Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from http://dbl.lishost.org/blog/2013/08/06/recent-user-experience-greeters-no-preemptive-support-yes/

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/3qq499w7

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: Coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67–72.

Considering Conferencing

Like many of us I was #alaleftbehind this past weekend. I spent some time sitting on the sofa scrolling through Twitter catching up on the programs and happenings at ALA Annual, and I’m grateful to folks who’re livetweeting the sessions and those who’ve posted their talks and slides for all to see. But it’s not the same as being there, of course.

Every year around this time I feel a twinge of guilt as I realize that it’s yet another year into my career in librarianship, and I still have not been to Annual. I did go to Midwinter once, just as I was finishing my MLIS. That year it was in a nearby location and, even though I hadn’t found a full-time job yet, staying with family and registering on the student rate meant that it didn’t break the bank.

But still: the guilt, it twinges, especially since I’ve been to ACRL every year since I’ve been an academic librarian save for my first year. So I took to Twitter and sought out other #alaleftbehind folks:

Most of the folks who responded were academic librarians (not a surprise, since I was specifically wondering about academic librarians), and the first point made was one that I’ve often thought too: for librarians who work at colleges and universities, ACRL is a much more valuable conference than ALA because it’s so focused on academic librarianship. I’ve always had a terrific time at ACRL and learned an enormous amount.

Which is not to say that I couldn’t see myself having an equally great/educational time at Annual. But, as the conversation quickly acknowledged, we are often under very real financial constraints when making our professional development plans. At my college we are typically not funded enough to completely cover travel to more than one cross-country conference each year, which for me this year was ACRL in Portland. There might also be other conferences we’re interested in attending — discipline-specific conferences, or perhaps other library conferences too. If the conference stars align and ALA and ACRL are both in the northeast one year, I can see myself going to both, but if not I’ll probably continue to prioritize ACRL on the years it’s held.

Work-life balance was another aspect that came up in the conversations. Several folks noted that going to lots of conferences is not only expensive in money but also in time and, depending on our family situation, we may not be able to take the time for multiple conferences. I felt this more acutely when my kid was younger (he’s a teenager now), but still, time away is definitely a consideration for me.

The cons were familiar to me, but what about the pros? I think what’s been twinging my guilt more this time around is that I’m now wrapping up my first year as Chief Librarian at my college. I think more about the whole library now than I did when I was instruction coordinator, from collections to facilities and everything in between. We’re hoping for a small renovation soon so I can definitely see myself doing lots of furniture and space planning research if I were at ALA right now. And, beyond chairs with wheels, I’m certain there’s lots I could learn from libraries outside of academia — public and special and more.

If I could fave this tweet more than once, I would, as it seems to describe exactly what I’ve wondered about going to ALA. So I’ll be keeping my eye on the conference schedule and trying to make it work soon, I hope.

If you’re a regular (or even not-so-regular) attendee at ALA, why do you go? Let us know in the comments.

Navigating (New) Relationships with Faculty: Valuing Service

I start my first professional position in less than a month. I repeat: less than a month! I’ll be one of three Information Literacy Librarians on Davidson College’s team. I have been thinking about what the transition will be like a lot lately and one topic really continues to stick with me, worry me, and challenge me. That topic is the idea of building and fostering relationships, not just with my fellow librarians but also with faculty.

The on-campus interview is so imperative for figuring out fit, not just for the employer, but also for the candidate. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to not just to like the people I work with but also to have respect for them, share values with them, and have the capacity to learn from them. Moreover, if I don’t have a direct supervisor that will mentor me, advocate for me, and evaluate me fairly, I’m not sure any amount of money will make me a happy employee. I was lucky enough to find the right environment at Davidson.

Yet, thinking beyond my tiny department often makes me anxious. One of the great things about Davidson College is its faculty. I won’t be explicit here but when I was interviewing, I often found myself drooling over some of the accomplishments of faculty there. One example is the creation and development of a digital studies program, which makes critical analysis and ethical consideration of technology and its role in our lives a priority. The digital studies website lists the following as goals: “procedural literacy, data awareness, network sensibility, entrepreneurial thinking, iterative design, digital citizenship, information preservation and sustainability, and the ethical use of technology.” Talk about a librarian’s dream! It’s heartening to see these topics integrated into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

Nevertheless, it’s naïve to think that two or three faculty members’ values represent the majority. Moreover, even though I know this department does awesome work, how do I even reach out? Do I bank on healthy relationships already being established? (This isn’t always guaranteed. Sometimes new professionals actually have to spend time re-building relationships that were previously broken.) Do I go out of my way to schedule an appointment or audit one of their classes? Or do I take a more passive approach? I know that I might be complicating this a little bit, but I think this is a valid concern many new librarians face. New librarians in almost all areas, from data management to instruction, have to work with faculty and we have to start somewhere.

