Alison J. Head

Troy Swanson: Alison, welcome to Circulating Ideas. I’m so very excited to talk to you.

Alison Head: Thanks for asking me. I’m thrilled to be here.

Troy Swanson: As some of our listeners may know, I’m an instructional librarian by training and in real life, even though I do many things like guest host this podcast. So, you know, I’ve been a super huge fan and been following closely the work of Project Information Literacy, which is why I’m so happy that you’re here. Project Information Literacy has been monumental for how we think about our work and about our students and how we understand the communities that we serve. So I’m happy to have you as a guest, and maybe just to get us started, can you tell us about yourself? How do you get into studying students, their information literacy habits and what does an executive director of Project Information Literacy actually do?

Alison Head: Okay, well, lots of different things. I became interested in how students did research when I was a professor. I was a new media professor at a liberal arts school. And I was shocked and dismay when a student came up to me at the end of the year and said, “can I talk to you alone?” You always worry. You wonder what it’s gonna be.

And she said, “do you know how to do research?” I said, “yes I do.” And I have an MLS. I have a PhD in information science. I didn’t say that to her, but I said, “yes, I do.” And she said, “well, I’ve got my dissertation, my senior dissertation. I just got a job at Google and I’m not sure how to do research. Can you help me? I’ve never been to the library.” And as I walked over, I thought, wow, how many other students had never stepped foot in a really good library on a small campus with lots of help.

So that became an interest and with a former student who was a librarian at that same campus library, we did a pilot study and that was really the basis she was coming at it as a librarian, I was really coming at it as a professor. I taught for 25 years. I was fascinated by how students found information, and particularly since it was my area of expertise, how they used the internet.

So the executive director position came later. We made PIL, it had, lots of different versions in a way. I mean, it starts off as a pilot study before it’s PIL. I write an article, it’s in First Monday. It’s also in College and Research Libraries. We have data from students and I have a journalism background and really wanted to tell the story from that perspective. If I was in the field, what do students say about conducting research?

And that was the basis, and Mike Eisenberg at University of Washington contacted me then I was there for seven years, and then I was a research fellow at Harvard for another nine. So those were my affiliations as executive director. PIL’s now a research institute. It’s a 501(c)(3). It’s been a standalone nonprofit for a number of years, but as executive director, I lead the project. We’re highly collaborative. We work in small teams and I wear a lot of different hats. I make sure that we do collaborative research. I consider myself a methodologist, that’s what I really love, as well as helping with the team decide what the trajectory will be for our next inquiry, because as you know, PIL is longitudinal in terms of looking at the same cohort, not the same students, but the same cohort over time: college students.

Troy Swanson: Can you tell us a little bit more about those early days? You mentioned starting with that article and that interest, but how do you go from an article to the standalone institute?

Alison Head: Well, I mean, I always wanted to be in First Monday because it’s an open internet journal. If you don’t know it, it’s great. It bridges the world. Edward Valauskas is the editor. It has its foot in the world in new media, but also media itself. Journalism picks it up. It has a very big international readership. So I knew I wanted that pilot study, those findings to be in First Monday, as well as to also drill down and see if anybody was listening in the library world. They were.

I think what was different about PIL was, we really were gonna tell the student’s story. And in that sense that is that journalistic quality. We also, and this was my thing, as the person who wrote all the reports for many years, I really wanted it to be very readable, to be something I could use in class if I wanted to talk to students about it, and that librarians would share with other libraries, and also include community colleges, which Troy, I know is an interest of yours, we were just talking about it.

So the early days really were an exciting time in the sense of what would this project entail. What research was done? And you know, if folks are listening and they’re thinking, how do you start something this big? What I did was I did a series of, I called them at the time, Smart Talks and contacted different people out in the field.

Some I knew, some I didn’t, and said, “where are the gaps with what we know about students?” For instance, one of the calls because she was highly recommended, was Lisa Hinchliffe, who I didn’t know, and contacted her at Illinois and just said, “where are the gaps in the field as I developed this project?” Because I want it to be useful and I want it to be different. I like different things. I mean, that’s kind of fundamentally who I am. So, those were things I wanted to do. I was I don’t think totally frustrated by my PhD, but I did wanna write the reports in a way that they’d be accessible and talked about.

