Help for Google generation

Nov 13, 2003, vol. 28, no. 6
By Diane Luckow

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Today's university students have been dubbed the Google generation.

University librarians and faculty are finding that many students researching information for course papers too easily opt for the first citation they can find during a quick internet search using the Google search engine. And, since the internet is so handy, many students never even enter the library during the semester.

It's not a good thing, says Elaine Fairey, head of the SFU library's reference division. “A web search can be a useful way to start but students need to look beyond Google and get into academic databases and scholarly journals.” She notes that more than a few university students are unfamiliar with the term journal, don't understand how call numbers work and have never seen a library as big as the SFU Bennett library.

In fact, librarians and others have coined a term for the problem - information literacy or, in this case, illiteracy. The American Library Association defines information literacy as “the ability to recognize when information is needed and be able to locate, evaluate and use effectively the needed information.”

Improving students' information literacy is one reason why the SFU library recently launched the Ask Us Here! mobile reference service. Twice a week, reference librarians armed with a wireless laptop, pushcart and chairs set up an information booth in the applied sciences atrium or the student lounge in the west mall annex. “We have a few goals with this service,” says Fairey. “It reminds students that there is a library staffed with librarians who can help them. As well, we can answer students' research questions on the spot and teach them how to navigate through the online library and the internet for the information they need.”

Reference librarians also work closely with faculty to integrate library skills directly into courses. Last year, for example, SFU librarians offered more than 400 classes to more than 10,000 students at the request of faculty and other instructors.

The skills are presented during class time and tailored to students' assignments or other topics identified by the instructor. “We focus on how to identify sources of information, how to select and search the appropriate online databases and how to distinguish between popular and scholarly sources,” says Fairey. “Faculty also ask us to explain to students how to cite an increasingly complex array of print and electronic sources.”

Fairey believes the SFU library is the first in Canada to offer a mobile reference service. The library also offers email reference and an online, real-time chat reference service that students can access from anywhere in the world.

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