A better question I might ask goes beyond just establishing a relationship, one where the faculty member e-mails me once a semester to ask that I “demo the databases,” but also asks how I establish a fruitful, collaborative partnership where my work is seen as complementary and necessary to the instruction that that faculty member is doing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, mostly because of the great conversation our profession has been having around this topic.

First and foremost, it is worth noting that this question isn’t just of concern to new librarians; even seasoned professionals are still grappling with how to improve their relationships with faculty and help faculty better understand their work. Maria Accardi’s new blog, Academic Library Instruction Burnout, addresses this issue often. In a recent post, “I do not think the Framework is our oxygen mask,” Accardi writes:

Despite my consistent and intensive and strategic outreach efforts, despite my partnering with faculty members who are indeed library champions who do get what we do and why, despite all of my efforts to chip away at the culture that marginalizes the very real teaching and learning work we do in the library, I’ll get a writing teacher sending his class to the library, with no notice, with a fucking scavenger hunt assignment that requires students to work with print reference books only. Please excuse me while I *headdesk* forever.

This frustration is echoed in Lauren Wallis’ post entitled “Smash all the Gates, Part 2: Professional Silenc*”:

This happens when you pitch an idea to a faculty member (perhaps at a campus schmooze event), and they act at least mildly interested–and then when you follow up via email, they never respond.  It happens when a faculty member books an instruction session but then refuses to engage in a discussion about what that session should look like.  It happens when faculty members don’t accompany their classes to library instruction.  There are a lot of examples, all frustrating. All of these silences serve to maintain a situation where subject faculty have absolute control over their students, their assignments, and (to a certain extent) the content of library instruction sessions.

Why does this happen? Why are librarians disregarded, silenced, and misunderstood? Both of the writers above make it very clear that these problems in no way represent the majority of the faculty they work with. Still, why is this a reoccurring issue across campuses?

On June 9th, a Pratt SILS course taught by Jessica Hochman, LIS 697: Gender and Intersectionality in LIS, led a #critlib discussion on feminist contributions in LIS. There were some great conversations on how the feminization of LIS inhibits our work and creates stereotypes that “pigeonhole(s) us in one-shot service models”. There were also examples of librarians’ work and expertise being undervalued and sometimes even ignored. Here’s a great summary of why:

Cudjoe tweet

The feminization of our profession means that we are often only seen as a profession that serves. Our work is often undervalued or forgotten because service is undervalued and many times, forgotten. Our society sees service work as less than, below “making” or “creating”. In “Why I Am Not a Maker,” Debbie Chachra states that the problem with making is that it is “intrinsically superior to not-making, to repair, analysis, and especially caregiving—is informed by the gendered history of who made things, and in particular, who made things that were shared with the world, not merely for hearth and home.” And yet, “not making” is, as she says, is “usually not doing nothing,” and often involves doing things for others, including teaching and educating students.

Roxanne Shirazi’s brilliant talk, Reproducing the Academy: Librarians and the Question of Service in the Digital Humanities, offers a similar analysis. She states that once women start to make up to close to 50% of a workforce, that work is devalued and no longer pursued by men because it becomes seen as “women’s work” or service work. Within her talk, Shirazi begs the question, “do librarians work in service of scholarship or are they servile to scholars?” (original emphasis). She concludes that because librarians’ work reproduces the academy, through teaching students, organizing scholarship, and preserving information, we are often seen as less than and at the bottom of the hierarchy that is academia.

