Learning from Librarians: What Writing Studies Can Learn from Literature on Information Literacy

by Doug Brent, University of Calgary

A Presentation to the Campus Alberta Writing Studies Symposium, April 25, 2014

Some years ago, I began investigating literature relevant to First Year Seminars. One of the major goals of a First Year Seminar is to introduce students to the general mindset of the academic research community by engaging them in introductory level academic research, so I found myself ferreting out research articles on the subject. In addition to a number of studies in the writing studies literature, I found a wealth of studies in the literature of academic librarianship, also variously called Information Literacy and Bibliographic Instruction.

At a conference on the First Year Experience, I summarized the general tone of this literature by saying, “I discovered that academic librarians, on the whole, are desperate and despairing people.” A ripple of applause broke out from one corner of the room, which turned out to be occupied by a contingent of academic librarians who had turned up to participate in the conversation on first year seminars. I began to suspect that I was onto something.

Academic librarians are desperate and despairing primarily because they have vivid first-hand experience of how little most students understand about research, and are given, at best, a one-hour window in a library orientation session to try to teach it to them. Of course, this sort of context-free introduction leaves little or no impression, and librarians are left trying to teach these skills on the fly when students, come up to them and say something like, “I need to find five good sources on cancer. By Friday.”

I suspect that the switch to using on-line sources has likely made the problem even worse by enabling students to write research papers without physically setting foot in the library. As a result, students needing guidance are even less likely to strike up a conversation with the human being sitting behind the reference desk. They are more likely to struggle on their own, and may not receive any additional guidance until they get a paper back with feedback pointing out how badly they have missed a mark that they never knew existed.

In this paper I will argue for more rapprochement between the Writing Studies and the Academic Librarianship communities, especially with regard to research findings about what students need to know about the process of research. There has been some attempt from the library side to introduce librarians to the writing studies literature: articles with title like “Communicating with Writing Instructors” and “Encouraging Dialogue between Composition and Bibliographic Instruction” appear sporadically in the library journals, although even these attempts seem slightly fraught. In a personal communication, Barbara Fister, one of the champions of this rapprochement, wrote,

I’m a librarian with a rhetorical turn and have been trying to persuade my colleagues who teach library research skills that research is recursive, not linear, and is entwined in reading and writing, not the first step.  I’ve not got very far.

There seems even less going the other way. Rabinowitz writes gloomily that “Despite striking similarities in results, there has been little exchange of knowledge or effort at creating shared research agendas between the two groups of researchers. Pedagogical literature about library research written by classroom faculty reveals serious misconceptions about the role of librarians in the student research process” (337).

I’m not sure that the situation is really as bad as all that. However, I think that we could profit from a review of how the issue of student research is seen by the library community. Of course, we in Writing Studies may take some comfort in the fact that we are likely not the sole or even main problem. Neither our literature nor the Bibliographic Instruction literature is much read by instructors in the disciplines, who assign the vast majority of research papers that librarians have to deal with. But it is still more than worth our while to become more familiar with how things look from the other side of the “supply side” reference desk.

Unfortunately, a lot of the library literature gives a very clear and crisp view of the problems, but is somewhat quieter with regard to solutions. However, we are closer to a solution when we can see more clearly what happens to students when they enter the bewildering wilderness of secondary sources.

Sonia Bodi’s article “How Do We Bridge the Gap between What We Teach and What They Do? “ speaks to the wide gap between the research processes of faculty members and those used by most students. She points out that scholars’ search strategies are shaped by three important resources that students simply do not have available.

The first is a deep and thorough knowledge of a field, which can helps them know where the most important sources may be hiding and, more importantly, help them sift the useful from the irrelevant.

The second is time. Although we too have deadlines and conflicting demands, it may take several years for one of our research projects to mature from incipient idea to published paper, often with several rounds of peer review and revision. Students, if they are lucky, have a few weeks.

The third is the maturity and experience to cope with ambiguity and self-doubt. Bodi writes, “[Expert researchers] are gratified to find nothing written on their topic; students are devastated.” (110)

The result is that few students actually search in the systematic way that they have been taught either in writing courses or in library workshops. Instead, “it appears that students search in a haphazard, unplanned way, happy to find whatever.” (110) My own research on first-year students corroborates this. I found that very few students report using a good source as a gateway to others like it. Relatively few reported following back the trails of breadcrumbs in the references, and absolutely none reported any systematic means of searching sideways to find other sources like the one they have just found. Rather, they start each search as if it is a totally new one. plugging search terms back into a database in hope of finding more useful bits of material.

