Grappling with Unknowns: Building Empathy through Interrogating Preprints in Information Literacy is a poster in the 2020 PNLA Virtual Poster Session. We encourage you to engage in discussion by leaving a comment on the page. The author of the poster will respond to comments the week of August 4-7, 2020.

Presenters: Je Salvador & Penelope Wood

Track: Academic Library

Abstract: We facilitated a structured workshop with colleagues about the rise of preprint publishing during the COVID-19 pandemic. In preparation, we instructed colleagues to read several articles regarding preprints and asked that they imagine themselves as undergrads while reading. We met using conference software, practiced role play, introduced an online “sticky notes” collaboration tool, and solicited verbal input. While librarians engaged ambiguity by imagining the experiences of undergrads in online learning environments, librarians identified potential discomfort in the learning environment and stated empathy for students.

Workshop questions included: Imagine yourself an undergrad, what are your thoughts on these articles and their ideas? Thinking about these articles, identify barriers to pre-major undergrad student engagement in this space.

Librarians expressed care and empathy through imagining how our library’s primary users could be grappling and reckoning with contradicting, rapidly changing scientific information, as well as interrogating misinformation.

After imagining student experiences with these issues, a second set of questions focused on our work as academic librarians. How can we be continually called back to empathy with learners and users during times of upheaval and unknowns? How can imagining and empathizing with students grappling with rapidly changing scientific information and preprints help librarians who are teaching information literacy (IL)? How can librarians include preprints and open access, not yet peer-reviewed information, in IL instruction? We aim for these questions to inform our work as we continue to grapple with unknowns, contradictory information, and IL instruction.


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About the Presenters: Je (said like “Jay”) Salvador embraces he/him, she/her, they/them pronouns. Je was born and raised in Seattle, WA; they lived, learned, and worked in Walla Walla, WA for many years before returning to Seattle. You can ask Je about being a first-generation college graduate. Contact Je at

Penelope Wood (they/them pronouns) is a research and instruction librarian for Engineering and Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies programs at UW Bothell and Cascadia College Campus Library; Penelope strives to decenter power and hierarchy in the classroom through feminist pedagogy. Penelope is a first generation college graduate. Contact Penelope at

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3 years ago

Je and Penelope — thank you for sharing this exercise and poster.

Empathy as a lens for accountability and assessment has been a theme for me this week. It is good to see it as frame to view IL through as well. Do you think empathy (or some other emotional connection) could be used with students to help guide them in IL practices?

Je S.
Reply to  Rick
3 years ago

Hi, Rick:
Thank you for your question! Yes, I think empathy can be used with students to help guide them in IL practices. I try to engage empathy in these ways when I interact with students:

  • I participate with a “beginner’s mindset”– one of our colleagues has reminded me how useful it can be to step back occasionally from our librarian “expert’s mindset” when I’m working with students to try to examine their research process with a fresh lens– very often, their lens is a fresh lens, and this mindset adjustment can help me forge a connection
  • I keep in mind and try to emphasize to students that “research is a conversation in which you can participate” (adapted from ACRL’s Scholarship as Conversation IL tenet). What I like about this is that ‘conversation’ is a “friendly” framework– it takes some of the intimidation factor out of “scholarship” or the “research process”.

Your question has also raised other thoughts for me, like “Can I encourage learners to use their empathy to improve their IL practices?” or “What happens when learners employ empathy as a research practice?”

  • This is by no means the end of it, but recently I’ve really begun to ask learners, when we discuss the Authority Is Constructed and Contextual frame, which voices are participating in the conversation, which voices are dominating the conversation, and which voices are being excluded from the conversation. I think this could be framed as a call to empathy as well as critical thinking, which I how my working community tends to frame it.

I would love to continue a conversation with you about IL and empathy. (I’m particularly interested in learner’s engaging empathy as a research practice. What do you think?)

p. s.
Reply to  Je S.
3 years ago

Hi Rick and Je,

I definitely use empathy in IL instruction, including asking about and centering students’ experiences of how they search and if they are searching for sense making as valid aspects of research skills. Also, by elevating questions on who has had and/or maintains access to contribute in information spaces considered as authoritative surfaces conversations on historically excluded voices, agency, and knowledge creation… very generative.

Thanks for bringing forth the idea of empathy in assessment! Formative assessment in IL is another space where empathy compels me to refine my teaching in the moment for student needs.

I’d love to hear more on your ideas on empathy in assessment and IL!

Je S.
Reply to  p. s.
3 years ago

Hi, p.s.– I love hearing about some of your examples here. I would be really interested in some of the specific formative assessment you engage in. What are your strategies for that?

3 years ago

Did you come up with answers to “How can librarians include preprints and open access, not yet peer-reviewed information, in IL instruction?” I just attended an info literacy conference where many librarians were discussing how scholarly articles are not the be-all/end-all for undergrads and how we should include other information sources.

Je S.
Reply to  Ilana
3 years ago

Hi, Ilana:
Thank you so much for your question. One of the first comments made in the workshop discussion was a reminder that “authority is constructed and contextual”. Several of my coworkers use this idea as a starting place in the online learning activities they develop and provide.
(Related: we were also very interested in interrogating our learners’ other trusted sources that may arise from relationships of care. We have been trying to think of all the many ways in which learners are sense-making in this high-stakes, broadly impactful COVID-19 information landscape.)
In my own current IL instruction, I am able to make time for this emphasis on contextualizing authority and evaluating credibility because I am providing asynchronous learning activities instead of trying to pack several learning objectives into a 50-minute “one-shot” session. This is what’s working for me right now.
I’d be happy to share specific examples or learning objects if you’d like to e-mail me. I imagine Penelope also has some great ideas on this, too!

Reply to  Je S.
3 years ago

Yes, I’ll send you an email 🙂