But I think that lens of looking at the research process from the student perspective was unique. And so it was fun, it was really creative and I had a lot of creative people that helped me figure out how to structure it. One of our board members who’s still on the board, David Nasatir from Berkeley, statistician, he was at the Survey Research Center. He had several Fulbrights and we really figured out what the model would be of why colleges and universities would ever wanna be involved in this. I mean, I was no one. Why would anybody let me come on campus and talk to their students? It just grew. I think the timing was right. There was a real interest in understanding students. I mean, now we just kind of accept it. There’s been so much research in that vein, but there really wasn’t. Gloria Leckie had done . Some research, but it was few and far between. So I saw it as wide open and I saw it as really intriguing and exciting. So I left being a professor to become a researcher.

Troy Swanson: What are the things that differentiate PIL from other information literacy efforts? You’ve talked about the collaboration and the community that is built, but could you tell us a little bit more?

Alison Head: Yeah, I think a big part is the collaboration with PIL. In the retrospective that we just released this year, which is the end of the college study actually. I mean, after 14 years, it did have to end. We had produced 12 reports. We all write different parts. Barbara Fister’s also an author on it and an incredible writer. It’s always fun to write. So a number of us, contributed to that.

But in thinking about the scope and scale of PIL, why it was different, Mike Eisenberg was really instrumental as a co-director in wanting to do something big. And I had St. Mary’s College where I was a professor. in the sample, that’s where our pilot was. And when the College and Research article came out, Joe Branin, who has since passed away, but was the library dean of Ohio State and legendary, and also the editor of College and Research Libraries. And I said, you know, somebody wrote me and said, “Yeah, that might happen at your liberal arts school out in California, but that’s not our students and students in the Midwest. You got it wrong.” And I told him that and I was shocked. And I guess he said, well, why don’t you do a bigger project? And I said, “I don’t have the schools.” And he said, “yeah, you do. Now you have, Ohio State.”

People wanted to be involved and I think what makes PIL unique is it grew organically. Not only was it collaborative, but as I said, the timing was right. People wanted to be in the sample. Different librarians made this study. Without them, the study would’ve never taken off. I owe huge thanks to them as well as their different ideas and met so many incredible people through the years.

But I think the scale and the scope, the fact that it was longitudinal about a cohort that we interviewed nearly 21,000 students or surveyed them over 14 years and that it was geographically spread across the country in very different institutions. Harvard was in a number of studies, mainly because it was an outlier and then we would choose a community college on the other end. We’d find their behaviors of students were similar. Especially, where they looked for information.

One week we were at Harvard, when we did the original study, the next week we were at a community college in the Bay Area, and, somebody on the project said, am I crazy? The students at Harvard are the same as the ones at the community college. We realized there really was similarity. So we needed that geographic reach. We have over 250 colleges and universities in the PIL volunteer sample that we could contact at any one time and ask if they want to participate in the study when we got funding. That gave us access to one in eight college students in the US so we could really shake out a sample that was representative of, as times changed, different political affiliations and also different geographic regions and different types of schools, community colleges, state, public, four year smaller schools, larger, huge public schools.

So I think the project is unique. in that sense. I think our study has lasted the longest around the information literacy as far as coming back and asking a different question. At one point I was doing a report a year.

Troy Swanson: It’s so amazing and I could see so many of us are so busy doing our day to day jobs, and we try to do our assessment, we try to be data driven. But if you come in and say, “Hey, let me study your students and I’ll share this information and put it in context of this cohort.” I mean, just immensely how immensely valuable that could be for us on the job.

Alison Head: Well, you know, and that was part of the formula that actually David Nasatir and I came up with one summer as we were formulating PIL, the board member that I was referring to that was so experienced, and I said, “What could the model be? What would drive somebody to want to be involved in this study? I mean, we can do IRB, we can say we’re at University of Washington, but why would they wanna participate?” And really, I think the thing that sweetened the deal is just like you’re saying, Troy, we would come into a campus and say, “We’re expert researchers. We’ll deal with IRB, which nobody wants to do, and I think I’ve done over 88 IRBs. We’ll get it through and we’ll stay on track. We’ll cover all the costs, we’ll pay student incentives for surveys, which was paid by funders, and, we’ll give you your data.”

