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TAKING UP THE CHALLENGE: HOW CAN PUBLIC LIBRARIES HELP DEVELOP INFORMATION LITERATE CHILDREN?

Unless you have spent the last decade in a sealed vault, you would be aware of the explosion in the growth and use of information technology. This has led to changes in the way we work, the way we study, the careers we seek and the ways we spend our leisure time. Information skills are necessary for everyone, from children to jobseekers, those in paid work and thirdagers.

It is not enough to be literate, we must be information literate. Recent media comment has questioned the information literacy of New Zealand school children. Research by Penny Moore in New Zealand,[1] Borgman, Hirsh and Walter in Los Angeles[2] and Solomon in North Carolina[3] suggests that children do not have enough knowledge of relationships between catalogues, books and shelving systems to put their theoretical knowledge into practice. Also, children's vocabulary is not sufficient to understand many of the terms used in subject headings. As recently as 1999, New Zealand media commentators stated that our school children are not being taught information skills. The news article in this case was reporting on Gavin Brown's research at the NZ Council for Education Research (NZCER). This reported on the results of NZCER's standardisation of six new information skills tests on students in years 5 to 8.[4]

Research studies have focused on students' understanding of the information skills involved in gaining access to library resources. The NZCER study was quoted in the print media under the heading `Children fail test of skills to look up facts'.[5] Of the results quoted, the following were included

* a quarter consistently reversed the meaning of the words fiction and nonfiction

* the Dewey system confused many children

* of year 5 students, one in five thought they could use the publisher's name to locate nonfiction books and one in nine thought the Dewey decimal number was the number of pages in the book

The author of the study, Gavin Brown, is quoted as saying `our impression is that kids aren't getting taught directly how to do this stuff ...' Brown does go on to acknowledge that whereas some people might question the need for information retrieval skills in the age of the internet, libraries were authoritative and reliable, unlike much information found on the internet and that if `kids can do that in a school library, then they're better prepared to do it on the web, too'.[6]

This research has reinforced the suspicions children's librarians have had for some time. However, for many librarians involved with services to children and youth, comments regarding the lack of teaching of information skills are a surprise. User education activities have existed for some years in public libraries around New Zealand. What is not such a surprise is that the methods and processes used to teach information skills are not as effective as we had hoped.

Recently Library life reported on a visit by `the acknowledged information literacy guru' and Dean of the University Library at San Jose State University in California, Patricia Senn Breivik.

Dr Breivik notes from her own experience that `getting access to information could make a truly significant difference for the better in peoples lives'.[7] She stresses that the US, though putting `tons and tons of money' into getting internet access to everyone, is
 ... not making a difference. We haven't found a way to focus on the people
 empowerment part yet. Having access to a pc and being able to play games on
 it doesn't mean that you can find information on the internet that can help
 you with a problem or issue and evaluate it.[8]


This statement will resonate in the hearts of committed, passionate, children's, youth, and teacher librarians everywhere. Remarks like `If it's on the computer, it must be true' or `I got it from the internet so it must be okay' remind us that the growing reliance on the pc as the sole provider of reliable information is becoming ever more disturbing.

An information literacy program must include question analysis, location of information, evaluation, synthesis and presentation of information. In a library context, fundamental to any such program is the ability of the student to understand the library' s classification system and, therefore, access the required information.

At Christchurch City Libraries the central children's library has used a variety of games and activities to introduce school children to the way in which it organises information and to increase their library skills. These methods include

* The Poetree a tree shaped variation on the board game theme, which is used to promote the poetry collection (in the case of the central children's library, as with many other public libraries, housed within the nonfiction collection).

* Dewey Memory a selection of Bingo cards--slightly larger than A5--which show colour copies of book covers from particular Dewey categories with the corresponding Dewey number. As with the playing card game, there are two of every card. Cards are laid facedown on the floor and children are asked to lift them one at a time in an effort to find the matching pairs

* Dewey Lotto cards of a similar shape to those above are divided in sections with individual sections showing pictures of book covers from several Dewey categories. The librarian holds up another series of cards, one card at a time, with each card illustrating one Dewey category. The students cover their playing cards, one section at a time, if they can match one of their pictures with the one the librarian is holding. This game works on the same principle as Housie, Bingo or Lotto games

* The Wheel of Fortune a large segmented wheel, with spinning arrow placed in the centre. The class is divided into two teams. Children spin the wheel in turn and wait for it to stop at one of the segments. Each segment is labelled with a section of the library (younger fiction, older fiction, fairy tales etc) The child then has to find the corresponding sign in the library itself and retrieve a book from that section. The team with the most books at the end of the game wins

The above is a small selection of the many games and activities designed by staff at the central children's library, Christchurch City Libraries. A philosophy adhered to by the children's staff is that the library can be a fun place and learning about the library should be fun. Hence the use of games as instructional tools.

The following activity was designed to meet specific goals.

