Thursday, 23 May 2013

How to decide what to read?

A lot of what librarians teach about information skills are the techniques of searching, rather than the sort of thinking that needs to happen.

I've been thinking a lot about this because so often the techniques of searching, while useful, are not enough to answer many of the questions that students pose: what is needed is thinking.

I was reminded of this recently when reading a book in the Palgrave Study Skills series, How to use your reading in your essays, for preparation for a teaching session.  This is a short book which tells you all about how to write with sources.

Early on in the book, there is a section entitled, 'How to decide what to read?' which gives the following five steps:

Step 1. Think: what question do you want to answer?
Step 2. Think: what ideas of your own do you already have?
Step 3. Think: what types of source will you need?
Step 4. Do a first search
Step 5. Think: sort and select your sources for detailed reading
That is a lot of thinking!

Could it be that searching is the part of the iceberg above the water line that should be supported by the thinking going on beneath?

In our search-engine oriented world, searching is often done without thinking.   It is not something that is just affliciting the young, but is pervasive.  As soon as a question is forming in our minds it is already being expressed in our fingers, and before it is fully expressed in our fingers, Google is giving us answers - of a sort. This is fine if our question is, 'Where can I get a pizza in Harrow?', but for more complex questions, this approach can often lead us into trouble.  It is easy to get lost in a sea of information, with little idea of what it was we were trying to find out in the first place.

A few quotations illustrate the point:

Any idiot can type a search term into an internet search engine, and many idiots do.  The typical internet query is about 2.4 words long and has about a 14 per cent chance of failing because it contains a mis-spelling.
Rugg and Petre (2007: 48)
It is easy to produce dreadful assignments by using a search engine to do a quick, undiscriminating trawl. Searching for a few words from your assignment task, copying from websites you come across and then pasting together disconnected bits and pieces to present as your assignment will get you a very low grade.

Northedge and Chambers (2008: 271) 
There was a time when the word “research” meant “critical and exhaustive research or experimentation having as its aim the discovery of new facts or interpretations" (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary 1976). Research today often means little more than locating random snippets using a search engine.
Gorman (2012: 114)
Research is at least 80% about forming questions, reflecting on what you know already, understanding the sources that might extend your knowledge, and thinking about and selecting the material you find.  Less than 20% is about doing the search.  That is the easy bit!  Or at least it is easy when you have a good idea of what you are looking for.

Further reading

Godfrey, J. (2009).  How to use your reading in your essays.  Palgrave Macmillan.

Gorman, M. (2012). The prince’s dream: a future for academic libraries, The New Review of Academic Librarianship, 18(2), 114

Northedge, A. and Chambers, E. (2008). The arts good study guide, 2nd ed. The Open University Press.

Rugg, G. and Petre, M. (2007).  A gentle guide to research methods.  Open University Press.