Monthly Archives: July 2010

A Guide, or a Crutch?

We’re moving the subject guides on our library website from HTML pages into a wiki, which we hope will make them easier for us to update and customize. It’s been a nice opportunity to freshen the content, weed out the dead links, etc. We plan to encourage faculty across the college to contribute to the subject guides as well as collaborate on custom research guides for their courses.

I’m finding myself with a couple of nagging concerns as I start the conversion project. Are we making it too easy for our students when we create subject or research guides for them? If they start with a subject guide, are they fully learning how to do research–how to find, select and evaluate information? Are we missing an opportunity for information literacy instruction, or even intentionally removing that opportunity? Or, do subject guides help us take advantage of technology to extend our instructional efforts?

Subject guides can definitely be useful to students, especially those in the early years of their college careers who may not be familiar with college-level research. Instructors can encourage students to use the subject guide as a starting point (and require them to incorporate resources beyond those included in the guide). Since students often take courses in disciplines that are entirely new to them, getting a research foothold is a challenge that a subject guide can facilitate.

However, when we give students a subject guide for them to use to start their research, we’re not exposing them to an actual, real-world research situation. It’s true that it’s more difficult to do research on a topic that’s unfamiliar, but throughout their lives our students will likely need to find information about lots of topics with which they have no prior knowledge. It’s much more challenging to start researching from scratch, but it is difficult to develop the ability to create and iterate search strategies when research resources are provided in a subject guide.

Subject guides can also benefit students in courses that, for whatever reason, can’t accommodate library instruction. I prefer the opportunity to incorporate information literacy into a course in the classroom, but surely some subject-specific research assistance is better than none, right? But I also wonder whether instructors who make use of subject or research guides in their classes will be less likely to bring their students for library instruction or collaborate with librarians to incorporate information literacy into their curriculum.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how our subject guides develop once they’re on the wiki. If your library creates collaborative subject or research guides with faculty, what have your experiences been?

Does Where You Work Define Who You Are As An Academic Librarian

The great thing about our higher education system is the enormous diversity found in the approximately 4,000 institutions that offer degree programs. Having too many options is sometimes a challenge, but a more significant issue in American higher education is the disparity between the have’s and the have not’s. The same could be said of academic libraries. Some have incredible resources while others subsist on a shoestring budget. I’ve worked in both environments, and I’ve enjoyed both though I now tend to think there are greater benefits to working in the latter. For one thing, it forces you to be much more creative in how you attack problems because the luxury of just throwing money at them isn’t an option. The victories, when they come, may be small but are far sweeter and rewarding. If you are or have been in this situation, or if you’ve ever been part of a team that’s turned around a challenged academic library, I think you know what I mean.

I’ve also known academic librarians who work in the former and would never consider a position at the latter because they like the prestige associated with being at their well-off institution. That’s not to say they dislike their jobs but stick it out for the prestige, but they might not consider the possibilities afforded at less well-off libraries. That’s also not to suggest they see their well-resourced academic libraries as problem-free havens. Those libraries also have their share of difficulties and challenges, though they might be significantly different ones than what those at poorly-resourced libraries are encountering. And by all means, I’m not suggesting our colleagues who enjoy working at a prestigious institution are snobs. Having an abundance of resources – even despite the economic challenges of the past two years – is an asset, and I know well the advantages it can offer in allowing the library to make a difference for the academic community.

But do we define who we are in the field of higher education by where we work? This question was the subject of a short essay by David Evan titled “Going Home”, in which he visits his alma mater for a reunion and contemplates the contrast between it prestigiousness and the place where he teaches which is far less well resourced. He writes:

Like a lot of academics, I’ve had the interesting experience of working at institutions that are much less prosperous and prestigious than the one where I earned my degree…My undergraduate institution is rich and has been for a long time. Although its endowment has shrunk in the past couple of years, it could come close to supporting its entire generous annual budget through conservative spending of its endowment income. Even 29 years ago, when I was about to start as a freshman, it had physical and instructional resources that beggar those at most institutions. The faculty teaching load is 2-2; the average faculty salary is nearly twice that at my current institution (and my current institution pays quite well, relatively speaking). A degree from there has, beyond doubt, been a foundation for my subsequent career.For a long time, I had a strong urge to return to work at a similar institution—a rich, selective liberal-arts college with highly talented students in a desirable location. My first job was at a much less rich (not rich at all, actually), noticeably less selective liberal-arts college in a location that many young faculty members would find less compelling. None of my subsequent jobs have been much different.

While this section of the essay makes it sound like Evan regrets his employment decisions, nothing could be farther from the truth. He goes on to write about how much he has enjoyed and learned from all of his different experiences at the four institutions he has worked in his career, though none of them carried the prestige of his alma mater. He concludes by sharing what’s he’s learned over the course of his career and offer this as advice to others:

Prestige is an immense factor in the academy. We are acculturated by the “big brands” of higher education, and many of us were taught to measure our value by our professional proximity to those big brands. I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons so many academics are unhappy. They were highly talented, motivated students at the most prosperous and accommodating institutions in higher education. Being removed from that rarefied context can be a rude shock, and enduring it can be hard for many people. But there’s a lot to do in higher education that doesn’t depend much on prestige or even institutional wealth. There are a lot of worthy missions in colleges, and a lot of excellent places to have a fine career. I wish I’d figure that out earlier.

At ALA Annual there were several programs directed to newer-to-the-profession librarians. Many of the speakers and attendees were academic librarians. I attended one where the panelists were all new to their jobs and just starting their careers, and at another I was a panelist where we were all well-seasoned academic librarians reflecting on our career paths, and offering advice to newer colleagues. At all of these programs there were both presenters and participants from all types of institutions, both well and poorly resourced. The question of whether it is better to pursue a position at one or the other never came up. In fact, most of those new graduates still seeking their first position indicated they’d be willing to work just about anywhere; institutional prestige or the lack thereof was certainly not on their minds. Had it come it up I would have wanted those who attended these programs to know that where you work, as Evan eventually discovered in his career, should not define your status as an academic librarian, nor should any academic librarian feel inferior or unhappy because he or she doesn’t work at a “big brand” college or university. The rewards of being an academic librarian can be discovered and achieved at almost any institution – just as being at a prestigious one is no guarantee of job satisfaction.