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Ditching the Script: video making in coronatimes.

In March of 2020, when NYC went under “stay at home” orders, and CUNY campuses closed, instruction librarians had to spontaneously reconceptualize library instruction, alongside everyone else in education. As other librarians on this blog have documented, the teaching faculty on our campus were so overwhelmed by having to move their entire lesson plans online that most of them did not take us up on our offer of zoom lessons. And so the rest of the spring semester (April and May) became instead a blur of instructional curation and creation: videos showing students how to search for articles, enhanced FAQ pages, multimedia LibGuides, free or free-for-now resources for faculty to share with students. It’s hard for me to remember exactly how many instructional videos we posted initially, but I would estimate it was around 15. It was a strange time: far-flung librarians isolated in separate homes, searching for videos we could share or quickly make ourselves.

I can’t overstate how little I wanted a global pandemic to descend on our city, but I was not sad about moving some instructional content online. The truth is, I had been thinking about how to better serve our commuter student campus already, and I was already convinced that we needed to boost up our online instruction presence. Our library instruction team had previously built a suite of tutorials using the CUNY-installed Guide on the Side software, and while they technically perform the duties of online instruction (information, side-by-side searching, assessment) for me those modules lacked something that would make them truly effective. For instance, when I was a kid, I learned that I was an audio/visual learner. I never did well on tests or worksheets, I think because I found the work too dull to captivate my mind. However, any time our assignment allowed us to be creative, I would overachieve and create elaborate home movies (I taught myself claymation as a kid and rendered the themes of The Lord of Flies through moving clay figurines, for instance). In high school I figured out that if I had to memorize huge sets of facts for a test, I could not retain the information by ordinary studying. However, if I set up my microphone and pretended to be a radio DJ, I could recount the information aloud and play it back, which further cemented the information in my mind. This is not because I think I’m an excellent radio DJ, just that audio and visual learning styles work better for me. So I had been thinking we needed a more dynamic audio/visual online learning software for library instruction, but a few obstacles existed. The most obvious one is that the most popular video editing packages (Captivate and Camtasia) cost money, and I was never successful at getting CSI to pay for it. (CUNY finally got a license this year during the pandemic, but by then I was at home, using my apple laptop for work, and it has imovie installed on it already). But the other obstacle, for me, is the expectation that these videos be scripted and directed, using animation and images, the campus logo, maybe a clever catch phrase. I know I just bragged about making claymation clips in middle school, but now that I work in a full-time academic position that mostly encompasses professional committee meetings, conference appearances, publications, and on-the-ground librarianship, flexing the amateur directing skills I honed in middle school felt at best ambitious and at worst dreadfully embarrassing.

This is where this blog post gets a tad controversial, but I’m just going to say it: I find many amateur librarian videos clunky and slow. There are also some out there that are very slick and impressively professional, but I’m not sure how libraries make truly professional videos without hiring filmmakers on their teams. I’ll just speak for myself: every time I have tried to stage direct a movie on iMovie or Camtasia, I find the experience frustrating and the end result is cringy to watch. The conventional wisdom in our media services unit on campus and in librarian literature generally is that you have to write up strategic goals, align them to specific learning outcomes, and make a script. When I read from a script, however, my voice is stilted and robotic–I need spontaneity to keep my voice light and energetic. I can’t successfully read a script and be interesting at the same time. A lesson plan, yes. A verbatim script, no.

Meanwhile, back in my office which was also my apartment, my wife had lost her job at a high-end restaurant that closed its doors forever on March 13th. She was stressed out, walking in circles in the apartment, and doom scrolling the news, so she decided to lean in to her Poshmark side hustle. It turns out, she’s really good at locating high ticket items in old thrift stores and marking them up 30-40 times what she paid for them. She also found solace in watching “thrift haul” videos on YouTube. Young [mostly] women commune with their fellow poshers and shoppers by sharing videos of themselves describing their recent purchases, what they like about the clothes, and how they plan to price them. Because my office is right next to my wife’s now, I overheard a lot of these videos and developed my own favorites. “Ooooh, is that Becky talking? I love her!” is a statement I said frequently. Becky may have a ring light and a charming style of discourse, but there is nothing professional about her videos. She just sits in front of the camera and talks about her thrift haul. Another example: during the pandemic I started sewing cloth masks, and because sewing is new for me, I learned how to do it by watching YouTube videos. Would I have watched a video if the sewer pulled up a powerpoint screen and read the words verbatim from the screen “I am going to show you how to sew a cloth face mask…”? I WOULD NOT! In these videos, I just wanted to watch people sewing, live, right there on the screen, while talking off-hand about the process so I could hit pause and bust a move on sewing my own masks. This video style is refreshing to me, and tells me a few things: 1. one can be interesting and engaging off the cuff, and 2. Gen Y and Z are used to watching videos made in this casual style. Why would we need to create corny powerpoints and script videos for students at the end of the generational alphabet, whose own styles are the opposite of scripted?

