Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Chinese College Students’ Information Behavior and Library Needs

Last year, my research collaborators and I conducted a study to examine how the pandemic had impacted Chinese college students’ use of the library. The study took place in April and May 2020. At that time, Chinese college campus had been shut off and all the teaching and learning had been moved online for two months. We collected data using a combination of journaling and in-depth interviews, focusing on the library use and library needs of Chinese college students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our findings indicate that students generally lack awareness and understanding of the library’s online resources and would like the library to provide support in ways that could help them enhance productivity and lessen anxiety in the new reality of learning. Libraries should consider making more outreach efforts and offering programs and events to ameliorate isolation and improve students’ sense of community. We hope that our study can provide academic libraries with a nuanced view of user needs and thus help them make informed decisions to serve their campus communities during the unprecedented health crisis. Through the exploration and documentation of college students’ library use and needs, we also hope to document this critical historical event for the library community.

Now our study has been published in the Library Quarterly. Here’s the citation:

Shi, Y., Li, C. & Luo, L. (2021). Impact of the covid-19 pandemic on Chinese college students’ information behavior and library needs: A qualitative study. Library Quarterly, 91(2), 150-171.

I’m really glad that we were able to contribute to the library and information science (LIS) literature with regards to the pandemic. When years later, the pandemic is finally behind us, I think it will be quite interesting to conduct a content analysis of all the pandemic-related studies/articles in peer reviewed LIS journals to capture and document LIS researchers’ collection contributions.

Ideas for the COVID-19 Pandemic Related Research in Librarianship

Earlier this week I had an opportunity to talk to librarians at the University Library at the University of California at San Diego about the trends and methods of research in academic librarianship. They asked wonderful questions, and one of them was about the kinds of research that librarians may consider doing during the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly disrupted our lives in significant ways, but there may also be new research opportunities arising from it. Conducting research related to the pandemic can help library professionals better understand our user needs and provide more meaningful and effective responses to this public health crisis.

A few months ago when the pandemic just broke out, the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology published a commentary titled “Global health crises are also information crises: A call to action” (Xie et al ,2020)“. In this article, a group of information researchers discussed specific things that information scientists can do to “help individuals and society as a whole survive global health crises like COVID‐19, deal with the aftermath, and be better prepared for the next crisis”. They recommended the following research directions:

  • Misinformation/disinformation particularly during global health crises
  • Health literacy—including eHealth literacy
  • Information behavior during lock downs
  • Vulnerable populations—a case for accessible and usable solutions
  • Information dissemination, sharing, and integration among multiple forms of digital data
  • eHealth tools
  • Predictive methods
  • Digital archiving
  • Ethical considerations

I think it would be helpful for library researchers to put out a similar “call to action”, encouraging librarians to investigate research topics related to the pandemic as well. Some of the potential topics may include:

  • Usage of library services during the pandemic, how it changes from before – especially the use of online library resources and services
  • Library needs of users during the pandemic – e.g. for academic libraries, how do their students and faculty would like the library to provide support to assist them as they study from home? for special user populations, especially those suffering from the digital divide, what can libraries to ensure equity when providing services during the closure of physical library locations?
  • Librarians’ well-being – what are librarians’ health and safety concerns with regards to working during the pandemic if they have to return to work?
  • How librarians can help address misinformation related to the pandemic – what can the library do to better help library users become more critical consumers of information and avoid being victimized by misinformation?
  • Libraries’ response to the pandemic – did the library have a crisis management/communication plan, how did the library make decisions on their responses to this crisis?

Information behavior during the “Infodemic” – Ideas for academic librarians

This COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed an information crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the society not only needs to fight the pandemic, but also the “infodemic,” which it defined as “an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it“. This “infodemic” could add another layer of challenge as college students strive to navigate the turbulent time.

College students are likely to fall prey to the spiraling misinformation during the infodemic. Standford researcher Sam Wineburg and his team have repeatedly found that college students were not well-equipped with the ability to critically evaluate online information, and they struggled to effectively evaluate online claims, sources, and evidence. Their research indicated that college students could be deceived by easily manipulated features of websites, such as official-looking logos and domain names, and they tend to read a webpage vertically, staying within a website to evaluate its reliability. In the meantime, high production values, links to reputable news organizations and polished “About” pages were likely to sway students into trusting the contents of the site without much skepticism.

