Jess and I share an office – what, are you surprised? – with the two amazing graduate assistants that work in our department. It’s a highly collaborative atmosphere, which we all find stimulating and supportive. The four of us work on many of the same projects and simply talking across the room to a teammate cuts down enormously on email. Our library provides virtual reference using a chat service, and when someone is doing online reference our answers to patron questions are often crowd-sourced from whoever is in the room at the time. “Hey, what’s the name of that one e-resource we have for test prep?” (I can never remember the name of that thing.) We rely on each other to remember the details and locations of things. “When is that meeting? Where did you get those shoes? (Our library ladies love cute flats.) In which of 9 gazillion folders on the shared drive is that one document about that one thing?” We Google our hive’s collective memories constantly.
It turns out there may be a generalizable explanation for our reliance on constant collaboration. We’re not weird. Everybody is weird! Slate published this excerpt from Clive Thompson’s book Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. In it, Thompson describes how we use computers, the Internet, apps, and our phones as extensions of our memory. (I first saw this article mentioned by @librarianmouse, here. She and her colleagues like to use crowd sourced information to answer reference questions, too!) It’s a new version of a concept called transactive memory, in which our society has long relied on the shared memories of the people close to us so that we don’t have to remember everything ourselves.
Our team uses a variety of tools to keep track of our projects, ideas, and documents. Between Jess and me, any particular thing I want to recall may be stored in the network drive, work email, our personal email correspondence, Google Docs, Trello, Workflowy, Evernote, Zotero, Pinterest, Padlet, or an actual, physical notebook. Even though we don’t often remember the exact details of the thing we’re trying to retrieve, we almost always know where it is. Research cited in Thompson’s article confirms this proclivity:
We are, however, confident of where in the machine we can refind it. When Sparrow asked the students simply to recall whether a fact had been saved or erased, they were better at recalling the instances where a fact had been stored in a folder…Another experiment found that subjects were really good at remembering the specific folder names containing the right factoid, even though the folders had extremely unremarkable names.
This phenomenon pops up in our office-wide transactive memory system all the time. “Remember when we found that article that talked about self-paced student learning? Is it in that Google Doc of sources?”
“No, it’s attached to a Trello card on the team board.”
So we work in a noisy office. So what?
Here’s the really important part. The reason we need to be aware of the amazing ways our society is using devices to expand our transactive memory sources. Jess and I are primarily information literacy librarians. We teach research and instruction classes, help students at the reference desk, and are developing a new curriculum for our library to provide more broadly applicable information literacy instruction to undergraduates. The students we teach and interact with every day have a different relationship with information than previous generations. They are “digital natives,” and they are used to accessing all the information in the world using online sources and search interfaces, and saving everything they need in an electronic location. We need to understand what they know about finding and using information so that we can use our instruction to fill in the gaps in the skill set they already possess for interacting with information sources. This is how Thompson describes one of those gaps:
Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work—where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. They’re for-profit firms that guard their algorithms like crown jewels. And this makes them different from previous forms of transactive machine memory. A public library—or your notebook or sheaf of papers—keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms. A search engine keeps many. We need to develop literacy in these tools the way we teach kids how to spell and write; we need to be skeptical about search firms’ claims of being “impartial” referees of information.
This is the big idea behind the way we characterize information literacy. Students definitely need help with searching for and finding information. But for the most part, they will figure out on their own how to get their hands on the information they need. What they often won’t figure out on their own, however, is how to evaluate it. Information skepticism isn’t automatically built in to their reliance on the Internet for transactive memory. If we can introduce them to the limitations and biases of search engines and some online sources, and more importantly, provide them with the skills to overcome that, we will have given students a valuable tool to make their relationship with their machines much more useful.