By Allison Campbell-Jensen
“Fake news” did not begin during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and it will not end anytime in the near future. That is why the power to discern what is fake, what is real, and what needs to be evaluated further is as important to undergraduates learning to carry out worthwhile research as it is to citizens participating in a democracy.
At the University of Minnesota, teaching those information literacy skills begins in the first-year writing class, in a collaboration with the staff of the U of M Libraries. Expert in sourcing information, librarians also share their knowledge of what evidence and sources are credible and reliable.
Lindsay Matts-Benson, Teaching and Learning Program Lead in the Libraries, collaborates with Tara Zahler and other instructors in the University’s introductory writing course. Zahler notes that the Framework for Information Literacy matches “the threshold concepts in writing studies called out in the course: Authority is Constructed and Contextual, Scholarship as Conversation, and Searching as Strategic Exploration.”
Recently, Matts-Benson has taken her information literacy show on the road — nationally and, recently, internationally, to Portugal. It’s all part of her national role with Association of College and Research Libraries.
In the overseas outreach, Matt-Benson was first invited in December 2021 to a library conference held online. She spoke about translating the skills of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy into Portuguese language and librarians’ practice.
“After that presentation,” she says, “they invited me to keynote their conference in June 2022.” In person and in Covilha, Portugal.
She enjoyed meeting her new colleagues and now enthusiastically checks into the language-teaching app Duolingo to increase her fluency in Portuguese — because she is heading back in summer 2023.
It was her first job after library school that awakened Matts-Benson to the essential need for information literacy. She worked in a law library — “I really found out what was good information and not,” which were key to issues of money, resources, and “often, life and death.” She studied social media and also taught the law faculty to use technology.
Research suggests, Matts-Benson says, that we trust our communities when it comes to information, not only because we know the individuals but also because “we don’t want to be wrong and we don’t want to stick out.”
So she tries in first meetings with new students to shake up some of their complacency and/or know-it-all attitudes. After all, they are new members of a University, a place of questioning and exploration. As an information literacy specialist, Matts-Benson knows her stuff — and she also knows that too many students have been affected by our society’s concept “that we must know it all, even if we haven’t taken the class yet.”
“I like to fail in front of students,” Matts-Benson says. She will do a difficult initial search, get stuck, then try a new avenue. Searches take time and, sometimes, tapping expertise is needed. Matts-Benson says she is not knowledgeable about animals. If someone wants to know in-depth insights into horses, for instance, she may suggest they contact her colleague Veterinary Librarian André Nault.
By being vulnerable in front of a class (whether on Zoom or in person) Matts-Benson models how students may begin a research project — knowing very little about a topic or an event, but interested enough to learn more. Once they are vulnerable enough to admit to their gaps in knowledge, she adds, “They are open to new ideas.”
‘What’s behind the curtain?’
One of the first skills the undergraduates learn, she says, is to ask the question: “What’s behind the curtain?”:
- Who has interest in promoting this information?
- What do their goals appear to be?
- Did you find the information via Tik-Tok, or Twitter, or CNN’s website?
- If you compare the information to other sources, do you find differences, major or minor?
Taking away the fun quotient from life outside the classroom is not the primary goal of Matts-Benson and others teaching the skills of information literacy. Yet getting people to question and evaluate what they hear, see, or read are essential skills, particularly for citizens to be informed within the limitations of social media and the 24-hour news cycle.
People do not have to agree to be contributing members of a civil society — but they should understand that credibility matters. Not every Facebook post is equally authoritative. Not every Google search brings them to the most reliable sources. They learn through their research, with information literacy tools, that some evidence, some sources — such as peer-reviewed papers — carry more weight than random tweets.
Who has the last word?
While in Portugal, Matts-Benson visited what is purported to be the world’s longest existing bookstore — one that has been in the same location since 1737.
With deep roots in their own culture and the urge to grow into the best librarians they can be, her colleagues in Portugal are admired by Matts-Benson.
“They are really focused on building community,” Matts-Benson says of her Portuguese colleagues, “building community around teaching and learning.” And the most reliable information.