And the first time that we did this, we approached Harvard with that. Harvard was our test case because we figured if we could get stuff through Harvard, we probably could get stuff through a lot of institutions. And Harvard’s response was, the person at Harvard was, don’t ever separate us out. We don’t wanna end up in the New York Times about Harvard students being Wikipedia users compared to everybody else.

So that became a really interesting thing for us to know as we proceeded and internally, we called it the Harvard Rule. And the Harvard Rule was, you never out a school and say, these are the students here. So the data, to talk like a researcher, was aggregated and then we would give, for instance, you, Troy, at Moraine, we would give you a data set and also a summary of how your students differed from the entire sample.

It’s about $25,000 worth of research that fell into your lap that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. So, I think there were some real advantages with that model, and it continued to work with us till the end. The interesting thing is some institutions when we would have a call would be so competitive and do anything to get in the sample, but we were looking at geographic distribution as well as diversity in later years, so it really was just a formula. It wasn’t, we didn’t play favorites.

Troy Swanson: Well that’s fantastic. I was so excited to read, your retrospective, that came out this past fall. And also because I know so many people at PIL, but I feel like I’ve been along on this journey and read the studies as they’ve come out. So could you tell us about that retrospective, what it is, why we might wanna look it up? And also, I think just to celebrate a little bit, like, you know, it’s this capstone of all this work.

Alison Head: Yeah. Thanks. Thank you so much. I really owe a lot of thanks to Margy MacMillan on the team, as well as Barbara Fister, Steven Geofrey, also Alaina Bull and Kirsten Hostetler on the project. Kirsten’s at a community college, actually, in Oregon. I owe them huge thanks. If we summarized what PIL was, if we bookend it. We’re gonna end PIL. We knew we were gonna end it and sunset the project at the end of 2022. And it was, you know, midyear. We thought, what are we gonna do here? We knew the proceedings piece that we had written had gotten cited a lot. And that was when I spoke at ACRL, God, I don’t know, in like 2012 or something, a long time ago. And that was a good summary of what PIL was. The infographics always did well and we thought we should really come back and write a summary that’s readable, that’s short. It’s only 22 pages. It’s our shortest report ever, and that has, thanks to Steven Geofrey, a beautiful layout and really summarizes the information well.

So what we did with the retrospective was it was challenging because we always do peer review and before we publish anything, internal peer review and external, and the comment that we heard was, don’t brag about yourself too much, which was funny because we wanted to, quite honestly, and we were kind of blown away by, some of the things that we found. So we toned down the language a little bit and I think the data itself stands on its own to say this is a significant body of work. And, so the report is actually, just broken down into about four sections.

It’s very readable, it’s very accessible. You could use it in a class. It will go with the digital archive that we’re working with a university on as a backgrounder so that people have an idea if they run across PIL, they’ll be able to read this document and find out what it was if they’re unfamiliar. So that was the purpose behind it, besides tooting our own horn and kind of bookending the project. What we did was something I’ve wanted to do, and Margy and Barbara and I did this where we did a summary of all 12 studies. A lot of times if I speak, people will say, “Well, what are your favorite findings? What are the most significant findings from PIL?” And we were able to do that in a table that’s very straightforward, that lays out the sample, where the data was collected and how the data was collected as well as the key findings. I think those summaries, cuz Margy and I were working on them, we worked really closely together on the project. We knew we hit the sweet spot when there were about a hundred words. So it’s hard to summarize a PIL report in a hundred words considering that most reports have, I don’t know, 100 – 150 findings. So that was a good exercise.

The other thing that is in the report that has a lot of value and it did for us, was a citation analysis that Margy McMillan and Steven Geofrey did, which is phenomenal. I mean, it looks at over 2,500 citations of PIL research that appears in other peer reviewed journals and theses and other sources. And what we were able to do was to do a geographic, explanation of, I love the map that Steven produced of where year by year, PIL’s reports were being cited and you realize something we didn’t know: the international impact of PIL’s research.

Another measure is over time, when did PIL, the individual studies, where did they get cited? How many times were they cited? And then thanks to Barbara Fister who said, tell me what disciplines, so if you wanted to do research in this area, this is a good primer for you because it will tell you, gee, you know this particular study, study by study, really started picking up speed in 2011, and then educators began looking at it as well as these other disciplines. It’s not just librarians. And that was a surprise to us. And if we hadn’t done this report, we wouldn’t have that data. So it’s a good read.