At a LILAC meeting, a fellow librarian Meagan Lacey showed us her videos using a screencasting software called Loom, and it clicked for me. My favorite thing about her videos is that the screencast captures a video of her, as well as her screen, so the viewer can experience a taste of what it’s like to be in a classroom with her. I felt pulled in to the videos, like she was literally telling me how to locate an article directly, and not like I was watching a poorly directed amateur powerpoint film. I downloaded the software and made a quick video of myself describing the instruction webpage and how I hoped to change it for my chief librarian, and then emailed it to her. She wrote me back and said [paraphrasing], “Wow, that video made me feel like you were right here in the room, showing me the website. I could right away see the issues.” The combination of video/audio worked better than describing the issue in written form, and better than telling her on the phone via disembodied voice (that’s what I call phone-calls, by the way. “Shall I email, or call you with my disembodied voice?”) This is the other thing about my teaching style, which I hadn’t thought of before the pandemic: I teach with my whole body. I gesture wildly while speaking, I move around the room to emphasize the concept of internet space. When describing Boolean operators, I put my arms up one on top of the other and then move them around like they are search terms telling the database secrets. Sometimes, when the students seem to be losing interest, I do a little dance. I’ll say something like, does anyone know the answer when I do this [insert dance]? And so for me, the physical body is an instructional tool, something one loses when the video shows the screen but not the person talking.

Since then, I’ve been using Loom to make casual, direct videos that show students how to use databases and locate articles. I’ve also used it to make quick videos showing faculty things, like how to link to an article using the permalink, or how to get your free NYT Academic Pass. A colleague of mine started using Loom internally, to make a video for colleagues when they have questions about creating a LibGuide, or whatever. My videos are probably still a bit embarrassing, but guess what: I didn’t have to apply to film school to make them! There is a lot more I would like to do to amplify this unstructured style of video-making, like embed internal responsive quizzes to make sure the student is following along, and insert final quizzes to inspire faculty to use our videos in their lessons (faculty love assessments).

Anyway, if you have tips you’d like to share, please do so in the comments! All I ask: don’t tell me to write a script! I’m never going back!

Ain’t Miss Debatin’

Every semester, I teach two sets of information literacy sessions for one of the Speech Communication faculty, one session to work with the students on their informative speeches, and one for their persuasive speeches. These include one marathon day of back-to-back-to-back classes and then one lone class on another day.

Way back in the other lifetime that was pre-COVID, in the fall of 2019, the marathon sessions for the persuasive speech happened to fall on Halloween. Another QCC librarian and I had been talking for weeks about dressing as Tina and Louise Belcher from the animated show Bob’s Burgers and even though this fell through (she had to go to a conference–not sure if she took the bunny ears), I decided to stick with it and dress as Tina.

I was a children’s librarian for a long time so thematic programming is ingrained in me and I knew that if I were dressing as Tina while teaching three SP211 classes, it needed to connect with something. I am a big fan of the show and wracked my brain until I finally rewatched the “Ain’t Miss Debatin'” episode (S07E15) and found the perfect fit. I prepped a clip from the episode where the characters discuss how everything can be debated, laced up my black knock-off Chuck Taylors, fastened my yellow barrette, and went to class.

I’m at the age where I feel completely out of touch with popular culture, so it was immensely gratifying that the students immediately knew I was Tina Belcher. For the rest of the day, walking around the library, I would hear “Oh my God, she’s TINA!” in excited hushed voices and then I’d be called upon to dance (I declined) or groan.

In the SP211 classes, the students laughed at the clip from the show, enjoyed a piece of Halloween candy, and seemed to make the connection that while everything can be debated, it’s important to have good supporting evidence for those debates. I’m not sure that there were any additional impact on their learning (I am the assessment librarian, so I probably should have looked into that) but I am pretty sure they remember the librarian who dressed up like Tina Belcher that time, and that’s not a bad thing to be remembered for.


The Power of PowerPoint

Alright, maybe it is not that powerful, but at least, useful.

