Accurate Sources

Q. I'm in a public library and was assisting a local community college student who asked, "How accurate should my sources of information be?" I hardly know where to start!

A. The issue of "information literacy" is huge--and important. The 1989  Presidential Committee on Information Literacy: Final Report  noted "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. Producing such a citizenry will require that schools and colleges appreciate and integrate the concept of information literacy into their learning programs..."

Knowing how to recognize accurate information, whether in print or from the Internet, and how to reference that material so that others will be able to assess its value are core skills for students at all levels.  Two ALA divisions, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) work collaboratively and independently on this issue so that the core skills are developed in elementary, middle and high schools, in colleges, and onward.  Both have established standards and guidelines, as well as a range of continuing education opportunities to learn more about developing programs and providing instruction.  AASL's Learning 4 Life page offers resources for the development of dynamic, student-centered school library programs. These programs help ensure that students master the information literacy skills needed to be discerning consumers and creative producers of information and ideas. ACRL's Information Literacy page is a gateway to resources on information literacy. These resources will help you understand and apply the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education to enhance teaching, learning, and research in the higher education community.  In addition. another division, the Reference and Services Association (RUSA) has tips on finding--and using--primary sources on the web.

Your patron might be struggling, though, with several more mundane issues: finding information in the first place, evaluating that material for accuracy as well as relevancy to his or her topic, and citing the source of the information. We'll let you help with finding the resources, but for some practical resources for information literacy, please see our wiki page on the topic, particularly the three specialized pages on plagiarism, evaluating web resources, and citations.

Addendum, March 22: Both of the external comments to date have questioned why I did not answer the student's question, and they are right:  I did not.  Instead I offered the librarian a set of resources on the huge topic of information literacy, rather than a guide to research for the student. KLM



I notice that you didn’t answer the student’s question. He didn’t ask, “How do I recognize accurate information?” He asked “How accurate should my information be?” Those two questions are not the same. By not recognizing that everyone applies different standards daily depending on the situation and acting as though evey question from “Is my pie done yet?” to “Will this treatment help my advanced cancer?” must be subjected to the same academic standards for accuracy, we do a supreme disservice to our users. Librarians at all levels and in all kinds of libraries need to keep in mind the context in which we are operating. Most importantly, we need to listen to our users and make sure that the question we answer is the question that was asked.

You're absolutely right—on all counts.  I didn't answer the student's question, but rather pointed the librarian to a range of resources for helping the student understand about assessing the value of what was identified in the course of the search and documenting it appropriately.  As with many of the questions included here, this one is a composite of real questions from both librarians and others who contact the ALA Library.  This past week we've had several people seeking out the information literacy standards and articles—as well as a student who wanted to know about how accurate her sources needed to be—and all I had was the single email to go on.


Now, as to your point that the context for  the information sought can (and should) dictate the type of sources required to answer it, again you're right.  For example I use Wikipediea; I think we all do.  I sometimes even use it to answer an e-mailed question, if after I review it, the article is as complete and seemingly accurate as other resources I have (or references those sources).  But other times, it's a nothing more than a good starting point for bird's eye view context or to identify search terms for a cost-effective literature search.  Or, it's sufficient for the question at hand, say, what does a quokka look like (not a question we'd get, but one I had while reading a book on Australia).  Evaluating the type of information needed and helping to find an appropriate source are the elements that make reference service an art!

Although there is some great information and links to helpful resources in the answer to this question, I think a couple of major points were left out. First, the student’s question really is about the requirements of the assignment. The answer to “how accurate should my sources of information be?” depends on the nature of the assignment. Has the course instructor set specific criteria for types of sources to be used? Is this a formal research paper? An argument/position paper? A research paper might require some scholarly journal resources, while an argument/position paper could include resources that give opinions on differente sides of an issue.

Secondly, as a community college librarian, I would hope that a public librarian helping one of our students would encourage to student to consult with a librarian at their college library. College librarians may know more about the specific assignment already, or may be able to contact the course instructor for more details. Even if the instructor has not shared the details of the specific assignment with the librarians, college librarians have built our library collections and developed our knowledge and expertise around student assignments. Information literacy is our bread and butter. By the same token, I am happy to assist patrons who come to the community college library looking for information on local history and genealogy, but I always make sure to mention the more extensive resources and and expertise in these areas available at the local public libraries.