Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Bearer of Bad News

One of the college service projects I’m working on involves the creation of a new digital platform for teaching and learning at my college. As faculty have begun to use the platform for their courses this semester, I’m finding that there’s been an uptick in the number of questions I field about posting course readings online. We don’t have an ereserve system at my library, and while I take any opportunity I can get to promote direct linking into our article databases, inevitably there are readings that faculty need to assign to their students that aren’t available in the databases.

It’s so interesting to see the range of awareness about copyright issues among my faculty colleagues. When they ask me whether then can post scanned book chapters or articles on their password-protected course sites, I respond by mentioning the Georgia State copyright case and urging caution. Many (most?) of the faculty I’ve spoken with aren’t aware of the case, perhaps because, like so many other aspects of the scholarly communications system, it seems like a library problem?

I like talking with faculty about copyright alternatives: about open access publishing, public domain materials, creative commons licenses, and how openness benefits researchers and the public — I could go on for hours. And I sympathize with faculty who struggle to get course materials to their students in the most efficient way possible. But I don’t like it when there are no acceptable alternatives. That’s tough to talk about, and I hate the hollow awkwardness that comes with telling colleagues that it’s not advisable to do something that is already such an accepted practice in faculty culture.

The Georgia State trial has ended. Once the verdict is announced, whatever the decision, we’ll have another opportunity for conversations about copyright alternatives with faculty. How can we promote awareness across the academy and emphasize that copyright isn’t just a library issue?

Tackling Textbooks

Many libraries grapple with whether to buy textbooks to put on reserve for students to use. At my college we do acquire textbooks, though of course we purchase many other books for circulating use as well. I’ve usually thought about the textbook issue from the perspective of the library, for example, our materials costs vs. the relative perishability of these books. Textbooks also have an impact on our library faculty and staff: our students assume that the library has their textbook on reserve and and sometimes get frustrated when we don’t, and can take their frustration out on our library faculty and staff.

But I’m starting to think that our offering many textbooks on reserve for students to use is deflecting many of the core issues with textbooks. Recently we’ve heard our faculty lament more and more often that their students are not buying the textbook for their classes. This is not surprising: textbook prices are high and growing, and I’d guess that one of the main reasons students don’t want to buy their textbooks is that it seems like a lot of money for something they may only use in one class, especially for classes that aren’t in their major.

We are certainly helping our students when we provide textbooks on reserve for them to use, which is an important part of any college library’s mission and goals. But we’re also allowing faculty to sidestep a major and thorny issue in academic publishing: the extremely high and continuously increasing cost of textbooks.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s definitely value in textbooks. Writing about complex subjects and disciplines in a clear, concise way that’s appropriate for undergraduates, especially first year students, is challenging. A good textbook can be very useful for faculty teaching and students taking a course. Some textbooks are not unreasonably priced, either. But for far too many topics it seems like the textbook market is out of control, with new editions every couple of years, and costs into the hundreds of dollars.

Open access textbooks and educational materials are one way to tackle these thorny textbook issues. As we get closer to Open Access Week I’m preparing for a faculty workshop we’re planning at my library, and am beginning to read about encouraging experiments with open access textbooks and other curricular materials by librarians and faculty. Is your library working on an open access curriculum project with faculty? Please share your thoughts and lessons learned below.

Personal Content Capitalism

I’ve been hearing less and less about Google+ lately, the social network launched by the search giant over the summer. I can’t comment on its functionality because I haven’t tried it; while I’m interested, I’ve got a couple of big projects going on and don’t have the bandwidth right now for an additional flavor of social media. However, my partner is on Google+ and recently let me know that he added me to a circle. I have a Google account and use lots of other Google services, but feels weird that people I know can add me to Google+ circles even though I’m not using the service.

It’s worth thinking about the way social media and internet services are monetizing (or trying to monetize) our personal content. Like many librarians and academics I rely on these services frequently, though I’ve lately begun to question whether the advantages and convenience that they provide are worth it. Last month the professional social networking website LinkedIn retreated from an earlier decision to include photographs from their users’ profile pages in ads for the service. This was just the latest in what seems to be an ever-increasing number of news items about social media companies that push their users’ comfort levels with privacy a bit to far.

A few months ago I quit Facebook because I was concerned that their privacy policies are growing evermore fluid at the same time that everyone seems to be using it to post information about events, photos, etc. Every time I commented on a friend’s wall or uploaded a picture of my kid I felt like I wasn’t getting nearly as much out of my end of the relationship as Facebook was from me. I have to admit, though, that I do miss the easy access to information from a wide range of folks I know from many stages of my life.

Like Facebook, Google uses our personal content to sell ads. Of course, selling internet ads is Google’s whole business: we are Google’s product, and the longer Google can keep us online, the more money they can make selling ads. I don’t use Gmail because I have another email provider. But I’m a heavy user of other Google services. I keep my personal schedule in Google Calendar because at our library we use it for our internal scheduling. I use Docs to collaborate with colleagues everywhere: in my library (though we are shifting to an internal wiki for much of that), with colleagues across the university system where I work, and with long-distance collaborators. And checking in with Google Reader is a staple of my daily routine.