In my college days, professors’ lectures were mostly verbal and sometimes aided by a blackboard. The professor would either talk my head off throughout the whole lecture non-stop making me take notes busily in the fear that I might otherwise miss some important things, or in a better situation, write some key points on the blackboard with a chalk but I, occasionally if not often, had to do a guess work due to an individualized handwriting. Sometimes, the professor might use a slide projector making things a little better, but I still struggled with the handwriting on the slides. I never had a class that featured in PowerPoint presentation because that was in the last century, a long time ago before PowerPoint came into common use in classroom teaching. Thanks to technology that makes teaching both verbal and visual.

My first attempt to use PowerPoint was in 2002 when I was engaged in a summer teaching exchange program between CUNY and Shanghai University in China. The two courses that I taught, Introduction to Information Sources & Services and Using the Internet for Research, had two hundred students in each. Class size was incredibly large compared with the American’s (we have an average class size of 25 at York), partly because the students were interested in the course contents (and partly … hey, it’s a populous country.) The classes would be held in a large lecture-hall and I would have to use a microphone to deliver lectures. All seemed okay except it might be difficult for students sitting in the back to take notes from distance. Then I discovered that the room was equipped with a computer and a projector for the lecturer. I decided to try to use PowerPoint instead of using a traditional blackboard. However, I was a novice user and knew little about the software. Fortunately, my teaching assistants, assigned by the university, were tech savvy. They taught me the basics and showed me some useful tips.  (Off the topic: they also helped me “climb over the wall” because some databases and websites were blocked by the so-called “Great Wall”, a government-backed internet filtering system, but I needed to use them for classroom demonstrations.) All lectures went smoothly and the university was pleased to see the students learning outcomes. Since then I have used PowerPoint frequently.

It must be stated that I am no expert in the full spectrum of PowerPoint universe but a happy user of it. In my practice I enjoy the following benefits from using PowerPoint to teach one-shot library workshops.

It is visual

In addition to our talking, students can enjoy the graphs, diagrams, tables, images, and photos that are visually descriptive in effective ways. Thus, the students can get a better understanding of our points.

It is multimedia

We may use Animations, Transitions, Audio and Video files to enhance the presentation and to enrich user experience.

It has multiple usages

We can save the PPT file as PDF and make it handouts for students to use during the session and/or for future reference.

It makes it easier for students to take notes

Students never need to guess what’s on the projected screen since the text is typed.

It is more than a local file

We can hyperlink reference databases and websites to introduce sources from our library’s subscribed databases and on the Internet, and access relevant information with a click of the mouse.

I also recommend the following tips.

  • Use large fonts for both heading and text for easy reading.
  • Use timed presentation if you are good at time management.
  • Use click-controlled presentation if you want to have more control over slides.
  • Don’t use the background color that is too similar to the text color.
  • Don’t use too much text on a single slide.

Attached here is a sample PPT file which I use for orientation workshops.


What New Things Can I Do?: The Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians (ACRL, 2017)

Taking a bit of time this summer to catch up on my professional reading, particularly as it relates to instruction, I once again happened across The Roles and Strengths of Teaching Librarians (approved by the ACRL Board of Directors, April 28, 2017). I had observed the advent of this reimagining of the 2007 Standards for Proficiencies for Instruction Librarians and Coordinators a little more than a year previously, while in the throes of an end-of-semester blur, but at the time I had filed it away as something to come back to when I could afford it closer attention.

The document describes shifts in thinking about teaching in libraries, precipitated in part by the shift from Standards to Framework in thinking about what and how we teach. Our profession has seen a rapid evolution of skills and responsibilities, and there was a desire to articulate a perspective inclusive of the broader range of work that is being done, the variety of institutional contexts, and the different ways we practice teaching-related work in libraries across our careers. The new document provides a conceptual model of seven roles, and a description of the strengths a librarian might need in order to thrive in each of those roles: advocate, coordinator, instructional designer, lifelong learner, leader, teacher, and teaching partner. The document stresses that these roles can and often do overlap, that individual librarians may find they identify with some of these roles more strongly than with others, and that it is not necessary (and may even be a little crazy to think) that any one librarian would or should possess all of them.

The document suggests certain benefits to this re-conceptualization. If you’ve ever found it challenging to describe the sometimes unique and somewhat abstract teaching work you do, this new model may help you name, describe, and situate your practice relative to the other work of the academic enterprise. Four to eight strengths are listed relative to each of the seven roles. For example, as a teaching partner, you may “[bring an] information literacy perspective and expertise to the partnership,” and as a lifelong learner, “[actively participate] in discussions on teaching and learning with colleagues online and in other forums.” If one goal is to be able to think about and talk about the myriad ways we support learning in libraries, this tool has a lot of flexibility. However, the idea that struck me most in reviewing the document is the notion that, with a reinvigorated and perhaps clearer conceptualization of the teaching-centered practice of academic librarians, we might ask ourselves the question: what new things can I do? As acknowledged by the framers, this document is both reflective of actual practice and aspirational.

