Understanding ESL/International Students’ Experiences Using Canadian Academic Libraries: A Proposal
Research Problem
Research Questions
Data Collection
Ethics Review
Implementation Plan
Dissemination Plan
Project Budget

Review of Related Literature

International Student Demographics

ESL/International students are a small but rapidly growing minority in North American academic institutions. Louise W. Greenfield (1989) noted that “in the 1986/87 academic year, there were almost 350,000 international students on campuses throughout the United States” (45). Nearly ten years later, the international student population in the United States was nearly 439,000 and growing (Moeckel and Presnell 1995) and it was expected to reach one million by 2000 (Macdonald and Sarkodie-Mensah 1988). “Increasingly these students do not originate from Western Europe, but from a wide range of non-Western cultures” (Moeckel and Presnell 1995: 310). Unfortunately, no similar studies from Canada were found. However, the student population at U of A is 34,617. 4,139 of those students are non-Canadian citizens; that is 11.9% of the population (see appendices).

Language Barriers

In the published results from a library project with Chinese students, Lopez (1983) found that international students could read and write English well, but because they were not accustomed to hearing it, they had difficulty competently conversing in English. The results from Zimming Liu’s (1993) in-person interviews with international students supported Lopez’ observations. Most international students must pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in order to attend a North American academic institution. At the University of Alberta international students must score between 580 and 600 on the TOEFL depending on their program of choice (University Calendar, 2005/2005). However, many of these students “still lack adequate English vocabulary, including library terminology” (Liu 1993, 27). Moeckel and Presnell (1995) estimated that international students have only 50% of the reading comprehension required and less than 50% of required oral comprehension. This inadequacy was especially prominent among Japanese students, who often cannot converse in English despite six years of studying the language in high school (Hendricks 1991; Liestman 2000).

In the UK, Philip C. Howze and Dorothy M. Moore (2003) did a field test of “a multilingual glossary of terms related to the use of library-based technology” with 153 students for whom English was not their native language. “Degrees of knowledge ranged from not understanding enough English to know what a term meant, to knowing what a term meant to the degree of being able to explain it to others. The majority of students believed that such a glossary would be helpful when using the library, as well as other library materials presented in translation” (Howze and Moore 2003).

Cultural Barriers

Cultural differences can also have an adverse effect on international students’ ability to develop their information literacy skills in North America.
Foreign students for whom English is a second language often will have not only comprehension problems, but also cultural systems that hinder use of American libraries. This is especially true for those whose primary language and culture is non-Western and doesn’t include concepts we take for granted, such as arranging materials left to right, numbering categories, asking a woman for help, returning materials on time, self-service, questioning the leader and learning outside the classroom (Roberts 1987: 44).

Several authors have noted that many international students come from educational systems where they are expected to memorize information, and to be able to recall and restate it coherently (Roberts 1987; Martin 1994). Macdonald and Sarkodie-Mensah’s study reported that “[i]n many countries, the predominant teaching method is lecture and recitation; students learn from rote memory and are expected to recall information rather than analyze, synthesize, critique, or expand on it” (1988: 426). Shortly after that, ESL instructor Feldman echoed those findings with his own: “In many countries, it is sufficient for students to show that they understand what the experts in their field have written. In their written papers, students show that they have mastered the experts’ ideas, and that they can restate or synthesize those ideas coherently” (1989: 160-161). Hendricks looked specifically at the Japanese students in his library. “Japanese students have written essays, but never a research paper from source material” (1991: 224). Such students are not accustomed to writing papers by doing independent research and exploring new ideas, and thus may lack the critical thinking/evaluation skills that are integral to information literacy (Feldman 1989; Moeckel and Presnell 1995).

Even by 2000, it seems that little has changed for ESL students. This is evidenced by Liestman who writes:
Too frequently in many less developed countries, public libraries are non-existent and academic libraries may be little more than textbook repositories where clerks retrieve materials from closed stacks. Such differences are reflective of educational systems based on memorization and use of a single text. Consequently many international adult learners have limited library experience (Daniel Liestman 2000: 365-66).

The North American library itself may be a source of confusion. International students from non-Western cultures often are not used to open stacks, easily accessible books, and helpful, trained librarians. Their home country libraries may resemble the North American study hall or book repository (Hendricks 1991; Liu 1993; Martin 1994; Helms 1995; Moeckel and Presnell 1995). Roberts (1987) and Hendricks (1991) both suggested in separate articles that the Western concepts that are so natural to us, “such as arranging materials left to right, numbering categories” (Roberts 1987: 44), are completely foreign to those students whose native language doesn’t use the Roman alphabet.

Several authors also reported a lack of knowledge of library systems such as card catalogues, North American classification systems, abstracts, indexes, journals, subject headings etc. (Roberts 1987; Macdonald and Sarkodie-Mensah 1988; Hendricks 1991; Liu 1993).