* to promote the Dewey Decimal Classification system and to help illustrate the subject categories in that system

* to meet the needs of the variety of learning styles within any group

* to enable students to connect Dewey numbers with shelf locations

It was intended that the activity would help children familiarise themselves with subject categories, therefore assisting them in accessing information from the library.

The use of the laminated book covers primarily gave students something to hold and the game its visual appeal. In this way, it was hoped that the visual/tactile learners in the group would respond to it and in the belief that children gain more from participating in an activity, rather than being talked to by a librarian. The fact that the library lesson would involve doing something was believed to be appealing to most students, particularly those kinesthetic learners.

Learning styles are defined as

* Visual learners learn by seeing. These learners often think in pictures and learn best from visual displays. They also need to see the teacher's body language and facial expression

* Auditory learners learn through listening. These learners are best suited to verbal lectures, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say

* Tactile/kinesthetic learners These are doing learners who learn best through a hands on approach, by actively exploring the physical world around them

Of particular relevance to this is Barbara Prashnig's statement that the majority of school aged children remain kinesthetic/ tactile throughout the primary school years and in fact
 ... far fewer students than teachers ever imagined are highly auditory or
 strongly visual ... Yet, traditional university and adult education and
 formal training is still strongly based on auditory/visual information
 intake. Hands on, so called `doing learning' or experimental training, is
 still seen as an add on to `serious' or academic learning.[9]


The research project

The research carried out at Christchurch City Libraries during 1998, as part of a Masters of Library and Information Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, endeavoured to study the effectiveness of one activity used to introduce the Dewey Decimal Classification system to form 1 students. The project also aimed to assist the children's library examine the effectiveness of the methods it used in user education. Teachers had been asked to fill out annual evaluation forms concerning their classes visits to the library, but the individual activities had not been evaluated and student input had not been invited.

The activity was modelled on the board game concept. Initially, children see a board approximately 1 metre x .6 metre, marked out in ten squares, each square representing a Dewey Decimal category (see Fig 1).

[FIGURE 1 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

While the librarian introduces the concept of Dewey Decimal Classification and its subject categories, she places a category heading on each square (see Fig 2)

[FIGURE 2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The children are then handed two or three small laminated `book covers'. Each book cover represents a subject found in one of the categories marked on the board. The librarian then asks them to place the book covers in the category they believe it belongs in. Children are encouraged to ask questions at any stage during the activity. Much discussion took place about where each book cover should be placed. Finished correctly, the board should look like this (see Fig 3).

[FIGURE 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Once all the questions were answered and the book covers placed on the board, the librarian showed the children actual book covers from books held in the library. She asked the students which category each one would belong in and discussed their answers with them.

Research project methodology

The class attended the library in two sessions, three weeks apart, which is the normal gap between sessions for classes attending the central children's library. At the first session they were given a short pretest to determine their library skills knowledge. The instruction session, or activity, teaching the concept of Dewey Decimal Classification followed this.

At the beginning of their second session, the students were given a post test identical to the pretest, followed by focus group discussions involving two groups of five students.

To ensure reliability of the data, an independent scorer was used to check answers on the pre and post tests. Also, two recorders were used during the focus group interviews.

One limitation of the study was in the structure of the questions. Obviously, the pre and post tests had to use similar questions, but the order of the questions was altered so that students could not rely on memory to answer the post test. However, it may be that some questions were answered with the aid of memory, so results may not be as accurate as was hoped.

Results of the research

Learning styles

Coincidentally, the group members participating in this project was already aware of their own learning styles as their school was making every effort to incorporate different learning styles into their teaching methods. Students felt that this activity suited most learning styles, particularly the visual aspects. However, although they were generally of the opinion that the visual aspect of this activity was helpful, it would have been more effective with some minor improvements

* A combination of words and pictures would have helped. For example, book covers showing pictorial representations of objects or ideas found in each subject category may have been more effective if the picture was paired with a word

* Students also felt that some sort of memory aid such as a handout or flier showing examples of subject categories together with examples of books found in those categories would have assisted in reinforcing the concepts raised in the activity

Students themselves commented positively on the visual aspect of the activity. It was felt to be more beneficial for those who were visual or kinesthetic learners, but not so effective for those who learnt by listening. However, the introductory part of the activity was found to be most useful by one listening learner.

Frequency/reinforcement

One overwhelmingly obvious and potentially disastrous result was that although students enjoyed the activity at the time, they did not recall it in detail by the time of their next visit three weeks later. Students themselves commented that although they felt they learnt a lot during the session, they quickly forgot what they had learned. Three weeks later they struggled to remember what they had done and would have appreciated a follow up session.

Difficulties with Dewey categories

Comments from both focus group discussions supported the findings and emphasised that whereas some Dewey categories were easier to understand than others particularly those which had relevance to the students' own interests. Others were much more problematic. This is especially true of those categories which could be described as abstract rather than concrete, such as philosophy as opposed to art, music and sport.

