Monthly Archives: February 2009

Local Food (for Thought) Movement

LJ Academic Newswire reports that U Penn is the latest to offer scan-on-demand with quality print output. Emory uses the same Kirtas machine to offer a curated collection of books relevant to Emory and to the South, unique in their collections. UMich, which has a rich collection of books scanned through their own efforts and with the Google project, has an Espresso machine standing by reading to instantly print copies. Cornell sells thousands of scanned books printed on demand through Amazon’s POD company.

And Boston Public, in a partnership with the Open Library that seems to have gotten far too little press, will digitize a public domain book of your choice within a matter of days, letting demand drive mass digitization. All you have to do is press a button in their catalog. How cool is that?

It’s interesting how these efforts are described. “An ATM for books.” “Library as Bookstore.” “Library as publisher.” “Amazon partnership.” We’re not quite sure what to call this effort – which is making public domain books available in multiple formats to as many people as possible while recovering costs. Basically, it’s interlibrary loan of non-returnables that happen to be book-sized and often go direct to the patron. It’s a terrific development. But . . . you knew there’d be a but, didn’t you?

By now some of you will have twigged to the fact that partnering with Amazon – particularly for POD fulfillment – is going on my “hey, wait a minute” list. Amazon is a hugely successful company that is able to set terms because it is so big. Their strategy is vertical integration and ownership of every piece of the industry that can be integrated. The only POD company they support is the one they own. The only e-book format they will sell is the one they bought – MobiPocket (which also fuels Kindle). They are the Microsoft of books. Don’t like the way we do things? Tough, ’cause we’re the biggest. You go through us, you get the audience, but you play by our rules.

The more we partner with Amazon, the bigger it gets and the harder it is for local independent bookstores to survive. It’s the same Faustian bargain libraries stuck with Google to digitize books, but it’s harder to argue it’s totally win-win. Independent booksellers lose. That’s a choice we make.

I suggested an even more radical partnership partnership in Library Journal last year, but so far no takers. I’m not really surprised, since it would require regional library consortia having a new-generation machine and expanding delivery of print-on-demand books to local booksellers. But a partnership of publishers, regional library systems, and the local book trade could lead to a greener, more reader-driven supply of books to borrow or buy – and a healthier local community.

I recently caught a blog posting from a bookseller who said of hard times “it’s Mardi Gras over there at the library!” We’ve all seen the news stories about the surge in library use. We have the mojo to refresh a broken book culture using new technologies and new ideas, but before we fashion ourselves as publishers, we should think about what that means to our communities near by.

I know a lot of indie booksellers, and they are dedicated to connecting people to books because they believe that connection matters. They aren’t getting rich. They aren’t trying to boost their profit margin. They’re just trying to pay the rent and stay open. My own campus bookstore is one of the few that isn’t outsourced. It’s an independent bookstore, and I’m proud of that.

If we’re going to become part of the book business, let’s think about how to do it in a way that doesn’t screw over our local partners in connecting books and readers.

Faculty Involvement Makes All The Difference

In a previous post I expressed my vision for the future of information literacy – and in that vision it’s not the librarians teaching students the skills needed to be wise consumers of information – it’s the faculty. That’s why this Wired Campus post caught my attention. It’s about two faculty members who wrote a research guide for students, and who integrate some elements of information literacy (evaluating content) into their courses.

Students don’t research like they used to. And they have a hard time evaluating the credibility of information they find, both in print and online. At least that’s what two instructors at Mesa Community College saw in their courses. So the instructors, Rochelle L. Rodrigo and Susan K. Miller-Cochran, who is now an associate professor of English at North Carolina State University, wrote The Wadsworth Guide to Research, published this year by Cengage Learning. In November they presented some of their teaching strategies at the New Media Consortium’s Rock the Academy symposium, in Second Life.

Ms. Miller-Cochran talked to The Chronicle about how to help students determine when a source is reliable. She emphasizes the need for students to learn how to think critically about their information searches. In her class students learn about the publication process, and that leads them to better understand the difference between popular and scholarly literature – whatever format it is in. She said:

The most immediate difference is that my students don’t go to Wikipedia or Google first. When they come into class, that is usually their MO. Now they’re much more likely to go to a library database, for example. And when they use the library database, they might choose the option to search only for scholarly articles.