As a bonus, I also found myself interested by the process of the revision task force – how they actually arrived at the conceptual model, roles, and strengths. So I encourage you to take a look, if you haven’t already. There’re still a few weeks left before the end of summer and the beginning of chaos.

Open access and ScienceDirect/Scopus

From Elsevier’s newsletter, this article might be useful for teaching and researching:

7 tips for finding open access content on ScienceDirect and Scopus


IL Instruction Overload

As a relaxing summer is behind us and we are in a new academic year, everything goes back to a normal rhythm from Adagio to Andante. That means IL teaching activities pick up the tempo and are likely to accelerate to Allegro as semester progresses.

May I recommend a timely article, “Forty Ways to Survive IL Instruction Overload; Or, how to Avoid Teacher Burnout.”

Like recommended in the article, I sometimes play music by using audio files in PowerPoint to calm down/entertain/relax/wake up/energize my classes, “Sleep Away” at the beginning and “Kalimba” at the end.


Badia, Giovanna. “Forty Ways to Survive IL Instruction Overload; Or, how to Avoid Teacher Burnout.” College & Undergraduate Libraries (2017): 1-7.

Teaching information literacy (IL) sessions can be emotionally exhausting, especially when faced with a heavy instructional workload that requires repeating similar course content multiple times. This article lists forty practical, how-to strategies for avoiding burnout and thriving when teaching.





A teaching tool

I found this 5-page handout rather useful.

Literature Search: A Librarian’s Handout to Introduce Tools, Terms and Techniques co-developed by Katy Kavanagh Webb, Head of Research & Instructional Services at East Carolina University’s Joyner Library, and Library Connect newsletter of Elsevier.

Each page of the handout can stand alone or be used together as a teaching tool that covers:

  • Keywords, operators and filters
  • Search tools
  • Types of literature
  • Evaluate information
  • Organize research

You may download the handout in PDF here.

“It’s not a replacement for librarian-led instruction,” says Katy, “but it can act as a calling card to introduce key concepts or as a leave-behind visual reminder to continue these best practices when we librarians are no longer in the room.” (Library Connect April 7, 2017)

Library anxiety

“Library anxiety” was identified thirty years ago when Constance A. Mellon of East Carolina University published her paper, “Library Anxiety: A Grounded Theory and Its Development,” [College & Research Libraries 47.2 (1986): 160-165. <http://crl.acrl.org/content/47/2/160.full.pdf>], describing college students feeling intimidated, embarrassed, and overwhelmed by libraries and librarians. Library literature has been enhanced by this topic since then.

The anxiety appears to be more common among freshman students. This phenomenon ascertains the importance of library instruction for first-year undergraduates, as well as calls for user-friendly learning environment. A recent report on Columbia libraries is fun to read: “The Strange Affliction of ‘Library Anxiety’ and What Librarians Do to Help” <http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-strange-affliction-of-library-anxiety-and-what-librarians-do-to-help>

Dr. Russell’s talk @Rutgers

A follow up for those interested, a video recording of the said talk is available now:


The evolution of literacy

Daniel Russell of Google had a talk at School of Communication and Information of Rutgers yesterday. The topic sounds rather interesting. Obviously, being literate today is far different from being literate in the 18th century. The process of becoming literate has evolved. How do we accomplish our mission as educators? This is an ongoing issue which we ought to think about it constantly.
Here is brief info about the talk. http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/events/lis-brownbag-talk-by-dan-russell-from-google.html

Title: “The Evolution of Literacy: How search changes our understanding of reading, writing, and knowledge”
Abstract: What does it mean to be literate at a time when you can search billions of texts in less than 300 milliseconds? Although you might think that “literacy” is one of the great constants that transcends the ages, the skills of a literate person have changed substantially over time as texts and technology allow for new kinds of reading and understanding. Knowing how to read is just the beginning of it — knowing how to frame a question, pose a query, how to interpret the texts you find, how to organize and use the information you discover, how to understand your metacognition — these are all critical parts of being literate as well. In this talk I’ll review what literacy is in the age of Google, and show how some very surprising and unexpected skills will turn out to be critical in the years ahead.

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