Information Literacy diagram from Ontario Library AssnJust about all librarians who work with youth agree that young people have been fairly lazy about doing research since Google got so good at finding pretty exactly whatever they need for an assignment. Kids and teens no longer need to go through the multi-step process of 1) traveling to the library; 2) looking in the catalog for the correct item; 3) going to the shelf, hoping that someone else didn’t get there before you and have checked it out already; and 4) skimming through the book/magazine article and making sure it contains what you need. Young people learned a lot from making those judgments.

Today one can do all this stuff from any spot with a device that connects to the Net, and one never needs to worry that someone got to the book you wanted first. Google piles mounds of everything with even a vague relationship to what you’re looking for in front of you with almost no effort on your part. Not that any of this is bad, but the Google-i-zation of research encourages bad habits.

Thus, young people aren’t working hard – some educators feel they’re barely working at all – to discriminate between good, useful information they find online and flaky, undocumented information. For years, school librarians have made a major effort to train young people in those skills, which are usually defined as “information literacy.”

Middle schoolers I’ve spoken to about the importance of information literacy often roll their eyes. When I spot eye-rolling, I tell them that one day soon they’ll be buying a car and insurance for it. They’ll be choosing a school or a career. They’ll be given documents with gobbeldygook to sign that might deliver big bills to their mailbox. They will need to know how to evaluate information.

But unfortunately many school districts, focused intently on one goal – getting good scores on the statewide standardized math and reading tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law – have given information literacy about as high a priority as most of us do about being good banjo players.

And thus, we have situations like that in Mesa, AZ, School District where all the certified librarians will be eliminated, because of budget cuts. Why? Because – even though no one from the district will admit it – they can, because certified librarians are not required by No Child Left Behind the way high-quality classroom teachers are.

Here’s a quote from the story in American Libraries:

The decision came as a surprise to many librarians, who were notified of the change the second week in April. “They are just reeling,” Ann Ewbank, education liaison librarian at Arizona State University in Phoenix, told AL. “This school district has done this under the radar.” She added that since librarians are considered instructional support staff, cutting their positions is not perceived as cutting classroom dollars. “They will turn libraries and media centers into warehouses. There will be no collaborative lesson planning, no information-literacy standards, and no library media programming at these schools.”

The sad news is that because No Child Left Behind doesn’t require certified librarians and the things certified librarians do for the kids, they’re ripe for the cutting. It’s very difficult to convince anyone – teachers, principals, parents, average taxpayers – in most places that librarians really can make a difference in the age of Google.

If folks need more convincing, here’s an unsettling study from the UK – from the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research, at University College London’s centre for publishing. It’s a higher education-level study, but you can be sure that those who reach a university with poor information literacy skills – which is exactly what this study demonstrates – learned those poor skills as kids and teens. Here’s a quote:

The report, Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, found users [i.e. students] “power-browsing” or skimming material, using “horizontal” (shallow) research. Most spent only a few minutes looking at academic journal articles and few returned to them. “It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense,” said the report authors.

Doesn’t that last quote – going “online to avoid reading in the traditional sense” – sound just like what you see from the average child or teen in the average library these days? Let’s get that boring homework done, so we can go play video games.

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