Zappos and Library Instruction: Caveat Emptor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Librarian needs an engaging and effective way to teach a class of undergrads how to use the library’s shiny new discovery tool. Knowing that good pedagogy begins with students’ existing knowledge and experience and builds on those to create new knowledge, she begins her one-shot session by visiting the online shopping site, Zappos.com. Zappos, best known for shoes, uses a facet structure similar to that of most discovery tool interfaces. Students know how to buy shoes, and can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources. Our librarian can even ad lib a few jokes on how much librarians love sensible shoes.

Some version of this lesson plan resurfaces among librarians with some frequency. It came up in a discussion on teaching with discovery tools at LOEX 2013. In October my good friend Daniel posted his thoughts about using Zappos in a one-shot session, eliciting numerous positive responses. And at an ALA 2014 conference session on threshold concepts, the Zappos metaphor showed up again, followed by several tweets of approval. As if to confirm that librarians are head over shoes for Zappos, there was even a tour of Zappos’s headquarters in Las Vegas on the ALA conference schedule.

So why does this bother me? I’m not necessarily opposed to using a commercial website in my teaching, and besides, thought-provoking pieces on libraries and the neoliberal condition already exists here and here. My problem with using Zappos in library instruction is pedagogical, and stems from the flawed assumption on which this teaching strategy is based: Students know how to buy shoes, and can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources. Let’s consider each part of this statement in turn.

1. Students know how to buy shoes.
Let’s dispatch with this first assumption quickly. While the premise appears simple enough, my critical theorist readers have already noted that the librarian has actually imposed a particular version of American middle-class experience on her classroom. She imagines that her students buy shoes at Zappos.com, have sufficient disposable income to spend an average $130 per order [1], and belong to a socioeconomic group for whom shopping online is both ubiquitous and natural. If her students do not share this particular experience, then the pedagogical value of the Zappos demo is much diminished. Maybe her students do shop online, but don’t like Zappos. Will students negative feelings toward Zappos be applied to the library, library-provided databases, or the instruction session itself? Even worse, the librarian could inadvertently alienate students who can’t afford Zappos’s prices, or don’t shop online. The digital divide is still a problem, and is not always a function of socioeconomic status.[2] In sum, it makes pedagogical sense to begin with students’ existing knowledge, but we must take care not to assume students share our own professional or socioeconomic experiences.

2. Students can apply their online shopping skills to better navigate the database of information sources.
Moving past the pitfalls explored above, let’s get to the heart of the matter and explore the utility of comparing the Zappos interface with that of the typical library database. On the surface, the Zappos website and the typical library database have much in common. Both provide a basic search box, and both include some kind of facet structure that allows users to filter results according to preset categories. And that’s where the similarities end.

First, students know what a shoe is. Before the shopping begins, students already have ideas about what kinds of shoes they like, what kinds of shoes they need, what size they wear, what styles are appropriate for social situations they will encounter, and perhaps even which brands have the best reputation for quality or cultural cachet. Most of this knowledge has been acquired and reinforced over time, and is deployed subconsciously, allowing the shopper to focus on finer details to make a final selection. Students often lack this innate understanding when it comes to scholarly communication. Most students are just learning about the style and structure of academic writing, the values associated with peer-review and high-impact factor journals, the nature and appropriate uses of different information sources. Equating the search techniques of shoe shopping and information seeking may give students the false impression that selecting an information source is as simple as checking off criteria from a list of options: Peer-reviewed journal, check. Relevant subject heading, check. Recent date, check. If the article fits, cite it.

Second, students buy shoes, but must create knowledge. In our online shopping scenario, once a desirable pair of shoes has been identified, the consumer completes the purchase, receives the product, tries it on, and either wears it or returns it for another size or style. The equivalent process when writing a research paper might mean finding an article on the right subject, selecting a quote and fitting it into an already written paper. If the professor says the source doesn’t work, the student finds a new one to substitute. Thus, the Zappos metaphor reinforces the notion of information as a static consumer good, to be acquired, used, and exchanged like fashion accessories.

But conducting academic research should be so much more. Students are tasked with gathering information sources, analyzing and critiquing them, generating questions, and combining information sources with their experience and collected data to create new knowledge. The Zappos equivalent of an actual research project would mean gathering shoes, investigating how and why they were made and by whom, worker conditions throughout the manufacturing and supply chain, and then dismantling the shoes to discover their internal structures in order to then build one’s own shoe based on the knowledge gained from studying an array of styles, materials, and cobbling techniques. The analogy is almost comical at this point, but highlights the chasm separating shoe shopping from information literacy that may be obscured by a seemingly innocuous teaching metaphor.

In the end, the similarity between the Zappos website and a library database exists only at the mechanical level, and fails to advance student learning of critical thinking and research skills that we aim for in our information literacy instruction. Furthermore, the potential harm of alienating learners who don’t share the experiences of middle-class online consumers is a high risk to take for relatively low-level learning outcomes, and seems to contradict librarians’ efforts to infuse critical theory and social justice into our pedagogy. Add to that Zappos’s questionable relationship with the privacy of their employees [3], and I don’t see how we can salvage the Zappos metaphor for information literacy instruction.

 


1Zappos average order value (AOV) was $130 when it was acquired by Amazon. See “Analysis and retailer impact of Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos,” ChannelAdvisor Blog (July 24, 2009). Available online at http://www.amazonstrategies.com/2009/07/thoughts-on-the-amazon-acquisition-of-zappos.html. Accessed July 7, 2014.

2In Louisiana, only 2 out of 3 households have broadband Internet, and in a 2012 survey, Louisiana respondents who lack Internet access imagine using it to communicate with friends or to find information, not for commercial activity.

3Adam Auriemma, “Zappos Zaps Its Job Postings,” Wall Street Journal (May 26, 2014). Available online at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304811904579586300322355082. Accessed July 2, 2014.

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