The problem is that there is no good way, other than experience, that will make available to students the key resources that scholars have available. So how do we proceed with students who need to know far more than we can teach them?

Bodi suggests pitching bibliographic instruction very low, recognizing that students are more in need of coping strategies than complex information-seeking strategies. She gives a few basic lists of heuristic questions that can help students over difficult hurdles such as focussing their topic, finding appropriate key words, and evaluating sources, especially web sites. I won’t go over these in detail here. I just want to emphasize the importance of starting small and giving students a few tips that will help them shape their desperate searches. Students simply don’t have the time, let alone the disciplinary knowledge and maturity, that will allow them to search the way we do, so it might be best to lower expectations a bit and design instruction that will help them survive.

Another recurring theme in the bibliographic literature is library anxiety. Carol Kuhlthau helpfully localizes the specific point in the research process where overwhelming anxiety is likely to erupt: at the stage of focussing the topic. Kuhlthau used a variety of qualitative methods to capture regularities in student search strategies. Although there was huge individual variety, she found that the process tended to fall into six broad stages:

  • task initiation
  • topic selection
  • prefocus exploration
  • focus formulation,
  • information collection
  • search closure.

(As an aside, it is interesting that “search closure,” the point at which students feel that they have enough sources and start to write, is where we in Writing Studies often direct the most attention. If nothing else, this reinforces the fact that we and the librarians are holding opposite ends of the same stick.)

Kuhlthau found that anxiety seemed to peak at in-between stages. For instance, there was a clear peak between task initiation – basically, receiving the assignment – and choosing a topic.

One student revealed, “When I first hear about an assignment, personally I just get upset.” Another described feeling “a spontaneous kind of fear.” A student noted this to be a common experience among fellow students: “In the real beginning I guess I was like everyone else. I didn’t know what I wanted to do . . . I felt anxious.”

As soon as students selected a topic, uncertainty decreased and so did the anxiety. Unfortunately, it rose again when they started doing exploratory reading prior to finding a focus. I guess we should be thankful that her subjects actually did do exploratory reading rather than finding a thesis and then looking for sources to support it. But it is useful to note that this stage was a source of even bigger anxiety as students became overwhelmed by the sheer amount of incompatible material available.

One student declared, “I was so confused up until the 25th. I had no idea what direction I was going in.” Another recalled, “I felt kind of blind because I didn’t know what I was looking for.” A third said, “It seemed there was so much to do, it really scared me.”

This is the stage at which some students become so desperate that they change topic completely, which doesn’t help much if it just puts them back at the beginning of the process again. However, Kuhlthau found that if students do find a clear focus for their research, it represented a turning point in their experience. Anxiety abated, replaced with a feeling of relief and cautious optimism.

This study can inform our practice in Writing Studies by suggesting the point at which some helpful intervention, perhaps by way of a personal conference, can be the most helpful. Most students voluntarily come for a conference when they want feedback on a rough draft. Kuhlthau’s work suggests that this is too late, as the worst period of uncertainty and anxiety may already be past. It will be helpful to require written proposals that present not only a topic but also a preliminary focus. As long as we are prepared to tolerate a fair bit of vagueness regarding the focus, the proposal stage can help us identify students who are thrashing around at this critical stage and may be in need of some personal reassurance and advice.

A third “must read” article from the Bibliographic Instruction literature is Jane Keefer’s “The Hungry Rats Syndrome: Library Anxiety, Information Literacy and the Academic Reference Process.” This article continues the discussion on library anxiety by referring to a classic experiment by Blumer. Two groups of rats were trained to navigate a maze to find a food reward. (Already sounds a lot like an undergraduate in the library, no?.) Then the rats were seaparated into two groups. One group ran the maze when well-fed. The other group was deprived of food for thirty-six hours before tackling the maze. The heighted drive to find food, any food, as quickly as possible seemed to disturb the second group’s cognitive skills to the extent that they seemed to forget much of what they knew about the maze, and they fared much worse than the first group.

The lesson is obvious. The desperate state that students can easily get into, needing sources with neither the time nor the experience to do so properly, can make them clutch at any sources that seem remotely relevant. If nothing else, this should make us more sympathetic, but it should also propel us to design writing assignment differently, so students are less likely to be forced into this counter-productive state of hyper-anxiety.

