KISS and Julie Andrews: My (unlikely) muses for effective information literacy instruction

by Megan Kennedy
Leslie and Irene Dubé Health Sciences Library
University of Saskatchewan

Perhaps strange bedfellows, but Julie Andrews and the rock band KISS are my muses for effective information literacy instruction.

In the classic film, The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start” – this little ditty has been a guiding principle for all my information literacy instruction thus far in my academic career.

Starting at the beginning is so simple, and yet, at least for myself, I often assume that I can jump ahead. When I began delivering information literacy instruction to students this earlier this year, I assumed a few things:

1. Students would be familiar with and understand some of the jargon I would be using (search engine, catalogue, index, database, metadata, indexing fields/record fields, Boolean operators, controlled vocabulary/subject terms and many other librarian-y terms)
2. Students would have some familiarity with the databases I was going to be talking about because they had used them in the past
3. Students would be familiar with the library website enough that they could comfortably navigate to things I was talking about

After just one session – that admittedly ended with a group of very confused looking students – I realized that this was not going to work; my students needed to know do-re-mi before they could sing! So how did I fix these issues going forward? By always starting at the very beginning and never underestimating the importance of providing simple navigational guidance – it doesn’t do students any good to know the ins and outs of searching CINAHL if they can never find the database on the library website. I’ve also tried to incorporate informal polls/assessments in my teaching to gauge current understanding about the topic I am talking about and to help me assess where more attention needs to be paid and what can perhaps simply be a refresher. Something that still needed to be addressed was the language I was using when talking with students, notably my use of unexplained library jargon.

KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid – a wonderful little phrase I picked up from my high school history teacher. The premise is not novel but I find that this plucky acronym helps to center my focus when explaining particularly “librarian-y” concepts. For example, did you know that the only people genuinely excited to talk about metadata are librarians and other information folks? Students, for the most part, are not interested in the specific details of data about data, discovery, findability, indexing, etc. I learned this the hard way when talking to a student about how citation managers get the information needed to generate a complete citation. Unfortunately for this student, my librarian brain took over and I talked for a good ten minutes about the intricacies and importance of record metadata. The wide-eyed look I got at the end of my speech told me everything I needed to know, I had not kept it simple and had now confused this poor student. I tried again and slowed down and thought about it from their perspective, what are the essential bits of information they need to know to understand this concept (no more and no less)? I then gave the student a much simpler explanation, something along the lines of “metadata is the behind the scenes information of an item that makes it possible for you to find it. Citation managers can read this information from the item to compile what’s needed to make a citation”. I could practically hear the light switch flip on in their head – they got it.

When it comes to information literacy instruction, our tacit knowledge as librarians can be a double-edged sword. It makes us excellent “knowers of things”, “information wizards”, “database Yodas” and other delightful monikers, but it can be a somewhat unnatural and awkward process for us to actively stop and think about what we know, how we know it, and how we can explain it in simple and relatable terms. I let Julie Andrews and KISS lead the way for me* – start at the beginning and keep it simple.

*I also like to imagine Julie Andrews as Maria von Trapp teaching the band KISS to sing using the do-re-mi song so that also keeps things interesting.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

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