Troy Swanson: Yeah, and when I look at, especially the summaries in there, you almost have to put yourself back in time to what it was like to be a librarian in 2000 or 1999 and how far we’ve come because if you’ve been on the journey with PIL, like many of us have, those findings are like, yeah, this is what we’ve learned along the way. But we didn’t know any of that back when we started. I started when Google was brand new and the idea of actually teaching research, like it was exploding and the idea of the need for information literacy.

And those pieces in there, are such a nice capstone to everything. And I did want to ask about some of these specific findings. And one that I’d really like you to be able to talk about is this idea of student research habit, the impact of familiarity and habit driving research and not necessarily librarians. Could you explain that a little bit?

Alison Head: Yeah, that came out in our early research and was consistent. Libraries are used, but librarians aren’t, and we make that distinction as as we move ahead. And at one point it appears in one of the PIL reports, the freshman study actually, that we published in 2013, all the lore that goes with the misunderstandings of what librarians actually do, which I found fascinating. We ended up having a breakout table what incoming students thought about librarians, which explains their hesitancy to approaching them.

I think of one student in particular, just by example, Latina, who’s at a community college and I interview her, and I said, “What about the reference desk? Did you ever go there?” And she said, “Oh no, those are for certain students that, well, they weren’t good enough to get in, but they let them in on a provisional basis basically, so they get to use the librarians, and, other people don’t. I can’t stand in that line.” So that was fascinating, that I think that distance between librarians and students from the student perspective that a lot of librarians didn’t see.

The familiarity and habit, we saw it over and over in the early PIL studies, and it was shocking. I mean, we asked the same question twice in those surveys of, what steps do you take to do research? Now, that would be a more difficult question. It was much more defined in those early days, if you think back. A student could actually even say, “I look at social media for ideas or post something.”

But in the early days, research really was, using a handful of different resources. And in that handful, I’m also including library databases as students would call them. And what we found is students had the same, they took the same steps usually with Google first and then Wikipedia. And, slowly getting towards being able to do a search in a library database, usually talk about familiarity and habit.

Something that a librarian had recommended in, maybe a comp class as an orientation. And that stuck, the first time I heard that it was in a focus group at a liberal arts school, a quite good liberal arts school, and the student said, “I always use Sparks Notes and A librarian told me to use it.” And somebody in the focus group, I love students and when they take on another student, somebody in focus group said, “But you know, how did you get through the science requirement?” And she said, “I did a paper on the metaphor of cancer in literature and used Sparks Notes,” and that got her through and she said, “And I got an A!”

What we ended up saying, I always like this, that students used a small compass, that they really didn’t see all the resources that librarians in particular and libraries could provide to them. They were really creatures of habit. In the retrospective, we talk about how students took the safest course and, they saw research as rote. when I think librarians see it as exploration. And our freshman study really was so revealing of those first year students where they came in excited about research topics, but by the time they had to figure out how to use resources often from the library or elsewhere from their classes, they felt so ratcheted down that the creativity, disappeared and they felt tremendously under pressure in a new environment and God forbid that they’d flunk out of college their first semester.

So I think the pressures that are put on students as well as the narrowness of how research gets conducted leads to this habit of familiarity and habit. And I don’t know how much it’s changed quite honestly. You still hear it.

Troy Swanson: Well, all of us fall into that in some ways, and so it probably hasn’t, and I think the important thing probably is that we need to recognize it and think about how we can intervene. In the retrospective, you talk about the importance of widening the lens. Could you unpack that a little bit for me?

Alison Head: You know, I think PIL did a good job and it was progressive. Often, we would do a study and a report would come out. I would present a lot and through discussions with librarians and educators, we would have the next question we wanted to ask. We often knew the direction we were gonna go in, but it was through those kinds of conversations, especially with speaking that that became crystallized, that allowed us, and as the information landscape changed, to widen our lens. I think in the beginning we intentionally widened the lens by looking at everyday life research and also course research and seeing those as two very different things and that was kind of the beginning of that tradition.

