January 25, 2017

Not the water cycle or carbon cycle… but the Information Cycle

Posted by Laura Guertin

This is an invited guest post from Annie Jansen, Reference and Instruction Librarian from Penn State Brandywine’s John D. Vairo Library. Her topic of information literacy is an important one for us to address with Earth and space science students, from our introductory-level to advanced courses.


As a librarian, one of the largest parts of my day-to-day job is helping students find appropriate sources for their assignments. This can range from newspapers to books, magazine articles to YouTube videos, scholarly journals to images on Flickr. Most of the time, their instructor has given them clear and concise parameters of what they are expected to produce, but students still struggle to get started. This is where I often jump in. Students ask for help finding sources, and I sit down and ask them what the assignment is, where they’ve looked so far, and what they’ve come up with. I have routinely noticed that students fail to recognize what type of material they should look for, unless specifically stated by their instructor. First year students often think they need to find a book, other students want journal articles because they are fewer pages and therefore don’t take as long to read. What’s missing from these categorizations is the idea of where their topic falls in the information cycle, and therefore, the first step in finding appropriate sources for their topic.

The Information Cycle is an easy concept to understand once presented. The idea that information starts at a certain point in time is often missed by students, especially when their main priority is finding a source to back up their thesis. This is why I have started talking to students about how information progresses through a cycle. If we think of an event occurrence – for instance, the recent tragic plane crash in Colombia – first reports are usually on social media. These are often eyewitness accounts. Soon after, newscasts, on TV, radio, and the internet, will begin to report the event. From there, daily newspapers, then weekly magazines give more in-depth and investigative information, often giving background on the event and its causes and effects. A few months later, academic journals may begin to publish articles focusing on the event in very specific ways. Finally, books and government reports are published. These longer works give in-depth information about the event that could not have been covered in the initial newscasts or weekly magazine articles. When I meet with classes, I show students a short video created by the University of Nevada Las Vegas (see below), and a timeline, to get the point across.

The Information Life Cycle from UNLV Libraries on Vimeo.

If we’re meeting one-on-one, I ask a student to think about the cycle and where his/her topic falls on it. From there, asking a few questions usually gets them to recognize that a book probably is not what they need. Here are my “go-to” questions to get students into the right frame of mind:

  • When did (your topic) happen?
  • Is it ongoing (i.e. racial discrimination) or did it happen on a certain date (i.e. Trayvon Martin shooting)?
  • How long has passed since that date?
the-information-cycle

Image created by A. Jansen

Now that we’ve established a time frame for their event, I pull out a visual representation of The Information Cycle, and proceed with a couple more questions.

  • Where are we on The Information Cycle timeline?
  • What sources do you think will be published about your topic?

This frame of reference usually gets students to think about where their topic falls on the timeline. They can identify that a newspaper article might be a good place to start, or that they can tell that magazine articles and journal articles should have been published on their topic, but that there may not be books available quite yet. The Information Cycle is a jumping off place for research, but knowing what types of sources to look for, and where they fall in the bigger picture of sources, helps students place themselves in the conversation and, with any luck, gives them a better idea of where to start on their next assignment, too.

— Annie Jansen can be reached at amj53@psu.edu