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What Do We Mean When We Say “Evaluate Sources?”

Like you, I am drowning in COVID-19 news and opinions. I get it from Twitter, Facebook, emails from my university and professional organizations, daily updates from newspapers and public media, conversations in the hallways at work, and signs up in bathrooms with detailed hand-washing instructions set to TLC’s No Scrubs (my fave of the hand-washing instructions, by the way).

It’s a lot. Too much really. And yet here we are. This is the world we live in.

It becomes this odd moment for libraries and librarians to once again hail the importance of information literacy and turning to “good” information and “evaluating sources.” I always cringe a little when libraries are placed into that odd position of “savior,” because libraries are institutions that are shaped by people and collections, and people and collections are flawed (myself included). We also don’t always know or agree on what we mean when we say we need to “evaluate sources,” and often struggle to teach this concept in classes. It’s a concept and practice I continue to learn about through trial and error, knowing that there isn’t just one way to evaluate an information source and therefore not just one way to teach it.

Here are a few of things I’m beginning to think we actually mean when we say “evaluate a source”:

  • Fact-Check a la Michael Caulfied’s 4 Moves, which is really about finding truthful information that you deem worthy of trust. This is where issues of bias and misinformation come into the discussion.
  • Relevance/Usefulness to a topic at hand. Is it about what you need it to be about? Is it useful to you as you seek to learn more about a topic? Does it contain the information you need to find?
  • Appropriateness to situational need. If authority is constructed and contextual, what information source is appropriate for your particular information context? Is it rhetorically appropriate?
  • Quality of the information source, which is really different than appropriateness even though they often end up conflated. You might need a scientific paper for your particular context but is it GOOD? This is where disciplinary knowledge, understanding data, and subject expertise come into play.
  • Privilege embodied within the information source by virtue of the author, topic, format, or access. When we view a source through a critical lens we also have to examine the negative space around it. What are we missing and why?

It is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are some of the things I’ve been taking note of as I teach this year.

Then there are the things that circle around the whole concept of evaluating sources like life experiences, personal beliefs, biases, and views of the world, all of which have an impact on how people evaluate information. We’re sometimes encouraged (and encourage others) to set aside those personal beliefs and biases when encountering information, but why? Is it ever really possible? Can we instead, adopt a practice I learned about last week via the ARL LCDP program, which is to embrace paradox and be comfortable with discomfort, non-closure, and the fact that there is not always a consensus or solution.

This is just the beginning of what I’m sure is going to be a bigger research project into how we teach source evaluation, why we teach it the way we do, and whether or not it’s even possible in the kind of one-shot workshops we frequently teach. What do you focus on when you teach source evaluation? What am I missing?

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