I remember when Mike Eisenberg and I were applying for an IMLS grant and kind of thinking through PIL and where it was headed next in the early days, because we were on that project as co-directors for about four or five years, and he was the founding dean of the iSchool. And I’ll never forget it, it was in a room with a whiteboard and he was writing all over it frantically. And I said, “But Mike, what happens the day after graduation?” And that became our obsession and trying to get IMLS to fund that of what happens to recent grads. And I felt that was an interest I had as a professor. I used to ask students, what’s the most important thing you take from college? You know, is it Maslow’s theory? The hierarchy of needs? Is that applicable to your entire life?

But what was wonderful and really exhilarating was having the opportunity in 2014 to 2016, to do that research with recent grads and talk about what information skills they had learned and taken from college that they used in their life now. Presenting information was high as well as finding information and evaluating it. Probably the most damning, I think finding from PIL is only 28% said that they had developed the ability to ask questions. There’s just not time, and it wasn’t included.

That is also something we talk about in the report, the need for agency with students, not only widening the lens of what we looked at. We looked at the workplace and what happens when students make that transition, but we also looked at what happens to their community involvement as lifelong learners, but then later in later years, widening the lens of how they found news and integrated news into their lives. So we got very broad in the end. I have a journalist friend who said, yeah, I call those the zeitgeist studies. When you really started looking at what was happening in the world, and the research at PIL placed itself within that context and tried to ask questions. I think certainly with the algorithm study, which was somewhat prescient, at the time.

Troy Swanson: Right, right. Can you talk a little bit more about that agency idea? I do think that’s so fascinating.

Alison Head: You know, agency, we’re talking a lot. I’m on research sabbatical now till the spring, but we meet every week and in fact, I met today with the team because… Well, I mean, we’re pretty close and we still like talking about ideas and what we would do next.

 What fascinates us about agency, is student agency. Alaina Bull was the lead on this article that ended up in Lead Pipe last year. And, it got quite a bit of attention, it was called “Dismantling Evaluation.” and recognizing that students bring expertise in agency to the classroom. We really learned that, in particular, on the algo study when we interviewed faculty as well as students in that study, it was qualitative and what we found is students were aware of algorithms more than faculty, by the way, that we interviewed, and that, they had deeper concerns than faculty and probably most significantly, They had what we call defensive practices or ways to kind of end run algorithms. And whether that was using a VPN or Duck Duck Go, or having several different profiles, was much more, insightful and useful and hands on towards algorithmic literacy than what we heard from faculty. Which often said, well, I just go to the New York Times and then I don’t have to worry.

As the information landscape becomes more and more ruptured, students may have a certain amount more of agency or things to say in a classroom, and I think what the “Dismantling Evaluation” piece does is we’ve gotta stop looking at teaching evaluation as reactive and start teaching it as proactive, that information is an agent and has agency and works on us as well as students bring knowledge to the classroom. It’s rarely recognized. If you think of what I said before, that students in the freshman study were excited coming in, and that was dampened. And I’m not saying librarians alone do that, but it’s part of the college experience and it’s unfortunate, you know, you don’t often pick it up till you’re a doctoral student again. At least that was my experience.

Troy Swanson: Right. I can see that. And it’s in some of it’s the constraints of the system and some of it’s other pieces. After 14 years of work, and you’ve touched on this some, but what’s the big picture takeaways? Like, how do we think differently about information literacy than we did at the beginning? You know, some of this is through the research findings of PIL, but also just more broadly, as someone that is in that perspective of across our profession, talking to people and has taken us on this journey, how do you see where we’ve been and maybe where we are now?

Alison Head: I think we’re much more aware of students and what their roles are in the research process, and I think we understand what their process is in a way that we hadn’t before. I had developed a model of context early on in PIL’s work. It’s not so much what’s your research question? It’s what do you already know about this? And what’s familiar and what’s exciting, and I think research has changed, in that. I mean, you think about the flipped classroom even from years ago now, and how that changed the process, and that information literacy under those circumstances has had to adapt to that. Of course, we’ve seen CRAAP die, as an evaluation methodology, which worked in the old days and worked for a long time and everybody taught it. We even used it as a frame in the early PIL studies.

