Re-engineering Bibliographic Instruction: The Real Task of Information Literacy

by Jeanne Murdock

The term bibliographic instruction (BI) is a relatively modern construct, and its short history as a professional area of concern in the information field spans the last three decades. Each decade constituted a generation of thinking within that history and each generation redefined the term: the first generation of the 1970s viewed BI as library orientation; the second generation, the 1980s, saw the development of ideas and methods of bibliographic instruction and a growing trend toward defining BI as a way of teaching patrons how to use research resources; and in the 1990s, we are seeing a shift from print-oriented library services toward information profusion in various formats, including multimedia, for diverse user groups. Bibliographic instruction has not yet redefined itself adequately to deal with these new and varied formats in today's research environment. The opportunity is with us now to build on the foundation laid in the second generation of bibliographic instruction to create a brave new world for BI in the information world of the 1990s.

Unfortunately, the reality of the brave new world being created by the new breed of information specialists is in many ways as frightening as that envisioned by the futurist Aldous Huxley in his book of that name. "Libraries without walls" loom ominously on the horizon as an inevitable future result of information technology improperly harnessed by the profession. A changing role for BI could very well prevent the physical annihilation of our libraries as institutions.

What is required at present is balanced thinking which builds on the past to create the future, taking action in our new information circumstances with a wisdom born of the library's historical context. Academic librarian Elizabeth Frick has always found this essentially schizophrenic nature of our institution, with its need to cling to the old and to leap into the new, a conundrum. She likens it to another beloved institution which suffers a similar schizophrenia: baseball. She quotes George Will as saying "Baseball is both intensely traditional and interestingly progressive. By progressive, I mean steadily improving. The traditional side is obvious in baseball's absorption with its past and its continuities." Frick calls for librarianship to likewise improve while at the same time tending to its continuities.

We should retain the best of our library traditions, specifically the book and other print formats and the libraries themselves. The time has come, however, for librarianship to fashion a merger between its past and the new future being thrust upon it by technological change. Nowhere is the need for such a merger more evident than in bibliographic instruction. The term bibliographic instruction is still dominated by its association with short-range, library-centered, print-bound instruction. A new paradigm is needed, which includes computer and multimedia technologies, since the view from the old lens of bibliographic instruction does not provide the insights needed for solving the new problems created by these technologies.

The emerging paradigm of information literacy seems to provide such insights. Information literacy in this context refers to users who understand the importance of information and who have the competence to locate, evaluate and manage it comfortably. Where this paradigm fails in the view of this writer is in placing the onus for locating and managing information on the user. This is properly the province of information specialists and can provide us with our most exciting professional challenge: reconstituting libraries by making their finding technology itself information literate so that libraries become truly user friendly.

The answers to how to make libraries easier for patrons to navigate in our increasingly more technological world will never be final answers. There really is no right way or wrong way to achieve the goal of ease of access to materials. As a librarian, I welcome technology with grateful, open arms as a means to locate sources within the library. I also welcome certain computerized sources for research purposes, such as CD-ROM products. Technology has the potential for streamlining research, consolidating sources and achieving a level of access that has never before ben realized in the history of libraries. But the availability of technology and computerized sources of information should not replace print sources, nor in my mind the library facilities themselves.

Given this perspective, I will postulate a sketch of what the new paradigm for locating sources might be. In this paradigm, I envision bibliographic instruction redefined to mean strictly and simply instruction by librarians in Boolean set theory and logic, using the customary "AND," "OR" and "NOT" logical operators. Certainly most persons doing research are capable of understanding and employing these terms once properly taught. I envision information literacy redefined to mean the knowledge needed by information specialists to redesign information retrieval within libraries.

To redesign information systems to accommodate this paradigm, I would suggest that the natural language now used in making keyword entries in conjunction with Boolean operators be "treed" internally by computer information specialists to the appropriate subject headings for retrieval purposes. My suggestion as to how to decide which keywords to tree to which headings through computer programming is to observe which keywords are used to access which headings and then use a book of synonyms to build the tree to the subject headings.

The demand for the creation of computer- and user-friendly libraries is coming from today's information society, meaning a society increasingly dominated by computers. A more sophisticated constituency of library users, accustomed to computers which make their lives easier everywhere but the library cannot understand why they cannot also enjoy the benefits of the technology there. The library's "invisible users" at modems in remote locations require topical access to holdings through simple keyword entries. Business people, accustomed to the efficiency computers provide in the working world, demand instant information made quickly available. Today's youth, raised on computers, want a "magic machine" which puts all the information they need for their assignments together for them at the touch of a button.

One theory of information usage suggests that people are not willing to put forth much effort in fulfilling their own information needs. So, while significant advances have been made in information storage and retrieval, until the amount of effort required to use these systems is reduced, most people will not benefit from them. I believe that the systems professionals in library school programs could better meet their professional obligation by facilitating the in-house research process, rather than replacing that function with databanks and off-site patrons, which only decimates the institutions themselves.

Perhaps these demands, while hardly welcome in our day of overworked librarians operating in financially strained institutions, are not unreasonable nor unachievable. Perhaps it would be possible to restructure libraries with the current technology to achieve a "magic machine" which would have the library's in-house holdings listed topically by subject. Surely the current breed of information scientists, with their boundless faith in the capabilities of information technology, could make such a technological vision into reality with forethought and a philosophical change in orientation. They would in so doing change the future of the library as a virtual reality into the reality of a library whose technology actually serves its patrons.

Realizing that I may very well be swimming alone in my think tank with this future vision of libraries, I call for library reform through innovation similar to that which is being tried in our nation's public schools. Schools prone to innovations often set up campuses as "charter schools" at which they can experiment. The chosen schools are then restructured along the lines of the research paradigm and appraised for an expected increase in effectiveness. Such a research paradigm could also be applied to selected libraries, either public, academic or school, with the purpose of making each topically accessible through a computer catalog developed in-house for each library's holdings.

I am calling on my fellow professionals to be futurists who realize that technology in libraries has but moved the institutional emphasis on collection and organization back to the traditional concept of service. The odd irony is that technology may finally succeed where generations of librarians have failed in making libraries the user-friendly places they were originally intended to be.

Jeanne Murdock is a recent graduate of the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas. Also a graduate of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, she is currently engaged in free-lance writing and starting a story-telling guild in her community to advance preschool literacy.