Technological Barriers

Technology in the library has also been confusing for some international students. In Allen’s (1993) study to examine “international students’ use of microcomputers for bibliographic access in libraries” (324), the conclusion was that over two-thirds of the participants “might benefit from at least some instruction or orientation to prepare them for using the library” (327). Christopher C. Brown (2000) posited that the World Wide Web had helped to ease the technological gap between North Americans and those from less developed countries. He did not do a survey of his own, but he believes that Allen’s would yield different results if done today.

Information Literacy in Canadian Academic Libraries

Information literacy (formerly known as bibliographic instruction) has seen a revival in the last ten years in both the United States and Canada. Maureen Kilcullen (1998) wrote about the creation of an information literate society as “the current trend in the library profession” (8). At that time, several library organizations were “committed to the task of educating librarians about information literacy and developing competent library and information use as a part of lifelong learning” (Kilcullen, 1998: 8). At the time of her article, very few library schools had formal instructional courses in their curriculums. In the same year, the American Library Association (ALA) had made recommendations that library schools incorporate such a course into their curriculums. In Canada, Heidi Julien and Stuart Boon (2002) did a study, “From the Frontline: Information Literacy Instruction in Canadian Academic Libraries,” which reported “a lack of pedagogical expertise among instructional librarians.” Julien and Boon’s (2002) findings also revealed an alarming lack of financial and administrative support for these programs from many institutions. Librarians in these roles were being stretched too soon, and burnout was a common side effect. One wonders if these attitudes and constraints are the reason libraries in Canada have not addressed the needs of ESL students.

In 1998, Kilcullen was encouraging librarians to learn how to teach effective instructional programs, and her focus was on the users' needs: “Good library instruction should be patron-oriented, begin with patron needs, and concentrate on the learning process rather than library ‘tools.’ Library instruction should remain flexible and should be evaluated. Our practice will be determined by an assessment of the users, not by library need” (10). However in Canada, librarians had mixed attitudes about the value of user evaluation for library instruction. While some librarians were positive about instructional evaluation, others saw little benefit in them, and felt that students were not capable of giving useful evaluation (Julien and Boon, 2002). Julien and Boon’s 2004 study, which was the next part of the 2002 research, highlighted the importance of instructional evaluation. In their study, most students were gaining some benefit from instruction, but not all, and not always in the areas the librarians expected. Evaluations show librarians what is working and what needs improvement. Without evaluation, it is also difficult for librarians “to justify devoting institutional resources to instructional activities” (2004: 121).

Literature Gap

There is an enormous volume of literature that has been written on the subject of ESL/International students in academic libraries. As Kumar and Suresh (2000) wrote, “what we need is not more studies—but a commitment to doing what every study has reported needs to be done” (331). However, there is a very real gap in terms of the currency and location of the research. The majority of the studies were done in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1995, Allen Natowitz published an examination of “18 articles on international students’ use of U.S. academic concerns” (18) to identify common issues and concerns and discuss the proposed solutions. Although his reference list was current then, it has been repeated over and over by subsequent authors. In 2001 Baron and Strout-Dapaz did a project that was a more scientific-looking version of Natowitz’ article. Their reference list was more current, but on further inspection, authors on that list were quoting the same authors in Natowitz’ article; authors from the 1980s or even the 70s. The only original research Kumar and Suresh (2000) did were some qualitative interviews, the results of which were not cited; only referred to as evidence that supported what the earlier literature had said.

It has already been five years since Kumar and Suresh’s article. That alone is long enough to justify another study. And the fact that the majority of sources for these “current” articles are coming from the 1980s to mid-1990s, indicates that new research is needed.

Furthermore, there is the issue of transferability from the American setting to the Canadian one. Can data from an American library transfer to a Canadian library? Despite an exhaustive search, the researcher was unable to find studies on this topic from Canada. There are articles that deal with multiculturalism and immigrants in Canadian public libraries (Nilsen and Yu 2004; Mylopoulos 2004; Nilsen 2004; Kim 2004). The ideas proposed in those articles deal specifically with the community needs of immigrants, and would not cross over to the academic needs of ESL/International students beyond recognition that these groups have special information literacy needs that are worth addressing. Information literacy instruction has become a hot topic in Canada. Articles such as “Information Literacy in Higher Education” by Martha J. Whitehead and Catherine A. Quinlan (2003) and Heidi Julien and Stuart Boon's studies “Information Literacy in Academic Libraries” (2003) stress the importance of information literacy and give evidence that it is beneficial to students’ academic success. Unfortunately, none of the articles found take the next step to consider what the information literacy need of ESL/International students might be, and whether those needs might be different from Canadian students’.

The researcher hopes that this study will be a first step to understanding ESL/International students’ experiences using Canadian academic libraries, and that this understanding will inspire other Canadian researchers to do more studies in this field.

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