Monthly Archives: January 2010

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.

Powering Down For Reflection

We’ve just passed the season of the break for most of us academic librarians. It’s common for our institutions to give us a nice bonus this time of year – a week off between Christmas and New Years. What did you do during your break? Did you have a list of projects to work on during those days off or did you just try to relax and leave the work behind? And what about your digital life. Did you take a break from e-mail, Facebook and Twitter? Based on my observations the majority of us stayed active with our electronic lives, though perhaps to a lesser degree than during a normal work week.

I certainly didn’t take much of a break. For me, no suits and ties sure makes it feel like a break. I usually look forward to the break as an opportunity to get a bit ahead on projects, a desirable thing when you have a weekly column to keep up with. And proposals for ACRL’s conference will be due before you know it. The break is also a time when I try to write at least one fuller length article or essay. So while I spent less time online than normal, I would hardly say I was powered down. That only happens for me once a year or so, mainly when I go camping as there is no connectivity and I don’t bring along a computer. On family vacations I don’t bring along a computer and only check email once a day. But for this most recent break I didn’t even bother to put a vacation message on my email because I knew I’d be checking it a few times each day.

There is one anecdotal indicator that suggests to me that many academic librarians took a break from some of their familiar routines, such as checking the online news. I say this because there was a significant drop in traffic over at Kept-Up Academic Librarian during the break week. KUAL averages close to 300 visits per day but starting with December 24 it dropped just below 100 and never made it back above that mark until Monday, January 4, 2010 when it jumped back into the 200 visit range. That drop has to be more than a coincidence. I suspect the academic librarians who regularly read KUAL were off doing more entertaining activities. Some may have expected there’d be no higher education news to keep up with that week (there was less). But perhaps some just took a complete break from the Internet during their time off – and if they did would that be a good thing?

KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10

KUAL traffic between 12/24/09 and 1/3/10

It just may be. During the break I came across a NYT article about a college where the President took the unusual step of holding a one-hour no technology meeting where the students focused on silent reflection. From the article:

Dianne Lynch wanted to give the students of Stephens College a break from the constant digital communication that pervades their generation. So she asked them to put their phones and computers away and revive the 176-year-old school’s dormant tradition of vespers services. On a bitterly cold December night, with the start of final exams just hours away, about 75 of Stephens’ 766 undergraduates grudgingly piled their cell phones into collection baskets and filed into the school’s candlelit chapel, where they did little but sit, silently. For an hour, not an iPod ear bud could be seen. There were no fingers flying on tiny computer keyboards, no chats with unseen intimates.Several other schools are encouraging technology-free introspection…Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted a ”Day of Mindfulness” this year, featuring yoga and meditation and a lecture on information technology and the contemplative mind.

I do get the value of unplugging – if not for days on end – at least for specific periods of time during the day. I set aside several periods where I unplug. Any time I go to the gym, usually two or three times during the work week, I leave my cell phone behind so I’m not checking email or keeping up with social networks. I do listen to music which helps me contemplate. During this time I often find myself coming up with solutions to work challenges or ideas for new blog posts or essays – or they come in the post-workout shower – which is actually a fairly common phenomena. Studies have found that when we free our minds from any complex thought activity, some of our best ideas will emerge from the ether. I also unplug at breakfast and dinner and just take time to read the daily paper. But I know I should probably be setting aside additional hours for powering down.

Disconnecting from the Internet also has to be better for our physical and mental health. As one blogger recently put it, “Sitting in front of these glowing screens (as most of us do) for around eight hours a day for work and additional hours for leisure can’t be good for us as living, breathing organisms.” You can get me to do just about anything if you can convince me it’s going to improve my health (except eating cauliflower or brussel sprouts – even I have my limits). One academic librarian who shares when he is going offline for multiple days is Kenley Neufeld, which I always find interesting since he is one of the most socially-connected academic librarians I know. So we certainly have good reasons to unplug and power down – for all important contemplation, to improve our health and mental sharpness, and to provide times during the day when we can concentrate on sustained reading and writing without the constant interruption of email, status updates and tweets.

Did you power down during the break? Are you setting aside times each day for connection-free activity? Use the comments to share your story about how powering down helps you.

What Can We Learn from “Lessons Learned”?

