Monthly Archives: March 2007

What Else Are We “Teaching” When We Educate Users This Way?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from an academic librarian who asked to remain anonymous owing to his or her current job hunting status, and who wishes not to be judged by potential employers on the content of this post alone.

As a new member of the profession, I sometimes come across things on library web sites that leave me puzzled about how academic librarians are approaching their work, especially the important task of user education. For example, I recently discovered the podcasting site at the Fairfield University Library.

The intent is certainly laudable—to teach underclassmen to distinguish among various databases. Obviously, much energy, talent, and time had been invested. The layout was pleasing, the information perfectly accurate. But here is what I question: Why are they designing the site and their podcasts to appeal to a young adolescent rather than a college undergraduate. Is it just me, or does the approach seem reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon?

Why have the designers taken this approach? One answer may be that Millenials seem more child-like, more playful than previous generations. The designers might also argue that we must go wherever the students are in order to engage them. If the students learn the concepts we want them to master, then we have succeeded, right? Why worry about anything else? The end justifies the means.

But I see another crucial issue at stake. For one thing, some students will see through the ruse, realize they are being talked down to, and resent it. Perhaps a slim minority? What about the students who find the approach fun, cute, charming? They are being served, are they not? What’s the harm?

Perhaps some readers will say that I need to loosen up or that I’m too new to realize that traditional approaches will be perceived by today’s students as dull or boring. Nevertheless, I would argue that we are not just delivering user education, any more than a composition instructor is just teaching English. Everyone who teaches undergraduates is engaged in the process of transforming young people into critically reflective, fully mature, responsible citizens. Fairfield University’s own mission statement makes this point: “In its fullest sense liberal education initiates students at a mature level into the culture, its past, its present, its future.” When I treat students as adults, accord them that dignity, I am helping them become so. For me, that’s more important than anything I could teach them about databases.

Keeping Up With The Conference Circuit

It really is the conference season. I just came across links to two academic library conference sites – these are regional conferences – that contain some worthwhile content. No one can get to all the conferences he or she would ideally like to attend, but with sites like these it is getting easier to find out what topics presenters are covering at these programs.

The CIC Library Conference was held on March 19 and March 20. The conference organizers have created a conference blog that contains posts about different presentations. There are some links, photos, and videos, but I didn’t see recordings from the presentations. Still, there is plenty there to give those who couldn’t attend at pretty good idea of the topics of discussion.

At Princeton University they held a one-day academic library symposium on March 15 focusing on “Technology and Library Services: Meeting Today’s Users’ Needs“. Speakers there talked about social networking, using Google Analytics, the technological continuum gap in academic libraries, and Web 2.0 practices. Audio recordings of the presentations are available on this page.

If your library or regional organization has recently sponsored or is planning to have a conference that would be of interest to academic librarians, and there is a web site where information is shared, please let us know about it.

Debating The Future Of The Reference Desk

If you want to get into a contentious discussion with a reference librarian, suggest that you think it’s time to get rid of the reference desk. In my last post I mentioned the debate about the reference desk at Columbia University in which I participated. I should mention that my fellow debater was Sarah Watstein, AUL for Research and Instructional Services at UCLA and a co-editor of RSR/Reference Services Review. Sarah took on the role of the negative debater, and made some good arguments for why we need to maintain the reference desk. So what were some of the debate points, both pro and con?

Here are some of the key points I made in affirmation of the resolution that we should eliminate the desk by 2012:

- A reference deskless model that can work owing to mobile technology; several libraries have already done away with the traditional desk or are no longer putting subject specialists at desks (UC Merced, Colorado State U)
- Having students or paraprofessionals at desks may mean an occasional missed opportunity for a teachable moment or even a mishandled question; but are librarians perfect – and think about how many students already go to the circulation desk or never come in at all; look not at what we have to lose but what we have to gain by getting out from behind the desk
- Advanced technology like the Vocera device can allow librarians to be connected with users at any point in the building; why sit behind desk “just-in-case” when we could be putting our professional skills to better use elsewhere; move to a “pre-emptive” just-in-time model of reference service
- We’re not getting real reference questions anymore; we are getting lots of printer and computer questions (you call that reference?); we are getting more questions that require time consuming consultations and those should be managed at locations other than reference desks
- The reference desk is just a symbol for reference service; getting rid of the desk does not mean getting rid of the service
- Leveraging new technologies to eliminate reference desks will not eliminate the human touch; it will only mean it migrates to other service points such as classrooms, consultation rooms, residence halls, academic departments and all those other places on campus where we can personally connect with our user community

Here are some of the key points Sarah made in opposing the resolution:

- The reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service, but also to the culture of our academic libraries in general; an academic library without a reference desk is unthinkable
- In our increasingly impersonal world, the value of personal service has never been higher. Think “automated attendants.” It’s critical to maintain the human touch in delivering reference service; if we do it all by mobile phone, video and computers (txt, IM, chat, email, etc.), we will lose the ability to connect with our users
- Transactions may be down but academic library reference desks are still incredibly busy; our reference desks are symbols of our service in action.
- Search and discovery in our complex information environs is not getting any easier. Think formats and interfaces. Think bells and whistles. Today more than ever users need an intermediary; reference librarians can perform more efficient, more precise and more knowledgeable searches
- A teachable moment in person is not equal to a teachable moment online; if we remove the desk we remove vast opportunities for teachable moments to happen; information literacy can help but it’s not producing nearly the level of self-capable student researcher we desire
- What about Brodart? Gaylord? Thos. Moser? The library furniture business is alive and well. Product options abound! Today’s desks are designed to serve not just a purpose, but also our audience. They are more durable, have greater aesthetic appeal, are more customizable, and truly complement the versatile learning environments that increasingly define our academic libraries. Our trusted sources for library furniture will see us well into the 21st century.

How personally committed are Sarah and I to these views? Well, let’s just say that a good debate should really polarize the issues so that we can clearly express the pros and cons and achieve a better understanding of what we have to gain and lose by making significant changes in our service delivery models. Will research libraries still have reference desks by 2012? We don’t think desks will become extinct over the next five years, but we do believe the profession will be experimenting with multiple reference models some of which will not require a traditional desk. Methods and modes of providing reference service will continue to change – - and must, if we are to stay relevant to our users.

Note to readers: This post was co-authored with my debate partner, Sarah Watstein.

So What If We Do Pander To Students

Back on March 9 I participated in a debate about the future of the reference desk. This was part of an annual Reference Symposium sponsored by the Columbia University Libraries. The debate resolution was “be it resolved that research libraries will no longer have reference desks by 2012.” I argued for the affirmative. Among the trends I cited in favor of the resolution were a more mobile society, a user population that wants to get service when and where they want it (as opposed to having to come to a fixed point in the library to get it), and the general decline in traditional reference questions. Arguing that the power of new mobile technologies to deliver information when and where it’s needed, along with the inefficiencies of the current reference desk model for both librarians and library users, I thought I made a compelling case for eliminating the reference desk – not the service – just the physical entity. A vote before and after the debate indicated that attendees were not moved by my arguments. The majority was clearly opposed to the resolution.

But one particular point I made drew an interesting response. During one of my opportunities to speak I indicated that we needed to get out from behind reference desks in order to connect with users on their turf. I said this was especially important for millennial generation students because we couldn’t expect them to come to the library to wait for an authority figure behind a desk to provide answers. An attendee, during the questioning period, asked if that point was just another way of saying that we should pander to students who wanted it their way. This individual claimed that students come to college to learn how to deal with the real world, and that by bending over backwards to accommodate students who expect to get it their way wherever and whenever they want it we were actually doing them a disservice.

I understand how that individual feels because I’ve made similar points previously about our interactions with millennial students. The common thinking seems to be that we now have to change everything because these students learn and behave differently, and our traditional methods will be ineffective. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why we should change rather than expect students to change to fit our traditional academic library culture. I responded that it was perhaps best not to think of it as pandering, but rather being student focused and shifting our ways of doing business to meet the needs of our students. To that I added that reaching out to students in their places, whether it be classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, or academic departments, made sense in today’s mobile society – that we need to be where students are to increase our opportunities for productive interaction (I would venture to say that extends to online social networks in situations where interaction with specific students was a pre-existing condition – and I know there’s lots of disagreement with that position).

So while I’m generally not in favor of pandering or kowtowing to students just to get them to acknowledge we exist, I do think it makes good sense to re-engineer reference services so that we are providing it to the user community on their turf. You can avoid doing so, if you think this is pandering, at risk of your own obsolescence.

More on the reference debate on Monday.

2.0 Too Faddish For Libraries?

In the comments, one of our readers warned libraries of adopting the equivalent of CB radio and falling victim to fads.

This article–Some Traditional Sites, Aiming to be Hip, End Up the Opposite–expands on that point, giving as examples John Edwards use of Twitter, Netscape’s use of Digg-like features, and USA Today’s incorporation of comments on their stories. I kind of like the idea of comments on news articles–a kind of C-SPAN for newspapers–but apparently USA Today’s readers did not. Is there a lesson here for academic libraries? Is 2.0 just for tech geeks or is it just a matter of time before 2.0 features become more widely accepted?