In essence, what is feminized, what is service, what is emotional and affective labor is devalued in our society not only because of the type of work it is but also because of who has historically done that work. Chachra notes, “Almost all the artifacts that we value as a society were made by the order of men.” Worse, the devaluing of our work is often connected to stereotypes of librarians and their function within the academy. In “Ice Ice Baby: Are Librarian Stereotypes Freezing Us out of Instruction?,” Pagowsky and DeFrain write, “Our stereotypes are not just annoying or humorous illustrations of us, they can seriously impact the work we do and the respect we are afforded” (emphasis mine).

Pagowsky and DeFrain find that librarians are in a difficult position, often seen as too “warm,” because of their helping and nurturing status but also often too “cold” or “sterile,” because of the librarian stereotype centered on uptightness and introversion. Moreover, they find that warmth is often seen as mutually exclusive to competence which creates a challenge for “librarians who want to both be taken seriously on campus… and yet who also endeavor to effectively reach students and show care.”

I’ll admit that I’m a little depressed and overwhelmed. Are you? I won’t pretend to offer any solutions here. I think it’s safe to say that this issue is much more complicated and complex than that. I think, though, that all of the insightful librarians that present these issues also leave the profession with something to build an answer upon.

I was originally going to title this post “Establishing and Advocating for Relationships with Faculty: Moving Beyond Service.” Huh, moving beyond service? Reading all of the blog posts, talks, and articles above made me realize that we don’t need to move beyond service. Service is why I joined this profession. I love that I get to broaden and expand my worldview every day simply by helping others do research about topics that I would have never been exposed to otherwise. I love teaching students about the intricacies of information creation and value. I love connecting faculty with information that will improve their research, their research practices, and maybe even the world. My love of service is not the problem. The problem is that service is seen as less than, below, unequal to other functions in the academy.

I realize now that this problem is pervasive to my work, but I can’t solve it alone. Can I solve it at all? Wallis asserts that there has to be some level of acknowledgement of “the fact that there are different power relations at play in these collaborative [faculty-librarian] relationships” and that these relations are “embedded in the hierarchies that make up academia, in both the social stratification of varying job ranks and the hierarchical classification of service and scholarship.” In addition, even though Pagowsky and DeFrain ask that librarians stop thinking of the warm/competent binary as mutually exclusive and instead think of their work and presentation on a spectrum between the two, they conclude that “our place on the spectrum is contingent, in part, on society as a whole changing its expectations.”

It would be absurd to claim that librarians must carry the full weight of changing how they are perceived and valued. The way our society devalues work that is seen as feminized, even though it is critical, central work, is not our fault. It is a structural issue that furthers the oppression of some communities and the power of others.

I think, though, that there has been a call for librarians to start advocating for themselves and the value of the work that they do. Angela Pashia, Kevin Seeber and Nancy Noe led a conversation at LOEX this year entitled “Just Say No: Empowering Ourselves and Our Expertise.” The session walked participants through why, when, and how they should say no to faculty and also gave them a space to practice saying no and reflecting on what that felt like. Here is the litmus test the presenters gave participants for whether or not they should say no:

why say no

But what does saying no really mean for our profession? Wallis suggests that when we always say yes, not only are we reinforcing “the exclusionary nature of academic Discourse,” while also “acting as gatekeepers while simultaneously accepting and perpetuating our own marginalization.” By saying no, are breaking down some of these barriers, little by little. We are practicing what we teach to students, that all voices in a conversation matter and that there is value in all different types of contributions.

This is not easy work. Wallis is right in her assertion that “coming out of silence means we will make some people angry.” But our profession will never be one of true partnership and engagement unless we break our silence. Advocating for our value and the value of our work will, unfortunately, continue to be a very necessary skillset. Wallis asserts that we will have to break our silence as a group, as an institution, as a profession for there to be progress. We will have to share successes (and criticisms) with each other, learn from others’ experiences saying no and then hopefully (eventually) heartily saying yes, and start a larger conversation that teaches all librarians—especially new librarians—that their work is worth advocating for and that they have the support needed to come out of decades of practicing silence.

This brings me to my final point. What advice would you share with the greater library community? When have you said no? How have you been empowered? What tips would you give to new professionals or librarians just starting at a new institution? How do you establish healthy partnerships with faculty members? How do you talk to faculty members that don’t understand the value of librarianship, information literacy, metadata, data management, digital scholarship, preservation, etc. etc.? How do you converse with faculty members that are champions of the library? How do you advocate for your time, resources, and expertise? How do you let help faculty and administration understand that service is central to the mission of your campus?

