Always judge a book by its cover

Brittany Brannon

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We asked students to identify the types of containers from which online information is taken. Information containers can be important, obviously, because they provide critical context when evaluating the quality of sources. One said:

“This one looks like a—wait, I can’t tell what that is, but it looks like a book.”

Wait. It… looks like a book? Let’s try again:

“Pretty sure it had an ISBN number. It’s an article. Oh, no, books usually have—well, you can download the entire book or download the chapter. So, I’m thinking it’s a book. And it doesn’t have the edition, but I kind of want to say it’s a book about this book.”

That’s closer, but we can do better.

Container collapse

When our team introduced the idea of container collapse—the challenge students face in evaluating online information when the context provided by print containers is removed—we pointed out that students both believe that it’s important to know the container from which information comes and that they struggle to identify those containers online. On average, elementary students correctly identified 37% of containers, middle school students 47%, high school students 51%, community college students 48%, undergraduate students 60%, and graduate students 63%.

Did you catch that? Even graduate students could only identify the container of online content about two-thirds of the time.

We may think that the cover of a book doesn’t matter. But that famous phrase, “Never judge a book by its cover,” really applies to people. Don’t decide how to treat strangers, friends, and colleagues based on their appearance. In that context, it’s great advice.

When it comes to information resources? Not so much.

It turns out that we should judge books by their covers… but also by many more types of contextual cues that can not only help us get better at identifying containers but also at evaluating the quality of information.

So, the question becomes: how can we help students get better at doing it?

Some background: paratext, epitext, and peritext

Literary theorist Gerard Genette identified paratext as everything related to an information item that is not part of the content proper. A reader of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, might consult the maps at the beginning of the books, the appendices at the end, or even the notes that Tolkien made when writing them to better understand the story.

Paratext is divided into two types: epitext and peritext. Epitext describes other items that refer to or point back to the item; book reviews, author interviews, and critical interpretation are classic examples. In the digital age, hyperlinks to the item in other items, retweets, and fan fiction, among others, have also become important types of epitext.

Peritext describes elements of an item that are not part of the text proper: like the title, author, chapter headings, preface, and (you guessed it) the cover. These elements package information in ways that help readers determine whether and how to engage with it.

Teaching students how to evaluate and identify not only which elements of peritext tend to appear in different containers, but also how the types of peritext are handled differently from one container to another, provides them a framework for thinking systematically about where the information they are evaluating has come from.

That’s where the Peritextual Literacy Framework comes in.

Six types of peritext

The Peritextual Literacy Framework (PLF) was developed by Melissa Gross and Don Latham to help “support research, professional practice, and information literacy education.” We invited Melissa to talk about her work at a recent project team meeting for Researching Students’ Information Choices (RSIC): Determining Identity and Judging Credibility in Digital Spaces, an IMLS-funded collaboration of partners from OCLC, the University of Florida, and Rutgers University.

The PLF provides students with a structure for analyzing and weighing the elements of an item that may help them to determine the items’ container type. The PLF identifies six types of peritext:

  • Production – identifies the item
  • Promotional – connects to a potential audience
  • Navigational – clarifies how the item is organized
  • Intratextual – tells the reader about the item
  • Supplementary – enhances understanding of the text
  • Documentary – refers to outside items

Elements of peritext are often taken for granted or noted only for their presence or absence. By considering peritextual elements not only as adornments to an item but as functional elements that are chosen to serve a specific purpose, readers can begin to approach them critically as indicators of how an item was created, what the intent behind the item is, and how credible the information in it might be.

Peritext as Information Literacy

Identifying the container of an item is one way to better understand its journey through the information creation process. Using elements of peritext to determine the container may help students think critically about the process that information went through before they encountered it, what type of information they may encounter in an item, and what caveats they might need to make when using that information.

Different containers also may focus on some types of peritext more heavily than others. Books, especially non-fiction books, place a high value on navigational peritext, such as the table of contents, chapter titles, page numbers, and index due to the length and complexity of their content. Scholarly journals, in contrast, put a high value on documentary peritext (in-text citations and references lists) because of the norms of knowledge production in scholarly disciplines. Blogs often place a high value on promotional peritext because of the competitive nature of online content production.

The take-away from all of this is that students (and all information-seekers, really) can better evaluate content when they have tools to understand the context of where it originated and how it moved around online. We may think that containers don’t matter. But those containers come with a lot of peritextual cues that tell us critical things about the information they contain.


This project was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant number LG-81-15-0155.