 We see information literacy needing to move towards, more proactive recognition of what’s happening with information systems, and how they play on us and all of that’s shifted. I think, you know, to be in information literacy. It depends how much you like complexity, but it’s gone from something that was fairly straightforward to something with the introduction of algorithms and misinformation and disinformation, it’s become phenomenally complex as well as how information systems work.

So I think those are the biggest changes that, have, have caused us to think differently. At the same time, and I don’t mean to give short shrift to things like critical librarianship and diversity and IDE and libraries that are unionizing now. I mean, this is a really different place, who’s drawn to work in it. And I think that’s significant too. And who wants to initiate change and how and in what areas.

Troy Swanson: And the idea of agency almost, what’s our agency? There’s so much. Yeah. It’s so great. As you’re wrapping this up, what’s next for PIL? How are you gonna build on this? And what’s the future look like?

Alison Head: Well, we’re kind of in the halcyon days, which has been really fun. I mean, people that work with me on the team or people that know me, I’m a little different, and I like to think about things differently. So I pulled the team together because there were a number of us after the college study ended and the retrospective. was published, there were a number of us that said, what do we do about working together? I mean, we built this relationship for years. We really do enjoy friendships as well as collegiality, as well as exchanging different ideas, and we all have different backgrounds. So we have what we call kind of the “Post-PIL movement,” which is while PIL’s on a research sabbatical and me as well, we’re meeting once a week and talking about, as I framed it up, if you could do something different than PIL, what would it be? What bound us in with PIL?

And it’s not that I’m sick of college students. I mean, I taught for 25 years. It’s probably my favorite demographic still and one I know really well and got to know even better during the research and I really like so many people that I get to work with in that space. But I have been feeling the need to have a much bigger sample, like 16 to 90, what would information literacy look like if you broke it out of a college and thought about it overall, especially in a divided America, that led to discussions with this group of colleagues that we have once a week where we began talking about news avoidance and doom scrolling. And, where is hope? and how do people search for hope? I mean, if you look at Google Trends, one of the biggest, searches in the last year has really been about affirmation and it’s been very positive. How’s this all add up? And this has led us to have interest in, a number of different things. Information worlds, how do people construct these different information worlds, the public sphere, which was this idealized version essential to democracy. Well, that’s blowing up. So what are information worlds look like now? How would you define ’em? I don’t wanna write a book about this.

So we’re thinking about a project around that, as well as information agency. Who sets a path with a definitive end in mind for some sort of resolution to be a critical thinker. Who is that person in America today, no matter what their political affiliation is? And so that interests a lot us a lot. Algorithmic literacy, which a lot of people ask me about, which has been an interest of mine for a long time. I think this whole idea of information worlds as well as information agency, so that’s the space we’re looking at. We’re looking at, of course we won’t have the sample, so we’re looking at if we hired a company like Qualtrics to do a survey, what would that look like? How would that change our production and, the reliability of the data and everything, and the things that would be advantageous, including a sample from 16 to 90 would be ideal. So we’re exploring.

Troy Swanson: If I could put together a team that was gonna use information literacy to save democracy, I think your team would be at the top of the list, so I would encourage you.

Alison Head: You know, I appreciate it. It’s of course a kind of a heavy burden, but, it’s usually how we end, you know, can we really pull this off and how could we pull it off? Our work will build on what we’ve learned from PIL and I think expand it and that’s what we hope to do. I can’t do it forever, but once I end a study, I always find myself asking other questions. At heart, I’m a researcher.

Troy Swanson: Let me just, offer my congratulations on the great work that’s been done, so far, and I look forward to seeing what comes down the road. If our listeners wanted to contact you, where can they find you online?

Alison Head: Okay. on Twitter, thanks to Margy McMillan who maintains that for us dutifully, we’re @projectinfolit and then, the site is And by email there’s a contact, link at the bottom of the PIL site. If you want to get real boring, we do have an entry on Wikipedia that we keep up. Our publications are on the site as well as also on ERIC. All of our materials are open access. Yay. We only publish in open access journals. So, we’re out there, we’re available and it’s probably. contributed to our reach as well. So contact me if you have questions. I’m always happy to hear from you. We’re a small team, but we really respond. I’m really out there.

Troy Swanson: That’s fantastic. Okay, well thank you so much, Allison, for your time today.

Alison Head: Thank you. Thanks for asking me. It was really fun. I hope to hear from some of your listeners. Take care!