The last study I’ll point to gives some concrete ideas on how to do this. In “Desperately Seeking Citations.” Gloria Leckie reports the same constellation of problems that most of the library literature does, but focuses squarely on the one that is most within the control of the faculty member: the assignment.

Leckie singles out assignments that require students to become familiar with a wide variety of important and unfamiliar concepts at once. She describes a student in a second-year course in resource management who turned up in the library bearing the following assignment:

Choose one of the following topics:

•          Biodiversity;
•          Ocean pollution;
•          Transportation of hazardous wastes;
•          Desertification; or
•          The Tropical rainforest.

In your paper, discuss:

•          The nature of the issue;
•          Its natural/biophysical aspects;
•          What has been done on the issue since 1980;
•          What is being done on the issue currently. (203)

An experienced scholar would know how to do this: read around in the general area, get a sense of where the topic might be going and focus it, find the most important studies on “what has been done on the issue since 1980,” figure out which important names come up, and so on. The problem for students is that they need to master a huge number of skills more or less at once. However, none of these is made explicit in the assignment, which simply assumes that students will have some idea of how to do this, and in what order. No wonder Kuhlthau found huge peaks of anxiety.

Leckie doesn’t suggest that either writing teachers or instructors in the disciplines can teach all of these skills explicitly. Rather, she suggests a radical reformation of the assignment to permit what she calls a “stratified methodology.” The assignment is broken up into sequential components that ask students to focus on learning only one new task at a time. Of course, some of these steps still contain an immense number of subtasks—one step, for instance, is “finding and using scholarly literature,” which alone could be the subject of many courses. But at least instructors could guide students through more manageable chunks of the process rather than simply turning them loose in the library.

Lest anyone think that this 1996 paper is dated, Lisa Rose-Wiles and Melissa M. Hofmann published a paper in 2013 called “Still Desperately Seeking Citations.” You probably won’t be surprised to learn that on-line resources have only made it much easier and quicker for students to get in over their heads.

In this brief review of the bibliographic instruction literature, I haven’t tried to be exhaustive. Mostly I wanted to pick out a few examples to show that there are many people out there asking many of the same pedagogical questions that we do, and that these folks can do a lot to inform the ways we develop assignments and help students become familiar with the research process. If we needed any convincing, this literature should underline how overwhelming the process of research can be to undergraduates, and how many layers are in even a seemingly simple assignment. It is also helpful to graze through this literature for ideas on assignment design and ways in which we can engage more closely with our colleagues in the library. But mostly, it can provide reassurance that, if we are tempted to despair at the amateurish research papers we often receive, we are not alone.


Bosarge, Sarah. Communicating with Writing Instructors: A Composition Studies Perspective and Suggestions. Unpublished manuscript. (2004).

Bodi, Sonia. “How Do We Bridge the Gap between What We Teach and What They Do? Some Thoughts on the Place of Questions in the Process of Research.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28:3 (2002): 109-14.

Fister, Barbara. (1993). Personal communication.

Fister, Barbara. “Connected Communities: Encouraging Dialogue between Composition and Bibliographic Instruction.” In Writing-Across-the-Curriculum and the Academic Library. Ed. Jean Sheridan. Westport: Greenwood, 1995. 33-51.

Keefer, Jane. “The Hungry Rats Syndrome: Library Anxiety, Information Literacy and the Academic Reference Process.” Research Quarterly 32.3 (1993): 333–39.

Keefer, Jane. “The Hungry Rats Syndrome: Library Anxiety, Information Literacy and the Academic Reference Process.” Research Quarterly 32.3 (1993): 333–39.

Kuhlthau, Carol. “Developing a Model of the Library Search Process: Cognitive and Affective Aspects.” RQ 28.2 (1988): 232-242.

Leckie, Gloria J. “Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about the undergraduate research process.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 22.3 (1996): 201-208.

Rabinowitz, Celia. “Working in a Vacuum: A Study of the Literature of Student Research and Writing.” Research Strategies 17.4 (2000): 337-46.

Rose-Wiles, Lisa and Hofmann, Melissa M., “Still Desperately Seeking Citations: Undergraduate Research in the Age of Web-Scale Discovery” (2013). Library Publications. Paper 69. http://scholarship.shu.edu/lib_pub/69

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