First-year College Students, Project Information Literacy, and Embedded Librarianship


I’ve just been reading the most recent report from Project Information Literacy. Released just a couple weeks ago, it’s entitled “Learning the Ropes: How Freshmen Conduct Course Research Once They Enter College.” It’s of particular interest to me, because together with my faculty colleague Dr. Sung Un Kim, I’m working on a study of the role of librarians in the First Year Experience (FYE) program here at Catholic University of America.

There were many observations in the report that were consistent with my impressions; I found myself nodding in agreement continously. There weren’t any big surprises; just many clear and compelling insights that I sort-of knew, but needed to focus on more clearly. There were echoes of time-tested models and principles of information behavior at work: concepts like the Principle of Least Effort, Mooers’ Law, the human tendency to ask other people we know for help with information needs, and elements of Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process. These are fundamentals that every librarian ought to learn by heart and apply every day anyway.

What I found most arresting was the study’s insight into just how jarring the transition from high school to college is. When it comes to information literacy, the students in the study enter college very poorly prepared for the research environment that awaits them: the resources are much more complex, the expectations are much different, and the skills needed are nothing like what they have learned in their secondary education.

Enter the embedded librarian. As I read, I found passages that just cried out for embedded librarians — observations like “freshmen had little idea about who to ask for help” and didn’t know whom to ask on the library staff — or even that there was anyone on the library staff that would help them (p. 14); or “most students don’t need to ask for help,” “Reference librarians are available only to students who have gotten stuck on their research,” and “A scholarly database(s) recommended by a librarian is the only source worth checking.” (Myths 1, 3, and 4 of 5, p. 19)

Imagine, then, how glad I was to see that in the concluding section, recommendation 2 is “An integrated approach to teaching information competencies”, and the embedded model is cited as a way to achieving that integration. I agree, of course.

So if you’re an academic librarian — especially if you’re involved in reference, instruction, and outreach, I highly recommend that you read this report. It contains great insights, and may help you in developing your own embedded role.


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6 Responses to “First-year College Students, Project Information Literacy, and Embedded Librarianship”

  1. Alison J. Head Says:

    Very many thanks to David for authoring this thoughtful and reflective post about our newest report on first-year students! I appreciate that you have shared your interpretations of Project Information Literacy’s (PIL’s) findings about first-year students with this list.

    I agree with you there are research findings in PIL’s report that confirm what many librarians anecdotally know about first-year students’ information practices, based on their own observations. What’s unique in the findings from Project Information Literacy’s research study that does deserve to be underscored is that our data has been collected using systematic methods at six very different colleges and universities in the US.

    As such, our findings suggest that students in our sample enrolled in a community college may be just as lost and unprepared to conduct college-level research as students from a private Ivy elite. To me, at least, that’s significant and interesting.

    As you aptly suggest, one of the key takeaways–if not the *key takeaway*–from PIL’s latest study is there is a huge gap between the research sources students have in high school vs. what they find in college and university libraries. (Another recent post about PIL’s study does a great job of discussing what is now being called, “the ginormous problem” at

    Unfortunately, “one-shot sessions,” which so many academic librarians depend on for instructing incoming students, only gets students so far. Firs-year students we interviewed had trouble retaining what they learned in one-shots so they could apply it later on when they needed it most. Other students took the one or two databases that librarians may have recommended in a one-shot and considered the sources gospel. These students said they went no further with exploring the plethora of library resources available to them–the librarian had told them what to use, why bother searching further?

    I’m preaching to the choir here, but embedded librarianship offers great potential for helping to narrow this gap and for heading off what we call students “flatlining” in their research approach.

    The challenge, of course, is making embedded librarianship the answer for faculty across a wide range of disciplines, too, not just a solution for well-meaning librarians who deeply care about students.

    Thanks again, David, for your post!


    Alison Head, Executive Director, Project Information Literacy (PIL)
    Research Scientist | The Information School, University of Washington
    Faculty Associate, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University

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  4. The Unquiet Librarian Says:

    I’m wondering if any future research will be done in this area on the secondary side of things. While I am very appreciative of the perspective and focus on the first year experience, no one seems to be asking or investigating the complex reasons (which we also know to some extent based on observation and experience but need empirical research) as to why and how students come so ill-prepared.

    I sometimes wonder if anyone outside of K12 cares about the factors and challenges contributing to these issues–perhaps if research were conducted in this area, there might be a greater sense of urgency by school admin, school boards, and classroom teachers to address these issues related to inquiry, research practices, information literacy, and school library staffing and instructional models. Best, Buffy

    • davidshumaker Says:

      Buffy, thanks for your comment — you make a very important point. Actually, Alison raises the concern about the direction of school library media programs at the secondary level very strongly. Her first recommendation is, “Building bridges between high school and college libraries.” As she says, “it is imperative for higher education librarians and educators to recognize the plight of school libraries — and the widespread impact it is having.” (Emphasis in original.)

      So, the fault is mine. I tend to view everything through the lens of embedded librarianship, and I emphasized the aspect of Alison’s study that related to that. But I agree with you that we also need to do more work on the secondary side.

      Thanks again for your input!

      • The Unquiet Librarian Says:

        Hi David! I guess I am thinking beyond bridge building–in many cases, there is nothing to connect with on the k12 side or very little because of our antiquated and woefully insufficient staffing models. I was wishing for this kind of research to be done at the secondary level, compare the results to the current college level studies, and then make connections.

        As always, thank you for your encouragement! Very best, Buffy

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