What is “container collapse” and why should librarians and teachers care?


In 2004, OCLC published Information Format Trends: Content, Not Containers. In the context of this study, “container” meant physical media:

More than ever, content consumers are “format agnostic” in that they do not care much what sort of container—such as a book, journal, blog, or a Web page—the content comes from… For libraries and content sellers, this means the processes of acquisition, organization, and delivery of content need to change to accommodate the expectations of our communities.

In today’s smartphone world, when all of our media can be scrunched down into one device, we face what the research team calls container collapse (#containercollapse). The visual context and cues that print containers provide used to help individuals identify a document’s origins and measure its value. These cues are now obscured or more difficult to discern. In digital format, a document is decanted from its original container and must be carefully examined to determine the journey it took to reach the individual. As knowledge professionals, we care deeply about the origin and authority of the content our users and communities consume.

And guess what? Students care, too!

Digital residents without borders

Almost all media today are available online, and most people have ubiquitous mobile access. How do users identify and evaluate online “resource containers” of information?

To answer this question, colleagues and I are involved in an ongoing study: Researching Students’ Information Choices (RSIC): Determining Identity and Judging Credibility in Digital Spaces. Launched in December 2015 with partners from OCLC, the University of Florida, and Rutgers University, our three-year, IMLS-funded project focuses on students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. Six cohorts (a total of 176 participants) include students from grades 4–5, grades 6–8, grades 9–12, community college, undergraduate, and graduate programs.

As is always the case in these studies, we are making interesting observations and seeing even more challenging questions emerge.

Lost in familiar territory

Ask students if it is important to know the container from which online information comes and they pretty much all say, “Yes,” (though the number decreases with younger students). Students also believe in their own abilities to discern sources, with only 2% of the participants expressing limited confidence in their ability to select online resources for research projects.

So, students say it’s important and that they’re good at it. Are you familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect? Basically, it means two things:

The less you know about something, the more likely you are to overestimate your abilities.

That’s what students are doing. But it also means that:

The more you know about something, the more likely you are to think tasks that are easy for you also are easy for other people.

That’s where we, librarians, can make a difference in the life of the user.

We need better ways to enable students to identify and evaluate information online. Click To Tweet

 “I can just tell.”

After completing our simulated search for a research project, it turns out that student participants were not as good as they thought they were at identifying the value or the identity of the containers they encountered. We asked them to tell us what they were thinking as they selected helpful resources.

Here are some of their qualitative responses:

  • “I can just tell.”
  • “I don’t think I’ve ever been to a website that says it’s not peer reviewed.”
  • “What’s a preprint?”
  • “Can’t take newspapers too seriously.”
  • “Newspapers are more biased these days.”
  • “Local news is the best!”
  • “I don’t really know if New York Times is a journal or a magazine.”
  • “Wikipedia—I would trust it, but a teacher wouldn’t.”
  • “If it is peer reviewed, I’d say it’s highly credible without reading it.”
  • “This is an encyclopedia so I think that’s just a website.”
  • “The government gives straightforward facts and there is no bias.”
  • “I know this is a blog because it’s by a person that wrote it.”
  • “How could I possibly even cite a blog?”
  • “This looks like a journal. It has the abstract at the top.”
  • “This is a journal … because of the feel of it looking like a scholarly article.”
  • “This one’s a blog. Or is it a journal. Or is it a book? It’s a journal.”
  • “This shouldn’t be so hard.”

If the old rules for determining the identity and value of a container no longer serve, how can we expect students to assess the information they discover? How can they tell the scholarly from the popular, the fake news from the fair and principled journalism?

Container distinctions blur online. As the parameters of the containers collapse, we need to find new and better ways to enable students to identify resources and evaluate the value of information.

If you’re interested in this topic, join us at the ALA Annual ACRL STS Research Forum for “Can’t take newspapers too seriously”: Using Simulations to Study Students’ Perceptions and Judgements of Online Scientific Information, Sunday, June 24, 1:00–2:00 PM, Morial Convention Center, Room 208.