Academic libraries have been increasingly involved in helping college students battle misinformation. Here are a couple of recent articles that explored academic librarians’ efforts on this front: “Academic library guides for tackling fake news: A content analysis” by Sook Lim; and “News Credibility: Adapting and Testing a Source Evaluation Assessment in Journalism” by Piotr S. Bobkowski and Karna Younger.

Yesterday, I read about the following study on TIME magazine, and thought this might be something that academic librarians may find useful as they guide students’ information behavior during the “infodemic”.

A new paper in Psychological Science explores not only why people believe Internet falsehoods but also how to help them become more discerning about what they share. One of the leading reasons misinformation about COVID-19 gains traction is that it’s a topic that scares the daylights out of us. The more emotional valence something we read online has, the likelier we are to pass it on.

That’s in keeping with earlier research out of MIT, published in 2018, showing that fake news spreads faster on Twitter than does the truth. The reason, the researchers in that study wrote, was that lies are “more novel than true news … [eliciting] fear, disgust and surprise,” just the things that give sharing its zing.

Political leanings also influence sharing. A 2019 Science study, from researchers at Northeastern and elsewhere, showed that neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on sharing fake news; mostly people are just choosing content that fits their ideologies.

To dig deeper still into sharing decisions, Rand and colleagues developed a two-part study. In the first, they assembled a sample group of 853 adults and first asked them to take a pair of tests. One, known as the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), measures basic reasoning processes. The other measured basic science knowledge. The sample pool was then divided in half. Both halves were shown the same series of 30 headlines—15 false and 15 true—about COVID-19, but they were instructed to do two different things. One group was asked to determine the accuracy of the headlines. The other was asked if they would be inclined to share the headlines.

The results were striking. The first group correctly identified the truth or falsehood of two-thirds of the headlines. The second group—freed from having to consider accuracy—reported that they would share half the headlines, equally divided between true ones and false ones.

The study did find that people who scored higher on the CRT and basic science tests were a little less indiscriminate. The solution, clearly, is not to force people to pass a reasoning test before they’re admitted online. The second part of the study provided a better answer.

For that portion, a different sample group of 856 adults was again divided in two and again shown the same set of headlines. This time, neither group was asked to determine the accuracy of the headlines; instead, both were asked only if they would share them. But there was still a difference: one group was first shown one of four non- COVID-19-related headlines and asked to determine whether it was true or false. That priming—asking the subjects to engage their critical faculties—made a big difference: the primed group was one-third as likely as the unprimed one to share a false headline.

Thinking critically—especially about the truth of a headline—reduces the spread of fake news.”

Library Responses to COVID-19: What I Observed

The COVID-19 pandemic has been quite disruptive to many aspects of our lives. As we all struggle to manage the new reality, our libraries are also doing their best to continue providing services to their communities during this trying time. I have been following library responses to the COVID-19 crisis on social media and here are some of my observations and experiences.

  • American Library Association (ALA)’s Pandemic Preparedness page has a lot of great resources that could help libraries better understand how to respond to the crisis.
    ala
  • Libraries establish specific pages that list COVID-19 related resources that are reliable and trustworthy, such as the one from Portland State University Library.
    portland
  • A creative librarian from Hoover Library at McDaniel College put on book displays in his/her own home, reminding people that these books are all available through the library’s eBook collection.
    hoover
    (image source: Hoover Library’s FaceBook Page)
  • Storytimes have gone virtual! A police officer from Puyallup, WA, a frequent guest at Puyallup Public Library’s storytime, recorded a virtual one for kids.
    puyallup
    (image source: Puyallup Police Department FaceBook Page)
  • Libraries’ 3D printers have new uses now – they can print face shields for health care providers.
    toronto
    (image source: blogto.com)
  • Although the physical location is closed, some libraries still continue to provide curbside delivery services to help patrons check out materials. Woburn Library even made TikTok video to promote this service to their community!
    woburn
    (image source: Woburn Public Library FaceBook Page)
  • Libraries are considering turning bookmobiles into free WiFi trucks – what a thoughtful idea!
    vice
    (image source: vice.com)

Despite all the challenges the pandemic has posed, it does provide opportunities for libraries to highlight their wonderful online resources. My local library, San Jose Public Library, has done a fantastic job in that regard. Since the closure of the library building three weeks ago, they have been sending a weekly email to stay in touch with everybody and encourage people to use their online resources.