When I read a statement like this coming from a faculty member it pretty much validates, for me, everything I’ve said and written in the last 10 years about the vital role faculty can play in changing student research behavior when they make it a priority and integrate it into their course material. Just consider the amount of time Miller-Cochran’s students must spend on research skill development compared to an instructor who invites in a librarian to offer a one-time instruction session. And we know that students place enormous trust in what faculty tell them. As expected there were multiple comments to this post from librarians communicating a “we’re here to help you” message.

Then shortly after this article appeared, Inside Higher Ed came up with another example of faculty designing an information literacy component into their course. In an article about changes in the teaching of history at community colleges we learned that some faculty are “focusing on basic information literacy and research skills, which their students tend to lack.” Could our faculty colleagues finally be getting the message? We learn that Brian Casserly of North Seattle Community College uses assignments in a U.S. survey history course to teach the basics of conducting research and writing a research paper. I wish more faculty would consider taking on greater responsibility for teaching research skills in their courses as Casserly does.

But I can imagine some information literacy and instruction librarians asking themselves “if faculty do ever fully integrate this into their courses and teach it without me – what will I do for a living?” The possibility of librarians being made obsolete by faculty following the examples described above, I think, is highly unlikely. But even if the majority of faculty did, I think that academic librarians would still be needed to support the development and design of instructional activity and digital-learning materials. Our new opportunity would be back-end support – making sure faculty were up-to-date on the e-resources and well equipped with the tools to integrate them into their courses. This could be a whole new growth area for librarian educators. That’s where I’ve advocated the growing importance of instructional design and technology in the work of librarians. I don’t know exactly where academic librarians will be in the future, but if it wasn’t at the front of the classroom that would be fine with me – as long as we play a role in what happens there.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Low Self-Esteem Problem

Aren’t we the gals and guys who formulated call number schemes? So how is it that in LC library science materials got tagged with “Z”? If librarians were in charge of this operation wouldn’t it have been easy for them to just make librarianship “A”. It’s not like LC is based on a mnemonic scheme. If it was I could understand library science being “L”. So I have to chalk it up to this profession’s pure low self-esteem factor. Here’s how I imagine it going down at the meeting where they are figuring out what letters to assign to different areas of knowledge:

Guy/Gal in charge of committee: So let’s get started. We have to come up with a different letter code for every possible area of human knowledge.

Bored guy: How long do you think this is going to take?

Guy/Gal in charge: Just ignore him. Let’s start with A. What do you think that should be – and let’s try not to make this too confusing for people.

Smart gal: Maybe it should be something that starts with the letter A – like anthropology.

19th century equivalent of IT guy: C’mon, let’s make it just a little confusing.

Just graduated from LIS Program gal: I have a great idea. Let’s make librarianship A just to remind people how important this profession and our literature is – and we won’t have to walk as far to find it when we need it.

Rest of committee: Intense howling laughter erupts.

Just graduated from LIS Program gal: Damn.

Guy/Gal in charge: Good one, but seriously – I already decided that we’re getting Z.

Cynical gal: Do you seriously think anyone other than a librarian is ever going to look for this crap? And since we do nothing all day but point people to where the other stuff is we’ll have all the time in the world to trudge over to the Zs. And honey, you could use the exercise.

Bored guy: Z it is.

Guy/Gal in charge: Look, this is taking too long. Let’s just say that A is all that general stuff that we won’t be able to figure out where it belongs anyway.

Everybody else: Fine with us.

Anyway, that’s how I think it happened. Don’t ask me how music got M.

ALA Midwinter Wrap-Up for Academic Librarians

Budgets.

Assessment.

That pretty much sums it up.

Oh yeah – Open Educational Resources. The next big thing.

Academic Research A Painful Process For Students

There’s a certain type of research that most academic librarians would be doing on their own campuses if they had the time and resources. That would be organizing student focus groups or even one-on-one conversations in order to gain better insights into how the students conduct their research. That might allow us to better understand how students approach research assignments and where they are most challenged. Aided by that information we could devise more effective methods of helping our students to develop the skills and confidence needed to conduct effective research. The title of this post tells you we have much work to do.

A new report from an organization that is trying to learn more about what it is like to be a college student in the digital age may provide the sort of information we need. Project Information Literacy is a national research study based in the University of Washington’s Information School. PIL seeks to understand how students conduct research for assignments and everyday needs. A desired outcome is to improve the transfer, teaching, learning and measurement of information literacy competencies. During the fall semester of 2008 PIL conducted 11 discussion groups on 7 college and university campuses. They talked with 86 full-time students in the humanities and social sciences. They collected these first-hand accounts from students about how they move through the research process, and the solutions they apply as they proceed. One significant finding from the report:

We have found that no matter where students are enrolled, no matter what information resources they may have at their disposal, and no matter how much time they have…Research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it did in previous times

Perhaps it’s no wonder our students take the path of least resistance to their research. Not only is there more information than ever to search through, but navigating and organizing it is a real source of frustration for them. Heck, they are challenged to even get started on a research project.

