library instruction blues

I’ve mentioned here before how I am not entirely convinced that bibliographic instruction works.  Days like today are what make me question its efficacy.

I taught a Google searching class today to a packed house (well, 10 people, but since we have 9 computers, it was overfilled).  I ran out of time, as nearly always, at the end and only got to have the attendees go through a solitary example.  Now, I admit that the searches that I use to test out their learning in my class are challenging and designed to stretch them a bit, but either today’s attendees were not paying attention, refused to tell me how they searched, or simply could not figure it out.  I am not sure which is worse, but I highly suspect the couldn’t figure it out part is what happened.

Basically, I ask them to find patient education handouts in Somali on tuberculosis.  They did all figure out that using the advanced search page was the best choice to start with, but once they figured out that Somali was not a choice in the drop-down language limits list, no one could figure out what to do next.  This is frustrating.  I know that largely my frustration is borne out of the fact that I am an impatient person.  I like immediate gratification–to see that something I have taught works.  But, I reasonably understand that it doesn’t always work that way.

There were 17 people on the waiting list for this class, and I think that more than anything, that is why I took today’s sense of failure so personally.  I just felt like calling up the people on the waiting list and telling them that the class is a total waste of time and that they really shouldn’t bother–but I can see that such a path might be construed as deleterious to the library’s educational mission.  And, in reality, I know that this class can and has made a difference to some people who come to these.  Seeing people’s eyes light up when you show them the calculator, define:, or movie: usually makes teaching the class worth it to me–I always save that stuff for the finale.  And so, I decided to offer two more sessions for the people on the waiting list after all (I had been planning to not offer the class again until January).

On Monday, one of the physicians at my institution who has attended both my Google and Google Scholar classes was in my library, and he and I spent a couple of minutes chatting about how great Google is.  The conversation was actually a little uncomfortable for me as a medical librarian, especially when he told me rather joyfully that he never bothers with MEDLINE or PubMed or UpToDate (ha) anymore, but uses Google (not Google Scholar) for everything–research, patient education, etc.  I know that this is supposed to be the part where I should have interjected something into the conversation about the evils of Google or at least the benefits of the traditional medical tools (and, I did to some extent), but I was FAR more interested in listening to him talk about his information practices than reprimanding him for using Google before PubMed.

He likes using Google for a number of different reasons: 1, it is what the patients are using; 2, he can see patient-oriented materials and clinical research at the same time; 3, he can use it in the patient exam room with the patient to show them how to find out about their disease, procedure, or drug; and 4, and most importantly, it is easy and it works.  Whenever I teach Google, I try to teach attendees how to choose their search terms carefully to slant the information they are going to find: terms like stroke for patient education materials versus cerebrovascular accident for materials for physicians, for example.  I never really thought about using to find both at the same time–that coming across such a mixture of sources and information would be a bonus to using Google.   It’s an interesting distinction, I think.

I mentioned this conversation to one of the reference librarians before my class started today, and though we both started the conversation as a bit of a commiseration (oh, what is the world coming to when physicians use Google instead of MEDLINE?), by the end, we were exchanging stories on times when using Google was the only way we found information (she used procedure details as an example as well).  I firmly believe that Google gets used because Google works.  And, I love Google’s sense of humor.  (My class today did laugh when I showed them that you can make your Google interface be in Elmer Fudd, Klingon, or bork bork bork.  And, even more when I told them the story about how I don’t demonstrate actually changing it anymore because I made that mistake once–I changed the display to Klingon, and it took me forever to change it back to English because I didn’t know the Klingon word for English (Dlvl’ Hol, I now know).)

Last year at MLA, I listened to Dr. Atul Gawande give a great talk with an anecdote about he and his colleagues not being able to figure out a diagnosis until one of them asked Jeeves.  It was hilarious.  But then I watched as several librarians got up and critiqued him for not using a library resource (he had tried them) or asking a medical librarian (he hadn’t thought of that, but very graciously said that he probably should have–I myself was thinking that he was being given ample reason never to talk to a medical librarian again).  But Jeeves had been successful.  And, we know from the recent BMJ article that Google is a successful diagnostician 58% of the time.  So, really now, why shouldn’t physicians use Google?  In some ways, this gets at my whole line of ambling thought on simple versus complicated searching.

But, I don’t have the answers.  I don’t even know if I have the questions.  I do know that I will be teaching several more Google classes this year than I wanted, just to keep up with the demand.

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One response to “library instruction blues

  1. I take those classes personally too. What I always do is go back over the goals I had set for the class and try to figure out what I could do to achieve them next time. Once, I taught the same class twice in one day, and totally restructured it from the first to the second, and the second was SO MUCH BETTER!

    I also feel the impulse to push my patrons toward PubMed (or other “vetted” resources) even though Google works. And typically my response is the same as yours, “It works, let them use it.” But there is one group that I always discourage from using Google as their primary research tool, and that’s undergraduates. I want them to focus on the logic behind searching, behind set theory (though I’m no genuis at set theory!), and levels of evidence. Learning that there are more categories than “valid” and “invalid,” that there are differences between case studies and systematic reviews, is an important step in their education, and one that is complicated by the addition of totally invalid information that can be found online.

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