References:

Accardi, M. (2015, May 14). I do not think that the Framework is our oxygen mask. Retrieved from https://libraryinstructionburnout.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/i-do-not-think-that-the-framework-is-our-oxygen-mask/

Chachra, D. (2015, Jan 23). Why I am not a maker. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/why-i-am-not-a-maker/384767/

Pashia, A., Seeber, K., & Noe, N. (2015, May). Just say no: Empowering ourselves and our expertise. Presentation at the annual meeting of the LOEX, Denver, CO. Retrieved from http://www.loexconference.org/presentations/pashiaPresentation.pdf

Pagowsky, N. & DeFrain, E. (2014). “Ice ice baby: Are librarian stereotypes freezing us out of instruction?” In the Library with the Leadpipe. Retrieved from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2014/ice-ice-baby-2/

Shirazi, R. (2014, July 15). Reproducing the academy: Librarians and the question of service in the digital humanities. Retrieved from http://roxanneshirazi.com/2014/07/15/reproducing-the-academy-librarians-and-the-question-of-service-in-the-digital-humanities/

Wallis, L. (2015, May 12). Smash all the gates, part 2: Professional silenc*. Retrieved from https://laurenwallis.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/smash-all-the-gates-part-2-professional-silenc/

Culture Shock! and Other Discoveries of a New Academic Librarian

Academia is weird. I did three academic library internships and worked as two years as academic library staff before becoming an academic librarian at Cal State Fullerton. But I didn’t truly realize how weird academic was until I became, well, an academic. Now that I’ve achieved a full (academic) year of librarianship, I thought that it would be fun to reflect on my challenges, frustrations, and discoveries.

First off, in academia, you don’t have coworkers. You have colleagues! After a lifetime of hourly jobs and coworkers, I’ve really had to retrain my brain to start saying colleagues. Colleagues, colleagues, colleagues. And we librarians are basically flat hierarchically. Since we are all autonomous, I’ve had to do a lot of detective work to figure out who-does-what and who can (and is also willing) to help me on projects.

Second off, where is my boss? I’m partly kidding, but the level of autonomy I have and continue to have is astonishing. I think it’s partly a function of having a brand new position in a field with which my colleagues are unfamiliar, but on my first day I was basically shown my office and left alone. Being a brand new librarian in a new and growing field has been really challenging. I’m interested and engaged in all my work because I get to choose what I work on, but I’ve also had to learn to say “no” to many requests so that my workload is not unmanageable.

That leads to my third point: I am never bored. Never ever ever. For the first time in my life, I have engaging work to fill my hours well beyond the forty-hour work week. If I screw around at work, I’m only harming myself! My work now is also largely project-based rather than daily, weekly, or one-off tasks. I’ve had to learn to become a project manager, and project management continues to be a developing skill for me. Remember how I wrote that post on time management a few months back? I followed my own tips for quite a while, but it’s become a regular struggle to dedicate the time to better manage my time. Ironic?

Fourth, working as an academic sometimes feels like I’ve betrayed my working-class roots. I’m the only person in my family to have a college degree, let alone two graduate degrees. I come from a blue-collar background. My dad was a truck driver, my mom was a secretary, and my sister is a waitress. I’ve spent years waiting tables and loading trucks. It’s hard to explain what I do as an academic librarian to my family. Academia is also a strange world where colleagues take their children on college tours (you mean you can choose where you go to college?), and who also tend to assume a commonality of life experience (I’ve had to google some of the upper-middle-class things my colleagues talk about). Naturally, as a librarian, when faced with unfamiliar situations in life I do some research to find kindred spirits. Fortunately there are wonderful books like This fine place so far from home: Voices of academics from the working class, and, Limbo: Blue-collar roots, white-collar dreams. I also really like the blog Tenure, she wrote. I also get excited about critical pedagogy and critical librarianship, which I didn’t know existed before I was a librarian.

