Not teaching a man to fish

I said earlier that I would comment further on Rick Anderson’s provocative recommendation that we not “teach a man to fish” at the reference desk. What he was saying was that it is a waste of patrons’ and students’ time to teach them how to use our abstruse database interfaces when their time would be better spent reading and thinking, that these database searching skills are only applicable in library settings and simply constitute barriers that we should overcome for them. This recommendation is tied to the idea that we should abandon the educational mission of libraries.

Although I hate what I think Anderson really stands for (a neoconservative interest in bringing market values into libraries and deprofessionalizing librarianship), I have to agree with the idea that we might be wasting our time teaching the mechanics of database searching. My reasons are slightly different from his. I think these mechanical skills are easily learned by the current generation of students, and that we should teach them about what is not so second nature to them: how to intellectually discriminate and evaluate information resources for value and appropriateness. In the process of helping a student use a database or use the catalog, the really valuable interactions don’t concern the features of the database or how to make it work. They have to do with teaching students how to figure out what a piece of information is and isn’t about; to consider where it comes from; to consider its intended audience. It’s teaching them how to use the descriptive information to figure out if the item is going to help them. This is an area of information literacy that is concerned with helping students and patrons to better understand the intellectual world. I don’t think we as librarians do as much of this as we could; I think we are too focused on mechanics and computer literacy in our information literacy instruction.

As for the relevance of our teaching mission, I think that more and more it’s what we have to offer that keeps us relevant; that is, our teaching activities are some of the only things we have to offer that people aren’t finding ways to do for themselves (or that are done by paraprofessionals or by software). I think that the teaching mission – helping people understand the world of information – its ins and outs, its ecology, its relationships and differences, its connection to intellectual communities and ideological projects – is positively at the core of our work and increasingly the source of our relevance (at least for reference librarians).

One comment on “Not teaching a man to fish

  1. While information literacy can be a progressive value, I have a couple of reservations. After working at an academic reference desk for four years and teaching numerous library instruction classes (authority fallacy coming;), I have found that students lack the basics on how to find materials and I’m not just talking about database searching. Students don’t understand how to find materials on the shelf or use the online catalog. And I think this is in large part due to the emphasis on info lit. While these skills may be outdated soon or become less relevant in their post-college careers, we are not helping the students learn if they can’t find materials.

    More philosophically, I think that by focusing on the “trees” of information, we are missing the “forest” of knowledge. Teaching students to critically think about information is a good thing, but I’m not certain if we are getting them to put the information together to enhance their knowledge…

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