – not my desk. A library would never use Macs

This week we had a much loved staff member move on. Her position won’t be re-advertised so I have inherited her desk.

I work weird hours and I spend more than half of my working hours out on the service desk, so I was previously hotdesking with a few other part time staff. I didn’t mind it, I’m not particularly possessive of having my own space since all I really need to do my job is a personal network drive to store my files, and an internet connection. According to my experience, here are the pro’s and cons of hotdesking compared to… erm, regular desking.

PROS

  • It is a space saver. The whole hotdesking thing was actually initiated when a few staff moved to another campus, meaning there were just enough desks for two offices to be consolidated into one, if a handful of part time staff shared a few desks. The empty office was actually converted to make more student space in the library.
  • Better team relationships. The two old offices were actually divided into the “Librarians” office and the “Loans team” (i.e. library technician & assistants) office. We are lucky to have a really cohesive staff team, and having everyone together in the same office has fostered that even more. Us librarians used to be in an office upstairs, the “ivory tower”, as I called it, which meant we were not that approachable.
  • Less clutter. You’re less inclined to leave piles of paper around when a  space isn’t “yours”. I’m a self-declared paper-hater, and turn down offers of booklets and handouts and bits and pieces which I’m guaranteed to never look at again if I file them away in some drawer of booklets and handouts and bits and pieces. Having limited space to store unnecessary papers is a plus, in my opinion, because it discourages it from accumulating.

CONS

  • It’s hard for people to get in contact by phone since they don’t know which desk you’re at. We have a shared office space so colleagues can easily approach each other in person, but if a phone call comes through the main desk, the staff member there does not know what number to forward it to because they don’t know which station I’m at. I’m sure that workplaces that have embraced “full hotdesk” are mobile based.
  • Using a handful of different computers meant setting up my internet bookmarks for each of them. Even though I saved my bookmarks as an HTML file and imported them to each computer I would use, I would end up adding and subtracting bookmarks and they ended up being all different on different computers. I’m sure there are web-based bookmarking apps I could have used to get around this, but I didn’t bother. I’m not a huge bookmarker, I just like having a  little toolbar of my most used sites to access quickly. Again, I’m sure “full hotdesk” workers use laptops.
  • You’re not able to personalise your workspace. As I mentioned, I don’t mind, but some people find it hard to adjust to different environments all the time, and would rather have their workspace set up according to how they like it and how they work efficiently. Also, it is nice to have pictures, decorations, trophies, etc. to customise your workspace to make it more personal. My first thought when I got set up at my new desk was that I’ll need to bring in some knick-knacks to put around the place.

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

  • Even though there was a handful of desks to chose from, most of us would end up having a de facto “main” desk that we gravitated towards. Mine was the smallest, which made people feel sorry for me, but I didn’t care because I had all the space I needed. Much more than my study at home.
  • Staff members would express confusion and surprise when I changed location day to day. Sometimes they’d be looking for me, and they’d look at my “usual” spot and not see me, so they’d conclude that I wasn’t around. They’d then get spooked when I suddenly appeared sitting somewhere else. Now they’ll know where to find me!