Students also struggled to understand the relationship of the Dewey numbers with Dewey categories. Question 4 on both pre and post test asked the students to decide on a Dewey decimal number, for example the 200s or 300s, for placement of a book on a particular topic. Whereas this question was answered with a degree of uncertainty in the pretest (8 correct responses, but 8 Don't Know responses), the post test yielded more correct answers (11 correct responses, with 3 incorrect and 4 Don't Know).

This type of question is difficult to analyse, as responses may be mere guesswork. Also, the question places students in an almost blind situation, as Dewey numbers do not often mean anything to them. This is a problem for the activity's effectiveness, as one of its aims was to help students understand that the library's classification system assigned numbers to subject categories.

Something to note about this part of the research, however, is the alternatives chosen to correct responses. When students were asked to choose a suitable subject category for a book on pollution, nine opted for science and three for philosophy while six choose the correct answer of social sciences. This may reveal more about the confusing nature of Dewey categories than about the students' ability to choose correctly.

Another interesting result concerned a book on Egypt where, of the six students who choose the wrong subject category, every student chose literature. Whether this result has a conceptual basis or is more concerned with the design of the answer sheet (where the literature option was directly above geography, biography and history) is not clear.

There are some major implications for the design of programs at Christchurch City Libraries and elsewhere.

* Activities based around various learning styles are helpful, but are more effective with frequent reinforcement of key concepts and memory aids

* Students need to visit the library frequently to assist in reinforcement of key concepts

* The Dewey Decimal Classification is a difficult concept to teach, particularly when considering the old fashioned naming of some subject categories and their relevance or not to the lives of ordinary people. The relationship of Dewey numbers to Dewey categories is both key to understanding the classification system and problematic for many people endeavouring to learn what the system involves

While Christchurch City Libraries has made it a practice to search for interesting, stimulating and fun ways to teach some reasonably dry library concepts to children, efforts have not always been as effective as hoped. If New Zealand school children are indeed struggling to come to grips with library skills then children's librarians struggle to find stimulating and effective ways to teach them.

Some issues

New Brighton Community Library is one of Christchurch City Libraries' suburban libraries. It is in a fairly low socioeconomic area where schools are generally some distance from the library. Though these schools are, in the main, eager to visit the library, financial and logistical constraints mean it is often more economical for them to bring two or sometimes three classes to the library in one busload. This places pressure on the space and equipment resources of the library and severely compromises the effectiveness of the teaching.

Also, the popularity of the library as a place to visit means that often classes are not seen more than once a term. Consequently, the ability to offer an ongoing program reinforcing the information literacy skills of these students is retarded. The library has been struggling with this problem for some time--how to meet the information needs of children with the pressure on space, equipment and frequency of visits?

Concurrently, schools around New Zealand are becoming more technologically equipped--acquiring computers and connecting to the internet.

It is becoming obvious that the answer may lie in how and where public libraries deliver instruction. Given that many New Zealand libraries offer their catalogues on the web, it is now possible to search the catalogue and offer education in using the catalogue without being in the library.

One way around the problem of delivering effective library education programs is to take the public library to the school. This method also has great potential for public libraries to develop meaningful partnerships with schools. By removing the burden of cost and organisational problems from schools in the way of arranging visits to the library, school children could benefit from frequent, meaningful lessons without having to leave the classroom.

That may be part of the solution. No one would deny the importance of the ability to evaluate information, particularly when the internet is becoming the preferred tool for many. The challenge for all public libraries is to develop methods of delivering library education in an information literacy context, and which are stimulating, meaningful and effective.

References

[1] Moore, P and St George, A Children as information seekers: the cognitive demands of books and library system School library media quarterly 19(3) 1991)p167

[2] Borgman, C, Hirsh, S and Walter, V Children's searching behavior on browsing and keyword online catalogs: the Science library catalog project Journal of the American Society for Information Science 46(9) 1995 p665

[3] Solomon, S Children's information retrieval behavior: a case analysis of an opac Journal of the American Society for Information Science 44(5) 1993

[4] Brown, G How information literate are New Zealand children? paper presented at NZARE/AARE 1999 Conference Melbourne Nov 29-Dec 2 1999 Wellington, NZCER 1999

[5] Garner, T Children fail test of skills to look up facts The New Zealand herald 19 January 2000

[6] ibid

[7] Dobbie, H NZ could be world model says info literacy guru Library life 248 August 2000 p 13

[8] ibid p143

[9] Prashnig, B Diversity is our strength: the learning revolution in action, a guide to better living, learning and working Auckland, Profile Books 1996 p53-557

Dawn McMillan BA(Hons) MLis has worked in medical and public libraries since 1994, most recently as Youth Librarian at the New Brighton Community Library of Christchurch City Libraries. In November 2000 she was appointed to an information services position at the Physical Sciences Library University of Canterbury. Address: Central Library University of Canterbury Private Bag 4800 Christchurch NZ tel +6433642987x7590 d.mcmillan@libr.canterbury.ac.nz
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Author:McMillan, Dawn
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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