But finally, let’s not forget about all the buzzwords (aka alphabet soup) in academic libraries. HIPs, FYE, ACRL IL Framework, Retention, Student Success, 508 Compliance, OERs, OA. I’ve had a crash course in HIPs (high impact practices) and even attended a HIPs institute this month as a librarian representative on a campus team. I subscribe to several library-related listservs but still can’t tell you what LITA or LIRT stand for, or what the difference is between INFOLIT and ili-l. However, I fondly refer to information literacy as IL, and am baffled when non-librarians don’t know what I’m talking about. QP is QuestionPoint, ILL is my favorite thing ever, OPAC is often used incorrectly here, and any day now we’re going to get an IR. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to trying to sell my colleagues on a learning object repository where we can store all of the DLOs (digital learning objects) that we’re going to create together!

What are some of the things you found surprising about being an academic librarian?

Collecting Cats: Library Lessons from Neko Atsume

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Kelly Blanchat, Electronic Resources Librarian at Queens College, CUNY, and Megan Brooks, Director of Research Services at Wellesley College.

This blog post is the culmination of a Twitter conversation between librarians talking about their experiences playing a phone game. The game is called Nekoatsume and it involves taking care of digital cats in a virtual backyard. Nekoatsume is entirely in Japanese, a key fact that actually started the Twitter conversation (and not the fact that the game involves cats, as might be expected).

In short: a librarian started playing a game, wrote some enticing tweets, and many more librarians joined in — and still are to this day.

While this was happening, Kelly wrote on her personal blog about the joy & ease of understanding the game despite its language barriers, and how it would be nice if students felt the same way about using databases and library resources. Library databases should be just as user-friendly as a game in a foreign language, but too often they’re not. Our students do use recreational technology, and Nekoatsume isn’t the first app in Japanese or Chinese to gain popularity in the U.S. in the last month. And it’s not that recreational technology is always user-friendly, either. Torrenting platforms, such as the Pirate Bay, are notoriously convoluted – especially in regards to persistent content – but anecdotal evidence suggests that our students are able to navigate these platforms with relative ease.1

nekotwitter1

As more and more librarians join in to play Nekoatsume, there’s a common experience that happens early on: the digital cats have disappeared — maybe they died, or ran away — and we believe that we’ve played the game wrong.

nekotwitter2

Megan even initially deleted the app out of frustration. The experience of not understanding phone cats, even when “everyone else” seemed to, left her in a position that many of our students might find themselves: lost, stupid, and unwilling to engage any further. Sadly, library resources do not contain cute digital cats to lure users back after a bad experience. Megan, on the other hand, was willing to give Nekoatsume another shot after the Twitter conversation, and she also found a walk-through for the game online.

The satisfaction from playing Nekoatsume comes from getting more & more cats, and more & more points. For library resources the outcome is often much less immediate: find resources, analyze evidence, fill a resource quota for a bibliography. The research process can also be very solitary, and having the ability to apply similar or shared experience can counteract that as well as other obstacles with online library resources. That is to say, having a related experience can help the process to feel seamless, less daunting. In the case of Nekoatsume, the language barrier subsides once the basic movements of the game are understood, whether through trial and error, consultation of the Twitter hive-mind, or reading online tutorials. Such resources are comparable to “cheat codes” in the gaming world, elements that facilitate getting to the next achievement level. In the library world, they are often referred to as “threshold concepts”. And while most online library resources do contain the same basic functionalities, such as as a button for “Search” and and a link for “Full-Text”, differences from platform to platform in placement and style contribute to a block in fulfilling that need for seamless usability.

Libraries do make a great effort to provide users with workshops, tutorials, and LibGuides to facilitate user understanding and research methods. However, such content can require a lot of explanation whether with words, pictures, live demonstrations, or a mix of all three. Sometimes it can feel like tutorials need their own tutorials! Discovery layers, such as Summon and Primo, begin to address the usability issue by providing a single destination for discovery, but with that libraries still need to address issues of demonstrating research purpose, enthusiasm, and information synthesis. With so many variables in acquiring research — design, functionality, search queries, tutorials — the outcome of research can be overshadowed by the multitude of platform interfaces, both within the library and on the open Web.

The hype for Nekoatsume may eventually subside (or not), but another app will likely take its place and we librarians will still be asking ourselves how to facilitate the next steps of scholarly research for our students. If we can find a way to foster essential research skills by relating them to similar experiences — like with social media, searching on the open Web, downloading torrents, and playing games with digital cats — perhaps the process to knowledge can feel less daunting.

…but maybe we should just embed cute cats into all things digital.

  1. This statement is not an endorsement for downloading torrents. []