Here are some observations from the authors of the report:

– The majority of the students we intereviewed did not start on an assignment – thinking about it, researching or writing – until two or three days before it was due.
– Even though students had the freedom to write on topics of their own choosing, the ability to choose a topic, itself, could be daunting. Many students reported they often had little or no idea how to choose, define and limit the scope of a topic. As one student said “I just didn’t know where to begin.”
– Students used words such as “angst”, “dread”, “anxious”, “stressed”, “disgusted”, “confused” and “overwhelmed” as the one word that describes their reaction to receiving a research assignment.
– Students at smaller, teaching focused institutions see their professors as more helpful with research assignments whereas students at research universities find their faculty harder to reach for help and less understanding.
– Students said they were overwhelmed by all the choices and in general have trouble finding what they are looking for, both online and in the library.
– Wikipedia is the go to resource for students. It helps them grasp the topic, helped them with the language and provided context for their research. What about the library’s databases? Too much too soon is the general consensus.

Academic librarians probably don’t find any of this particularly surprising. What may surprise them is that the students interviewed valued libraries. They view librarians as “navigational sources” and “information coaches” who are able to help with everything from refining thesis statements to making sense out of the library system. On the downside many participants considered formal library instruction of little value to them – not because it wasn’t helpful or informative but it was hard to recall what was learned when it was needed for an assignment.

Based on what I take away from this report I’m not even sure how I’d use it to improve academic library efforts to remedy what students experience as a painful process. It mostly reinforces what I’ve believed rather than what steps I can take to create change. Perhaps as a start it’s important just to know the extent of the problem we face. While it is also helpful to know that students view librarians as helpful, I get the impression far too many students choose Wikepedia and whatever it leads to over the library. Perhaps part of the problem is that we are not capitalizing on the student’s perception of the librarian as “information advisor”. Part of the problem may be that librarians standing behind desks are less approachable than those students know and with whom they’ve established an advisor-type relationship. After all, you don’t want to confide your need for help in just anyone – especially if the research activity is a sort of painful ordeal for you.

The next phase of PIL’s research will focus more on the design of our resources and how they enhance or detract from research experiences. That, I think, will be more helpful in our efforts to help students to achieve research success. Until then this report serves as a reminder to understand how overwhelming and intimidating a research assignment can be to a student – and that my library and its resources are more a part of the problem than the solution. Perhaps just being more empathetic may help me and others to build stronger relationships with and trust among our students.

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The Book of Dead Philosophers

I will continue with my silly-yet-very-librarianish method of naming my posts after books, just because I can.  Since my husband (a philosophy professor) enticed me with this book title the other day, it seemed very appropriate to use it for the post I was planning to write.  So, I ask, are books dead?  That seems to be a big question here on our campuses lately.  We’re under a huge budget proration right now, and of course the library got hit very hard (I can’t order pencils, much less books, these days!)  Somehow the administration doesn’t quite recognize [understand? acknowledge?] that libraries are not static collections.  We need to continually add books to our collection which will support our programs, as well as weed those titles that may be significantly out of date.  (Yes, this library has only been open since last August, but the bulk of my monograph collection came from another branch and contains many old, dusty, nearly useless books.)  So I desperately need to order new nursing titles, recent books on history and literature, and some fun-interesting-useful books for general consumption.  Alas, that may not happen this year, nor next year if the budget doomsayers prove correct.

 

I’m not completely without resources, though.  I have some generous donors who have given several boxes of general fiction, which I accepted happily and joyfully.  Even though Dean Koontz and Nora Roberts may not fit our academic programs, they play an important role here.  So many of our students need remedial work in reading and composition, and what better way to help them than by providing fun books to read and enjoy?  I find that students new to the library look surprised when they see Douglas Sparks, Tolkien, and Robin Cook face out on a display table, right next to resume and interview guides.  I’ve even had one or two ask, “Wow – do people still read?”  I encourage all my students to try a book or two.  Some take me up on it, and some don’t.  But those that do often come back for more, and that is a highlight of my day.

 

So I ask again… are books dead?   And if not, how can we get more books into the hands of folks who need to read?  And an even better question, how do we get the word out to the college administration and corporate bean-counters that library budgets actually do serve a purpose?