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Tacit Knowledge and the Student Researcher

From Library Babel Fish, June 25, 2013

I’m old enough that the annual Beloit Mindset List (created to help instructors avoid making what they think are contemporary cultural references that are actually historical to their students) is full of references to things that I never got around to knowing before they became passé.

I’ve started compiling a different list, one that identifies the tacit knowledge many of us have about information and how it works based on experiences that our students haven’t had. Here’s what I have so far.

Journals and magazines are published as ongoing series. For those of us who remember print, articles are bundled into issues, issues into volumes, and every year more articles are published in these bundles. If every article you ever read was found online, the relationship of articles to a particular journal published in a particular year is not at all obvious.

News is different than opinion. I’m so ancient I grew up with newspapers printed on newsprint, delivered to your doorstep every morning and afternoon. (Hard to believe, but even small cities typically had two major newspapers dividing the day.) One thing that is immediately obvious from the layout of a printed newspaper is that news and opinion are different categories. One could argue that news is strongly influenced by reporters’ opinions or the orientation of the publication, but when it comes to making choices about what information to use and how to use it, the distinction between reporting and opining matters. That distinctiveness is much harder to recognize online.

Books don’t have to be read cover-to-cover to be useful. They even come with tools to help you search inside the book – tables of contents and indexes, an introduction and conclusion. It’s not cheating if you read only one chapter of the book, or focus on only the pages that are most relevant.

Citations have the information you need to track down the source. That’s what they’re for. It has always been hard for students to trace cited works, partly because there are so many steps involved. First, you have to figure out what the thing cited is: a book, a chapter in a book, or an article in a journal  – or something else. Then, you have to figure out where on the library’s website you look up books or find out what journals are available and for which dates. Then you have to either get the book or print journal on the shelf, or find the full text link to the article or ebook (which may be wrapped in pesky DRM) or request it from another library. What seems almost harder to grasp is the idea that citations are incredibly useful, just like links on a webpage, albeit slower.

Databases and catalogs (usually) don’t search inside books and articles. If Google is your model for search, you are likely to search databases and catalogs using highly specific words and phrases. Those often don’t work in many library tools, because these tools, like your friendly NSA, work with metadata.  In library databases, that usually means it’s trying to match your search to words in titles, abstracts, and subject headings or descriptors. One of the reasons students love JSTOR is that it doesn’t use subject headings or descriptors; you can search for a match in the documents themselves, just like Google.

Catalogs are (usually) local; article databases (usually) aren’t. Quite often, students new to the process are puzzled that so many library databases dangle before them articles that aren’t available locally. Why even put them there? Are librarians sadistic? No. Unlike the catalog, local librarians didn’t compile that database, they take the database that is on the market and then work hard to connect each database to content that the library has access to, sometimes in print but more often scattered across different databases.

Call numbers are a system. It’s not always obvious, because the jumble of letters and numbers doesn’t seem to mean anything, but it’s a way of grouping books on the same subject together in a system that makes room for new ones. (It doesn’t help that the system is old and the relationships between categories sometimes seem bizarre. Photography is in technology, not art? Women are a subset of family? Yes, you have to rescue books from the old categories sometimes.)

Some things are organized alphabetically. In the past few years, I’ve noticed it’s not at all obvious to many students that a multi-volume specialized encyclopedia has different content in each volume and, more likely than not, the articles are arranged alphabetically by topic. Think about it: if you’ve never used a printed encyclopedia or dictionary, organizing stuff by the order in which the letters come in the alphabet seems a little strange.

Not all sources stick to the facts. Some kinds of sources (textbooks and encyclopedias, for instance) summarize generally-accepted knowledge. Others are interpretations or reports of new research which may or may not find its way into the body of generally-accepted knowledge. Some sources are the raw material from which analysis and interpretation can be made. Some are fundamentally theoretical, explaining how to interpret and analyze things using a particular lens that can be trained on different subjects. (Hat tip to John Bean for these distinctions.) When looking for sources, students often think of these different kinds of texts (jumbled together in databases and catalogs) as if they are all the same, containing inert stuff to extract and transfer to the teacher. With practice they figure out the differences, but not likely in the first semester or two.

In addition, there are things we geezers often assume about “digital natives” that are mostly not true. They aren’t always adept at search (mostly because they don’t know the specialized vocabulary of academic topics and don’t know enough context to narrow or broaden a search or quickly sort through results). They don’t generally welcome the chance to learn and use new technology in class. They don’t know a lot about the software they use daily, such as how to set margins or hanging indents or how to insert page numbers – though they come up with workarounds. They don’t all prefer screens to paper. They are three times more likely to read print books than ebooks.  And – imagine! – they actually read books. A teenager is more likely to have read a print book in the past year than an adult is, according to a  report released by Pew this week.

In large part, the challenge we face each year isn’t so much that most of what happened in our lifetime is history to our students. It’s being able to challenge our assumptions and make our tacit knowledge more transparent.


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Tacit Knowledge and the Student Researcher by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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