digital literacy

Tag: digital literacy

See through the Internet: workshop handout

See through the internet handoutI designed a new 30-minute workshop for students this semester called “See through the internet: 8 questions & answers about how the internet really works.” I’ve given it a total of 1 time so far, to 2 people, today, but am scheduled for several more later in the semester. The subject matter is close to my heart, though, so I look for any opportunity to share this material. Perhaps you’ll find it useful, too. Here’s a draft summary of the workshop curriculum. Note that it is aimed as an intro for undergrad students.

Download handout as a PDF or just read below.

See through the internet
8 questions & answers about how the internet really works

When is “the cloud” not a cloud?

All the time. What we think of as a wireless, wispy cloud is in fact made up of a vast network of wires, servers, hubs, and buildings. When you access your email or Dropbox or other cloud-based services, your computer is sending a request for files from another physical computer that lives somewhere else in the world.

Further watching: Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors: video tour of network hubs and discussion from experts

How does a website get to your computer?

Pick a website and copy its URL. We’ll use here as an example.

On a Mac: Open Terminal (search for the program) and type traceroute

On a PC: Open Command Prompt (Start menu » All programs » Accessories) and type tracert

Browser option: Go to and choose traceroute (it’ll be testing from Pingdom’s computers, though, not yours). Type in the URL and submit.

The traceroute from Pingdom for
The traceroute from Pingdom for

Traceroute will show you all the routers (internet connector points) your computer must contact to request to access a webpage. It’s tracing a map across the city, or even the country, or even the world as your request travels from router to router to find the server (special computer) that hosts the website (stores the website’s files). Think of it like a highway that connects many cities: if you’re driving from San Diego to Seattle, the highway doesn’t go straight there — it also runs through other big cities like L.A. and San Francisco, because traffic is more efficient that way.

Each router or server will display an IP address, the numerical address that only that machine is assigned. So “” is actually just a human-readable version of the real web address for the New York Times, which is, a computer that is probably downtown. In between your computer and, there are many other IP addresses. Using some internet sleuthing skills, you can find out where these IP addresses are located geographically and/or who owns them.

When to use this: Use traceroute when you want to visualize how far away a website is, or when you want to diagnose whether a website is not loading because of a problem with your network, the website itself, or somewhere in between.

Further reading: Seeing Networks (NYC edition): a visual guide to the physical network in New York City

Read more

The Murder Mystery Challenge: a pilot project with an impressive turnout

Mystery Challenge

This article was originally published in Lloyd Sealy Library’s biannual newsletter, Classified Information, Fall 2013 (PDF).

Update: In Fall 2014, we updated this game in response to student feedback »

See also: poster presented at CUNY Games Festival in January 2014 »

Each fall, the Library offers multiple venues for first-year students to acquaint themselves with basic college research skills. Librarians visit classes, students attend drop-in workshops, and—this year for the first time—students also participated in the Murder Mystery Challenge.

For two weeks in October (plus a two-day extension due to popular demand), the Library was the site of a puzzle competition. Students looked through historical resources to “solve” a 1921 murder case based on a trial transcript in the Library’s Special Collections that concerned a man shot in midtown. The trial brought forth the testimony of several witnesses and acquaintances of the murderer. From these testimonies, and with input from Prof. Marta Bladek, I put together a five-part puzzle that guided students through using typical Library resources. (You can read through all of the clues + answers in this Murder Mystery Clues Printout PDF [8 MB].) Most of the clues require online research, and one clue requires students to venture into the stacks to find a particular book by its call number. Answers were recorded and timestamped for librarians to assess.

Mystery ChallengeOur desired learning outcomes were basic research skills (finding books and articles) as well as team-based learning and gaining familiarity with the study spaces and friendly staff in the Library.

Teams of four or five first-years were led by trained Peer Mentors from their First-Year Seminar courses. For an hour each day, the Library saw teams arrive in happy groups and scurry to decipher the clues in the narrative we created.

Mystery ChallengeWith the invaluable help of Student Academic Success Programs (SASP), we arranged coveted prizes for the top three teams who answered accurately and most quickly: catered lunches in the Faculty Dining Room, $20 Amazon gift cards, $10 Barnes & Noble gift cards, and New York Times tote bags and travel mugs.

Over 75 first-year students grouped in 19 teams participated in the Challenge. The teams averaged 33 minutes to complete the Challenge, ranging from 11 to 46 minutes.

In a survey sent out after the teams completed the Challenge, students gave us feedback. Each of the 23 students who responded told us two things they learned. All 23 said they learned how to find a book in the library, and 17 also mentioned learning about finding articles or using databases. On a scale of 1 (no fun) to 5 (very fun), students rated the activity at a 3.5.

Mystery ChallengeSelected representative student comments on their experience and suggestions for improving the activity:

  • It’s actually a great way to interact, get competitive and have fun with your peers.
  • Make it more like a murder mystery challenge and less like a way to learn how to use the library.
  • I think it would if been more fun if it wasn’t mostly done online. Also if it was more of a scavenger hunt.
  • Make it more challenging.

Overall, it was a successful pilot project. We’ll tweak and refine the activity, taking into account student input. We hope to stage this event again next fall!


You can read through all of the clues + answers in this Murder Mystery Clues Printout PDF (8 MB).

Google educational materials

As I loitered in our systems manager’s office, I noticed he had a great Google poster up on the wall:

Better searches, better resultsIt’s kinda old, but the tips still work! I did some googling when I had a minute to find out if they offered that posters for downloads, and lo and behold, there’s a whole trove of educational material from Google. Their ‘lesson plan search‘ page has a handful of posters like the one above.