It has taken me way too long to get around to reading Project Information Literacy‘s progress report, “Lessons Learned: How College Students Seek Information in a Digital Age.” Some of the key findings from their survey of over 2,000 students:

–They spend a lot of time getting a grasp of context: the big picture, the words being used to describe what they’re investigating, what they’re supposed to produce as a finished product. (This, it seems to me, is particularly true of novice researchers – or any researcher who is investigating something they know little about.)

–They don’t report using searching Google as their first step in starting a research project; they consult course readings to get their grounding. (Google and Wikipedia come first for non-classroom research needs.)

–Most of them don’t seek help from librarians. They seek it from their professors. Only about 20% consult librarians, and that is most often for help with search terms and with finding full text sources already identified.

–They consistently use a limited number of sources and strategies based on what has worked before. In large part their problem isn’t finding sources, it’s limiting the number of sources available so they can complete a project.

–putting off research because of “library anxiety” seems to have been replaced by confident procrastination.

–In addition to Google, almost all students report using library databases. Databases are useful for locating credible sources, and credibility matters to them (though brevity is also appreciated); Google is helpful in understanding context and figuring out what those sources mean.

–Most students also consult the catalog as part of their research process.

–The traditional “research strategy” still found on some library websites – moving from general to specific by means of reference books, then books, then articles,then the web – bears no relationship to student research practices. (I can’t resist adding that I thought that “research strategy” was bogus twenty years ago.)

The authors raise some thought-provoking conclusions which mirror some of my concerns. Does the kind of work these students do using library resources contribute to life-long learning, or are they preforming tasks that will get them through college and then be abandoned? If they are taking their cues from faculty, shouldn’t we be sending cues to faculty? Maybe rather than providing library services most students find unimportant to them, we should spend more time working with their research mentors: their teachers.

More will be coming from this project – including an analysis of instructor assignments. Which reminds me – I’ll bet faculty would be interested in the findings of this survey. See if you can use a few nuggets from it to start a conversation.

photo courtesy of oceandesetoile and the Flickr Creative Commons pool.

Real-Time Web Likely To Shift User Expectations

There are some interesting new real-time web developments, and I can see how the way in which information is being delivered in real time could very well shift user expectations for obtaining content from academic libraries. While we have some traditional types of electronic databases, such as Lexis/Nexis, that provide searchable news that is updated every 24 hours, even that may be an unacceptable time lag in a real-time web world. Consider that most of our user community members frequent Google and Bing, and that both of these search engines have added real-time news content from blogs, tweets, Facebook updates and more. Compared to what the search engines intend to offer, news updated every 24 hours seems slow. What else is happening in the world of real-time web news that could change user expectations?

While it’s only in the prototype stage I think there is some merit to Google’s “Living Stories” approach to real-time information. For now there are just a few stories that give you a feel for the design and intent of the service. In a collaboration with the New York Times and Washington Post (content providers), Living Stories provides a constantly updated news feed for a single topic. Each topic features what I’d best describe as a faceted search so that it is fairly easy to focus in on one aspect of the topic or a type of content, such as video. I don’t know where Google is headed with Live Stories, but I would certainly hope that in the future they add a category for higher education. I can visualize it as a powerful way to stay frequently updated on a particular higher education issue.

Another area in which the real-time web is creating some waves is in social networking. Mashable reported on the top five real-time web trends in 2009. Both Facebook and Twitter will be stepping up efforts to improve the delivery of real-time web content. Though folks are still trying to figure out how to use it, Google Wave brought real-time technology to our conversations. Could these various technologies will converge and bring about improvements for each service provider? Another trend that is shifting user expectations is the customizable homepage. If you use Netvibes, iGoogle or Pageflakes you know it’s easy to install any number of widgets for receiving real-time web reporting. Netvibes is taking this a step further with Wasabi, a version that delivers real-time content from any number of sources with no need to refresh. Savvy web developers are already adapting to the real-time web by creating sites that can be rapidly updated or changed to reflect current news and trends as they happen.

It’s not yet clear what advances in the real-time web are in store for 2010, but academic librarians may want to follow the developments closely for signs of how user expectations may shift in response to a growing world of real-time news and information. For more of an introduction to the real-time web concept and what it could mean for academic librarians see this ACRLog post.