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, 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, 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 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 Accessed July 2, 2014.

Primary Colors: My presentation at LOEX 2014

The LOEX 2014 conference has just ended, and I wanted to make sure folks that attended my presentation could access my slides:  Click the title below to download the PowerPoint, or access my slides on SlideShare.

Primary Colors: The Art of Teaching & Learning with Primary Sources in the Library

Thanks to everyone that attended my discussion of teaching with primary sources in the library! I’ll post again soon with my takeaways from this great library instruction conference.

Teaching with Primary Sources and the Library of Congress

A few weeks ago librarians converged upon Philadelphia, PA for the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference. It was great to reconnect with colleagues from around the country, I made good progress on my committee work, and I was able to attend some interesting discussion groups.

Another highlight for me came from the Library of Congress, which had a booth in the vender area and hosted a series of short presentations throughout each day. This is where I met Cheryl Lederle-Ensign, Educational Resource Specialist at the LOC, and attended her presentation, “Layer After Layer of Awesome”: The Teaching with Primary Sources Program.  In addition to digitizing a wealth of historical documents and images for easy online access, the good folks at the LOC also want to support teachers in using these online resources. Cheryl and her colleagues have curated digital collections into themes, written lesson plans and teaching aids, and also sponsor professional development for elementary and secondary teachers.

I introduced myself to Cheryl before the presentation began, and her enthusiasm was infectious; she was so pleased I had arrived specifically for her talk. Several school librarians were also in attendance, and while they had plenty of questions during the session, I remained quiet and took notes. At the end, as the others gathered their things to leave, Cheryl thanked me for sitting through the whole presentation, perhaps thinking I wasn’t her target audience but had been too polite to leave early.

On the contrary, I insisted. The wealth of materials the Library of Congress has assembled to help elementary and secondary teachers integrate primary sources into their teaching are based on the same pedagogical scholarship and goals that informs my current efforts with undergraduate history students. Freshmen and sophomores are not so different from high school juniors and seniors, and university professors who assume their undergraduates already know how to analyze and incorporate primary sources in their writing are likely to be disappointed with the results.  Cheryl and I chatted about pedagogy in history teaching, and I learned that much of the LOC’s education outreach is built on the scholarship of Sam Wineburg and his colleagues; Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group is also a member of the LOC’s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium. Cheryl was very interested to hear about my experiments in library instruction in our new history methods course, and was glad to hear that my teaching methods are also based on Wineburg’s pedagogy.

Cheryl and I agreed that the responsibility for teaching students to analyze and think critically about historical documents, images, and artifacts belongs to educators at all levels. The Teacher Resources that Cheryl and her colleagues have assembled, while marketed to K-12 teachers, provide us all with valuable pedagogical support for that mission. Librarians and archivists in higher education should engage with the teaching materials that accompany the Library of Congress’s online collections, and work to incorporate not just the collections, but also the pedagogical theory and practice of teaching with primary sources in our work with students and faculty.

On the Pedagogical Utility of Microfilm

In 1997, 7th grade reading teacher Maudie Jones remarked upon the great educational value of historical newspapers stored on microfilm, what she called “time capsules buried in the library.” Beyond documenting events of the past, she explains, these treasures introduce students to an historical world through editorials, advertising, and even the writing style and language choices of the past.1 Jones was right that historical newspapers offer more than simple reporting from the past. The authors, editors, and publishers of newspapers made conscious decisions about what to include and how to arrange content on each page in an effort to sell copies to their target readers—important considerations for historians using these sources in their examination of the past.

Today, historical newspapers are among the most popular archival documents to be digitized and sold in keyword searchable databases. Digitization makes these newspapers more accessible while at the same time facilitates new analytical techniques. So what now with microfilm? Setting aside its enduring value for preservation, what can we say about this transition of formats from a pedagogical standpoint? Two factors seem pertinent: students’ relative familiarity with these different formats, and historical methodology.

On the question of familiarity, two students’ reactions to microfilm as a format are instructive. In my content analysis lesson, I wanted to demonstrate the value of newspapers for this methodology, but we were purposefully “analog” during the session and, lacking original papers, I didn’t want to distract from that with digitized collections. So I had a reel of microfilm on hand and unspooled a few feet for demonstration. One student exclaimed with delight, “I’ve seen that on TV!”

In another encounter, this time during a research consultation with a history honors student, I tried to explain how using microfilm is a great way to experience the fullness of historical newspapers. She reacted by asking how much the microfilm company was paying me to say such nice things about a format she clearly disdained.

These two responses to microfilm as a format are, I feel, representative of varying attitudes a digital generation might take to this “old school” technology. In the first instance, I saw curiosity in an object that had not yet been experienced personally, like a tourist visiting the reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg. The sheer novelty of the format was enough to capture the student’s attention. The second student, in contrast, dismissed the format as tedious and retrograde, even intimating my recommendation was bought and paid for. For her, there seemed little point in revisiting a supposed dark ages of research.

How can the former attitude be harnessed and the latter overcome when microfilm is either the only or the best means of access to valuable historical newspapers? I believe the answer lies in my second factor for consideration: historical methodology. If not trained to read historical documents with an eye toward its source, intended audience, and broader context, the typical student will engage with newspapers as he would with any other text: basic reading comprehension.2 For the novice historian, reading newspapers is often a fact-finding mission in order to learn the truth of what happened. And if that is the goal, given the choice between entering keywords in a database to hone in on a relevant page or scrolling through dimly lit film for hours, of course the student will select the digitized content.

If the student is taught proper historical methods, however, and learns to engage with historical texts in order to ascertain the author’s motives and intended audience while seeking context and corroboration, then the value of scrolling through newspapers page by page, day by day becomes apparent. Granted reading newspapers on microfilm will remain a laborious and time-consuming endeavor, for students and professional historians alike. And I don’t advocate including microfilm in library or history instruction simply for its own sake. Instead, it can be a useful vehicle for teaching historical methods and potentially help students recognize the need to apply those methods regardless of format, especially in a digital environment that encourages quick, superficial encounters with historical text.

1Maudie Jones, “Time Capsules Buried in the Library,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 7 (April 1997): 564.
2See chapter 3 in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).