Monday, August 31, 2009

Should we use stories or games to teach Information Literacy?

One of my favourite articles in the library literature (*snicker*) is Jeff Purdue's wonderfully written Stories, Not Information: Transforming Information Literacy:

What does it mean to want to replace information with stories? Drawing upon (Walter) Benjamin's insights, I would suggest that we need to present IL and research as paths of discovery that must be self-generated. Look at the reference interview, during which librarians act as guides. Although there are situations when we simply want to give patrons "information," typically we engage the patron with questions: "What are you trying to find? What is your purpose? How have you gone about searching so far?" Or, in storytelling terms, "Where have you come from? And where are you going?"

And so, let's tell stories. Here's one I learned from Robert Graves's I, Claudius that was recently re-told by Dorothea Salo (her comments are in italics):

It seems, then, that we may as well abandon all hope of finding it, unless perhaps… why, there's Sulpicius! He'll know if anyone does. Good morning, Sulpicius. I want you to do a favour for Asinius Pollio and myself. There's a book we want to look at, a commentary by a Greek called Polemocles on Polybius's Military Tactics. I seem to remember coming across it here once, but the catalogue does not mention it and the librarians here are perfectly useless...

Sulpicius gnawed his beard for awhile and then said: "You've got the name wrong. Polemocrates was the name and he wasn't a Greek, in spite of his name, but a Jew. Fifteen years ago I remember seeing it on that top shelf, the fourth from the window, right at the back, and the title tag had just 'A Dissertation on Tactics' on it. Let me get it for you. I don't expect it's been moved since then."

So let's recap. Livy had the author and author's ethnicity (and possibly language) wrong, and he couldn't remember the title—but boy, he sure as heck expected the catalogue and the librarians to turn up his book—er, scroll—anyway!

Any reference librarian will tell you that this sort of reference request happens all the time. Graves absolutely nailed it with this anecdote.

I've been thinking about games and how, perhaps, they might be applied to teach concepts used in Information Literacy. The game format that immediately came to mind was of a quest-type adventure in which the player must venture out of the library to find the necessary information to track down a type of Holy Grail. But in the absence of a helpful librarian (or Sulpicius) , it is the player that must go out into the game space and try to find out which part of her citation she has that is true and which parts need to be corrected by some sort of digging around and asking of questions.

Granted, it would only be a game that would be fun for librarians.

The other reason why I won't be pursuing this line of thinking for a library-game is that such a game is inherently celebrating the barriers to knowledge. But we are looking for the Holy Grail not because it is a goal unto itself but because we are on such a quest to cure the king and heal the land. The game - like the mechanics of search - is a distraction from the real work at hand.

Let's end this post with another story. This one is from Jeff Purdue,

Let me tell you a story. Recently, I directed an independent study with a student who was conducting a research project in an attempt to formulate a theoretical response to a series of advertisements by which she felt personally affected. She worked hard, and by the end of the quarter had gotten a handle on some pretty sophisticated material, like Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Barthes, and Althusser. She really made those ideas her own; she transformed them. Although she was able to work in an original way with the authors mentioned above, the finished paper struck a carefully neutral tone: she seemed disconnected from it all. This bothered me because I remember the enthusiasm with which she approached the research for this project, so I asked her about it. I said: These advertisements made you angry. When we first talked about this project, you made it clear what your personal stake in it was: Where did the emotion go? Her reply: I thought that that's what I'm supposed to do. And she's right; much academic writing tends to avoid emotion, but good academic writing knows when to put a little passion in—it can be a very powerful tool. There is a place for righteous anger. But more importantly, staying connected with the emotion that made you undertake a research project is a way of staying connected with yourself and what you hold most important.

Librarians need to remind ourselves that these are the connections we need to reinforce, whether through stories or through games.

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