Week 1, an email containing Frequently Asked Questions that really helped keeping us informed and putting our minds at ease. It’s a relief to know that all of our book will be automatically renewed till after the library reopens.

week1

Week 2, an email emphasizing SJPL’s online sources specifically oriented to K-12 kids and educators, such as tutor.com and a bunch of EBSCO databases.

week2

Week 3, an email reminding us that if we don’t have a library card already, we can apply for an eLibrary Card online, so that we can freely use the library’s online resources.

week3

The most recent week, an email giving us a summary about how people are actively using the library’s online services such as virtual reference, which has been extended to 24/7, and participating the Spring into Reading program, an program that encourages people to use the library’s eBooks and other eResources.

week4

These emails always bring a smile to my face. 🙂

Our libraries and librarians are the best!

Information literacy and critical thinking

Recently I read a book titled “A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age ” by Daniel J. Levitin. It has some really practical implications for information literacy instruction. I particularly enjoyed how the author illustrated the deceptive ways that statistics can be manipulated and how he advocated “Bayesian thinking” to circumvent common cognitive pitfalls and exercise critical thinking more effectively. Librarians can definitely draw upon this book for examples to use in their information literacy classes.

Another relevant resource is this TED talk “Fake videos of real people – and how to spot them“, in which computer scientist Supasorn Suwajanakorn shows how he used AI and 3D modeling to create photorealistic fake videos of people synced to audio. It’s jaw dropping – those fake videos look incredibly authentic and I couldn’t tell the difference at all. This technology further complicates the information landscape what’s already littered with counter knowledge, false information and fake news. Maybe librarians can use this video to show their students what a dire situation we are in when it comes to online information, and critical thinking is thus indispensable in order to survive/thrive in such an information climate.

Time magazine published a thoughtful article on this topic as well – “A real fake news crisis“. This article equates the widespread misinformation online to “a public health crisis” and recommends the approaches that professional fact checkers use to sift through the internet, such as lateral reading and click restraint. When librarians devise their information literacy lesson plans, this article can be a valuable reference.

Methods in Information Literacy Research – ECIL 2016 Reflections

A few weeks ago I attended the European Conference on Information Literacy (ECIL)
in Prague. It was my first time attending this conference and it was a great
experience. Six people (students, alum and faculty) from our Gateway PhD
program were there and it was fabulous to see our program so well represented
at this conference.

The conference covered a wide
variety of information literacy related topics, and what interested me most
were the presentations about methods in information literacy research. Here’s a
summary of them

Autoethnography: Research as
Reflection, Inclusion and Empowerment (by Deitering, Anne-Marie; Schroeder,
Robert; Stoddart, Richard)

The three presenters were involved
in a project where a learning community of librarians developed their
autoethnographies. The provided an overview of autoethnography and discussed
their experience and reflections on this project. It was quite refreshing to me
as because in authoethnography  the
researcher is the subject of research. I found an article that provided a detailed
explanation of this method – here’s the link http://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol19/iss37/3/.

Using Phenomenographic Methods to
Support Political Information Use (by Smith, Lauren)

There are quite a few
phenomenographers in information literacy research, including some of my
colleagues in our Gateway PhD program. So I know a little bit about this
method. The presenter talked about her study using this method to examine how
high school students are aware of, acquire, engage with and apply political
information. It’s a comprehensive study and well designed. Her presentation
slides can be located here.

Critical Incident Technique in
Information Literacy Research in the XXI Century (by Cisek, Sabina Barbara)

The presenter shared her review
and analysis of studies that used Critical Incident technique in information
literacy research. This method has not been widely applied to studying
information literacy related topics. It’s more popular in examining information
seeking behavior.  Here’s a brief
definition of this method “The critical incident technique consists of a set of
procedures for collecting direct observations of human behavior in such a way
as to facilitate their potential usefulness in solving practical problems and
developing broad psychological principles. The critical incident technique
outlines procedures for collecting observed incidents having special significance
and meeting systematically defined criteria” (Flanagan,
1954
). The presentation slides can be located here.