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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2013


There Is No Escape: What Google Can Teach Instruction Librarians

Kathleen Gregory
University Libraries
University of Denver
Denver, Colorado

Copyright 2013, Kathleen Gregory. Used with permission.

We cannot escape Google. As we know from personal experience and research on search behavior, Google is the first port of call for nearly everyone (students, faculty, and even some librarians) when we need to find information. While this is especially true for our students, even the most diehard opponents have been affected by the "Google era," as an increasing number of libraries are adopting one-stop discovery systems such as Summon or Primo to give users a more Google-like search experience. Some have even gone so far as to equate the development of Google to the invention of the printing press, in terms of its effect on the dissemination of information.

While Google and Gutenberg aren't exactly equal in my opinion, Google has fundamentally altered the landscape of Library Land, extending its influence even beyond the realm of resource discovery. As an instruction librarian who teaches countless information literacy courses in science and engineering each year, I am constantly on the lookout for good examples of instructional design and interactive lessons. It was somewhat annoying to discover that Google has one or two things to teach me about both.

My first a-ha moment came when I attended a seminar on Google Search and Google Earth hosted by a nearby university. I was fairly confident in my Google Search abilities and was preparing to multi-task during the presentation, when suddenly I realized that the Google Search expert actually did have something to teach me. It wasn't the content of the presentation that yanked me away from checking my e-mail; it was the fact that the speaker could actually teach.

I started taking notes on the presenter's instruction strategies. How many times had I faced down an auditorium filled with a hundred students in an undergraduate science class and been tasked with inspiring them, or at least keeping their interest, while teaching them about search? How many times had I done half as good of a job as this non-librarian Google expert?

He framed his presentation through the lens of three stories, stories about past students who had struggled with some problem that effective Google searching could have easily solved. He sneaked the details of the search strategies themselves into the stories, a much more effective approach than the PowerPoints and step-by-step "click here" search demos that I tend to gravitate towards. In the afternoon breakout session, we broke into small groups, developed a rough "poster," and had a mini-poster presentation session…all within one hour. And while the content of the breakout session wasn't that exciting, the design of it had the wheels in my head turning about how to apply the mini-poster session format to a science information literacy class.

My second moment of realization came when I enrolled in Google's online Advanced Power Searching class. This time, some of the content was new, although, again, it was the course design that really got me excited. When I create online teaching materials, I usually create a LibGuide with embedded video tutorials and links to other relevant information. The content that Google presented in the online course was not that different from the content of a LibGuide, but the way it was presented created an experience that was in no way like my list of tutorials.

The course was broken into a series of challenges that needed to be solved in order to complete the class. Each challenge had two or three suggested videos that students could view if they needed tips on how to solve the problem. This design ticked off a lot of boxes on my mental checklist of effective course design. Individualized instruction? Check. Problem-based learning? Check. An opportunity for students to experiment on their own? Check. I already had a long repertoire of video tutorials. Would it be that difficult to create my own challenges and re-structure my online teaching? For that matter, could I apply this method to an in-class activity in one of my science classes? My mental wheels were once again turning.

Of course, Google does have one or two resources that your average academic librarian does not. And while their instruction strategies may not be applicable to every scenario that a science and technology librarian will face, they do provide us with some alternative tools to add to our instruction toolkits. So even if it pains me to admit that Google's influence on libraries could extend beyond search, I plan on taking a practical approach. I will do what librarians do best: I will research, evaluate, and apply Google's education strategies to my own teaching. After all, if I can't escape Google, I may as well learn from them.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ISTL, the Science and Technology Section, or the American Library Association.

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