Trusting sources

I have been reading quite a lot of academic texts lately, and I have been thinking and writing about what I have read. For me, writing is a way to think more carefully about what I have read and I guess it also leads to deeper learning. Some of the texts I have been reading needs more time to sink in, others have given me ideas that are more ready to implement.

One of the texts I read last week was Olof Sundin’s “Den pedagogiske bibliotekarien: Från källkritik till källtillit” [The pedagogic librarian: from criticism to trust of sources – not the best translation, it is much more catching in Swedish…]. This is a chapter in the book “Bibliotekarier i teori og praktik” [Librarians in theory and practice]. Olof Sundin is a well-known, highly cited author and professor at Lund University in Sweden. I first discovered his research when I did my Master’s many moons ago.

Sundin started by saying that false news have become a democratic problem, and that this gives information literacy a new start or maybe rather a new drive. The libraries are often assigned the role to develop their patrons’ media and information literacy. This is done in public libraries as well as in academic libraries. Still, academic librarians teach more than public librarians, and we are in a position to reach patrons.

Sundin continues by saying that there is a false distinction between theory and practice. In reality they are intertwined and co-dependent of each other. Of course. But librarians have to speak the same language as their partners for collaboration, i.e. the teachers – and this means that librarians need more pedagogic insight.

Sundin explains the basis for constructivism, and how the constructivist theories led to more problem-based learning and project work. Carol Kuhlthau contributed with important insights when she published her Information Search Process (ISP) where she included thoughts and feelings students may have when searching. Kuhlthau’s work is clearly inspired by the constructivist approach.

Socio-cultural theory promoted situated learning, and claimed that learning is not a neutral process. Meaning that if we want to teach students how to find information, they need to learn that in a situation that is relevant and meaningful to the students.

So far in Sundin’s text, I don’t think I came across anything new to me, but then he started to write about socio-material theory. I had never heard of that. Socio-material theory (sociomateriality) is not a learning theory, Sundin explained, but it is an idea on how the social aspects and the material aspects influence each other. This is of interest to librarians because we deal with the intersection of technology and people. You can’t separate information skills from the society, from technology or the material, Sundin claims. It is all connected. Sundin also writes that Kuhlthau ignores these links, and downplays the material side of the matter (e.g. knowledge on the resources as such).

Talking about resources, Sundin explains that the digital sphere changes some things. When everything is searched for and read on the same platform, it is easy to forget the importance of information infrastructure. Many of the digital resources that we use are becoming easier to use, and therefore the infrastructure becomes invisible to us. The more intuitive and seemingly easier to use an information system is, the less control we have. We now less and less about why we find what we find. The algorithms decide for us. One of the library’s tasks is to expose the all the more hidden information structures, Sundin continues.

A common advice concerning source assessment and evaluation is to compare the findings with that you can find in other sources, a kind of horizontal evaluation. But due to the algorithms, we are already in an “echo-chamber” that gives us what it thinks we want. We cannot evaluate one source at a time, as a single unit, but comparing horizontally with other sources is not enough either. We need to also include a wider context and the information infrastructure that have influenced us.

Sundin writes about how we can lose faith in established knowledge. It is possible to find single studies that supports any kind of world view. Established knowledge supported by thousands of studies, like on the effect of vaccines or climate change, can diminish in importance with people. The library can have a role here, because our collections are not algorithm-based, Sundin says. We can become stabilisers in an unstable society. “Source trust” is explained as trusting established methods in knowledge production in society and the sources of information that springs from these methods. This can be a frame of reference, Sundin said.

Well – I think it is interesting about horizontal source evaluation and that the echo-chambers influence this. I hadn’t really thought about that. I am not sure we can really help keeping or re-establishing people’s faith in sources based on our collections, but maybe I am being too pessimistic here. I sure hope Sundin is right.


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