However, it seems like a lot of that information is pretty outdated. You can tell both by the logo and by the text itself. I updated one of the posters by pasting in new screenshots and adding a paragraph to tip #4:

Anatomy of a google searchThe PDF (2 MB) prints out to 17×22 inches.

I’m hoping they’ll update their educational collection, but in the meantime, I might go ahead and revise/recreate some of the other useful posters.

Rethinking what I do as an emerging tech librarian

I get asked often what it is I do, exactly, and I still don’t have my elevator pitch down pat. I usually choose to view that as a good thing, because I value the freedom to explore new territories and direct my own projects. However, a few recent reads have given me pause, and I’m rethinking my approach to my job as the new semester looms.

But first, a general look: what are other emerging tech librarians doing?

Duties & skills

At the end of April, IFLA published a paper by Tara Radniecki titled “Study on emerging technologies librarians: how a new library position and its competencies are evolving to meet the technology and information needs of libraries and their patrons.” It’s a quantitative attempt to answer the question of what people with that title do, know, and wish they knew. Radniecki compares job ads to survey responses with interesting results. A few insights from her paper, which is certainly worth a read, interspersed with my unsolicited personal opinions:

  • 41.8% of job ads cite reference as a duty; 72% of librarians reported doing reference work. Similarly, 38.8% of job ads cite info literacy and instruction as a duty; 61% of librarians reported doing instructional work.
    • This aligns with my own experience as an ETL. I never took a reference or instruction class for my MLIS, assuming that I wouldn’t be doing traditional librarianship. Although my job’s description didn’t mention reference/instruction, I’m at the reference desk a few hours a week, and in fact I really value it — otherwise I might not work with students face-to-face at all, which would be a terrible place to start when designing systems and interfaces for them.
  • 23.9% of job ads required skills/experience in social media, web 2.0, and outreach.
    • I’m surprised it’s not a higher percentage. I’m of the opinion that all librarians ought to be familiar with social media. Look, this time last year, I would have rolled my eyes at this — it’s such an old buzzword by now — and yet I’ve seen too many academic people/departments fail to grasp online social etiquette.
  • 94% of librarians surveyed said they needed additional skills in computer programming and coding, versus only 16.4% of job ads requiring those skills and 10.4% preferring them.
    • Yes. I came into my position with years of web experience but minimal programming skills. One thing I’ve enjoyed is the impetus to get up to speed on web tech, Python, and code libraries I might not have otherwise had reason to, but it can be rough playing catch-up so much of the time.

Still, looking at numbers and general duties, it’s hard to see what ETLs do. As for me, some of my projects are the usual deliverables — design/upgrade/maintain library website, for example — and others are more playful, like tinkering with Arduino. (You can see a quick summary of my first year’s projects here.) So what exactly are others up to? I suppose that’s what discussion groups, online networks, and excitable conversations are for. And in fact, CUNY librarians, the first Emerging Tech Committee meeting of the year is coming up! 

Tech criticism

“Librarian Shipwreck” wrote a long-ish response to Radniecki’s paper in a July blog post entitled, “Will Technological Critique Emerge with Emerging Technology Librarians?” (h/t Patrick Williams). The post is pretty prickly, and sometimes unfair, and its metaphors abound — but here’s one choice quote that I’m 100% behind (after the first clause):

But for the ETL to have any value other than as another soon-to-crumble-levy against the technological tide, what is essential is that the position develop a critical stance towards technology. A stance that will benefit libraries, those libraries serve, and hopefully have an effect on the larger societal conversation about technology. […] A critical stance towards technology allows for librarians to act as good stewards not only of public resources but also of public trust.

This summer has thrown the imperative of technology criticism into sharp relief for me. At the EMDA Institute, we spent a few days examining how EEBO came to be, perhaps best described in an excellent upcoming JASIST article by Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization.” As a room well-populated with early modern scholars, we thought we knew what it was, but after talking about its invisible labor (TCP), obscured histories (war, microfilm), and problematic remediations, we were struck by how EEBO is just one relatively benign instance of a black box we might use daily. What does it take to really know where your resource comes from, and why it is the way it is?

Moreover, the summer of surveillance leaks is exacerbating our collective ignorance of and anxieties about the technologies we rely on every day. I suspect few of us are changing our web habits at all, despite the furor. I talk about it daily, yet I struggle to understand what’s really going on — let alone how I should respond professionally. Originally, I viewed my function at John Jay as a maker, creator, connector of technologies. But technology is never neutral, and I’m starting to see pause and critique as part of my charge, too.

Digital literacy

When our digital world works, it’s beautiful. When it doesn’t, it’s a black box — a black hole — that can frustrate conspicuously or break invisibly. How can we, for instance, impart to students the level of digital literacy required to understand how a personalized search engine works and how it might fail them, when it so frictionlessly serves up top results they’ll use without scrolling below the fold? Marc Scott penned a popular July blog post titled “Kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you.” I won’t summarize — you should read it. Twice.

Librarians have taught students information literacy for a long time. While knowing how to spot a scholarly resource from a dud is essential, understanding systems is now equally necessary, but harder to teach — and harder to grasp, too.


So there’s where I am: trying to understand the ethics of being an emerging technologies librarian; overplanning making things and delivering on projects; prioritizing instructing students, colleagues, and peers about things I struggle to comprehend or explain; simultaneously expecting myself to embody a defensive paranoia and a wild exploratory spirit.