But lately I’m reconsidering all of the personal content I’ve willingly given to internet services. I’m not sure how to ramp down my use of these tools that I’ve become so dependent on, especially given the number of people I work and communicate with who use the same tools. What’s the appropriate balance of control over our personal content and convenient, useful services? And how should we help guide students in making these same decisions?

Searching the Library Website and Beyond: A Graduate Student Perspective

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Julia Skinner, a first year Information Studies doctoral student at Florida State University. She blogs at Julia’s Library Research.

I just finished my MLS, and one of the issues raised frequently both in and out of the classroom was how to get college students and researchers to use the library website. Academic librarians I’ve talked with have spent hefty amounts of time (and money) designing sites that meet the self-described needs of patrons, but still find most of the searches that guide students to library resources to be coming from Google. I decided to take a look at my own search habits to get a sense of how, from the graduate student perspective, these tools might be employed, and hopefully generate some discussion about searching on the library website and beyond.

Like many other people, I usually do a quick Google search on my topic early on in the research process. This isn’t necessarily to track down every resource I would be using, but it does give me a general sense of what’s out there on my topic beyond the realm of scholarly materials. Since my own work relies heavily on the journal articles, scholarly monographs, primary sources, and other reliable sources, I feel like seeing what people have said outside the ivory tower can be a good way to give myself some perspective about how my topic is thought of and applied elsewhere. Most of the time, like for my research on Iowa libraries during WWI, there’s not much. But sometimes this search helps me find something useful (for example, in my recent work writing chapters for an encyclopedia on immigration, I was able to find information about nonprofits serving the immigrant community and some news stories.)

Obviously, the university library is still my go-to source. Journal articles, ebooks, not to mention circulating and special collections, are all where the meat and potatoes of my bibliography can be found. I love that many libraries are putting these collections online and purchasing more digital subscriptions (especially in the winter when I have a serious sinus infection and am locked in my house trying to work!) Sometimes, I find these resources through Google Scholar, but most of the time, it’s through searches within the library’s resources. This is especially true for journal articles, which I’ve found Google hasn’t really nailed yet when it comes to bringing desired results from a simple keyword search (I know, it’s a lot to ask, and hence why I love the library site!)

One tool I use heavily is Google Books. Not everything is on there, and most of the things that are have a limited availability (i.e. a preview where only some pages are available) but I have saved countless hours by doing a keyword search in GBooks to get a sense of what’s out there that mentions or is relevant to my topic, but maybe isn’t something I would have grabbed while browsing the shelves. I can then go track down the physical book for a more thorough read, or if I am able to access all the information I need from the preview I can just use it as a digital resource. Some other useful documents are in full view as well: many public domain items, including some ALA documents, can be found there.

Of course I don’t just use Google Books and assume that’s all there is. I also track down public domain titles on sites like Open Library and Project Gutenberg, and approach them in the same way. It’s a great way to get that one tidbit that really pulls an article together, and I usually find that some of those works don’t overlap with the offerings I find in the databases the library subscribes to. I will sometimes use different search engines, search a variety of fields, do Boolean search, etc. all of which helps me extract more little nuggets of information from the vast world of material related to any given topic. Even though I’m an avid Googler, I use library resources just as frequently. I remember speaking with a student a few years ago who could not find anything on her topic through a keyword search, and assumed there was nothing out there on that topic. I was amazed that she hadn’t even considered the university library’s website or physical collections before throwing in the towel! It makes me wonder how many students feel this way, and how we as LIS professionals and instructors can help effectively remove those blinders.

One thing I think will be interesting in the coming years (and which is a great thing to get input about from academic librarians!) is learning more about search habits among undergraduates. I’ll be TAing for our MLIS program this semester, so I’ll be working with students who are my age, getting the degree I just recently obtained, who are tech savvy and knowledgeable about search. What happens when I TA for an undergraduate course? Is sharing my search strategies helpful for papers that only require a handful of sources, and don’t require you to look at a topic from every imaginable angle? I argue that teaching search as something done in as many outlets as possible has the potential to make students better researchers, BUT only if that goes hand in hand with instruction on critically evaluating resources.

Without that, one runs the risk of putting students in information overload or having students work with sources that are irrelevant/untrustworthy. I’m a big fan of helping students recognize that the knowledge they have and the ideas they create are valuable, and it makes me wonder if building on their current search habits in such a way that encourages them to speak about the value of those sources, the flaws in their arguments, etc. will help promote that. I remember having a few (but not many) undergrad courses that encouraged me to draw upon my own knowledge and experience for papers, and to critically analyze works rather than just write papers filled with other peoples arguments followed by I agree/disagree. I feel like teaching is moving more in the direction of critical analysis, and I’m excited to see the role that librarians and library websites play!