Pragmatism vs. Idealism: Some Thoughts

“I need a reference for this paper that is due by the end of the day!” or “How do I cite this article?” Have you ever helped a student with one of these situations and cringed a little bit? When you are an idealistic librarian it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that not all students share the same passion for research that you have.  The concept of Pragmatism vs. Idealism in the academic library was introduced by Mary Thill in a study released last year as part of the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project. Thill’s chapter in the book contained information that is especially relevant to two-year librarians.

Thill defines Pragmatism as an attitude where student motivation to learn is based on economics and vocations.  Pragmatic students want to expend enough effort to get the necessary grade, but not go much beyond that. On the other hand, Idealism is an attitude where the motivation to learn is a genuine love of the learning process. These students want to explore and discover all available resources (Thill, 2012). It probably comes as no surprise that many librarians identify more with the idealists whereas our students tend toward the pragmatic. Given this disparity, we could benefit from meeting our students where they are at by finding a balance between the way we wish students would research and the students’ desire to find the information as quickly as possible.

The first step to better helping students is to recognize that the goal of two-year students is not necessarily the same as that of a traditional four-year college student and this affects how they seek and use information.  Many two-year college students are non-traditional students who have come back to school to learn a specific vocation or skill in hopes of obtaining upward mobility.  Other students are first generation college students who are also seeking specific skills to gain upward mobility.  These pragmatic students need to know how to connect information seeking to real world context.  As librarians we all know that information literacy is a skill with many real world applications, but are we effectively sharing this information with students? Many two-year college students will not write another research paper once they graduate and they know this.  They are not preparing for a life in academia, but for a life in the workforce.

Since librarianship requires a Master’s Degree, many librarians (myself included) approach research from an academic perspective. It can be difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of our students, but this is what we must do.  As librarians we need to ask ourselves how we can adjust the way we provide services to make sure that our students are getting the help that THEY need rather than the help that WE THINK they should have. Thill points out that “if we quietly hope to convert all students to the liberal ideals of higher education, we may miss opportunities to connect with a pragmatic student body.” (Thill, 2012) Some of the things I do to reach out to pragmatic students include:

  • Explain that finding high quality information doesn’t always take longer. For our Nursing students I explain that searching for a condition on MedlinePlus doesn’t take any longer than doing a Google search but that the information you get back will be more trustworthy
  • Highlight ways to use databases and resources beyond writing papers. I’ve showed students how to use the business databases to find information on potential employers.
  • Engage in conversation. I try to talk to the students about information whenever I can. If a student tells me he doesn’t understand why he can’t just “Google It” for the assignment,  I use it as a teachable moment.

I would love to hear what you think. How can we find ways to respect the pragmatism of students while also promoting the core standards of information literacy?


Thill, M. (2012).  Pragmatism and Idealism in the Academic Library: An Analysis of Faculty and Librarian Expectations and Values. In Asher, A.D. & Duke, L.M. (Eds.), College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know (15-30). Chicago: American Library Association.

For Further Reading

Kolowich, S. (2011, August 22). What Students Don’t Know. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from:

Head, A. (2012). Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace. (Project Information Literacy Research Report). Retrieved from Project Information Literacy website:


4 thoughts on “Pragmatism vs. Idealism: Some Thoughts

  1. Laura, you and I are on the same wavelength. I’m in the middle of College Libraries and Student Culture right now and was just on the site yesterday reading some of their reports. You ask for ideas for promoting information literacy with pragmatic students. I think Barbara Fister said it very well in the post “Welcome to the Palace of Ambiguity” – “I’m going to try hard to ban ‘find sources’ from my vocabulary when they are in the library, and keep the focus on ‘finding out.'” ( Everyone wants to “find out” about something, has something they are interested in, or even passionate about. Framing it this way makes it less about an academic assignment and more about discovery. I’m going to start doing this, and trying some of your ideas too!


    • Thank you for sharing this article, Jennifer. I love the concept of framing it as a discovery. It goes along with the concept of being an information detective which is something I sometimes use as a way to explain information literacy to students.


  2. Thanks for highlighting the Thill chapter, Laura! I didn’t know about the book, though I remember reading the Kolowich article when it came out. Pragmatism and Idealism call to mind mastery vs performance goal orientation, which you can read a little more about here:

    While I would love all of my students to embrace a mastery approach towards research, I know it’s not always possible or realistic. So I always encourage to student to choose a topic that really interests them, hoping that they’ll want to dive further into the research. That’s not always possible, admittedly, whether due to the instructor’s requirements, or due to a student insisting they have absolutely no outside interests. Another thing I do is remind students that Google and Wikipedia can be fantastic, useful tools – even librarians love them – but shouldn’t be blindly trusted, so that’s why they’re learning advanced Google searching tips and how to evaluate results. I hope that lesson carries over when they use the web for personal or career research.


    • Hi Jane. If you are interested the book also contains another chapter that is particular relevant to two-year college librarians. That chapter is “First-Generation College Students” A Sketch of Their Research Process” by Firouzeh Logan and Elizabeth Pickard. What is interesting to me is that both of these chapters draw from data gathered at four year institutions (DePaul and Northeastern Illinois University). I would be really interested to see the same type of studies done at the Community College level.


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