Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Trouble With Books

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a conversation with faculty in the library and in other academic departments about undergraduate research assignments. We discussed some of the stumbling blocks that our students seem to face, especially as they search for sources for their papers. It’s hard for us to put ourselves back into the novice mindset that our students have, particularly in their first and second year at college, in which they’re not (yet) familiar with the disciplines. We don’t want them to use Wikipedia or other encyclopedias (which may become increasingly scarce?) as research sources, though for background information they’re great. But many students are just not ready to tackle the scholarly research articles that they’ll find when they search JSTOR or even Academic Search Complete.

More and more often I’m convinced that our beginning undergraduates need to use books for their research assignments. Books can bridge that gap between very general and very scholarly that is difficult to find in a journal article. They often cover a broad subject in smaller chunks (i.e., chapters), and can provide a good model for narrowing a topic into one that’s manageable for a short research assignments. Books can also help students exercise the muscles that they need for better internet and database searching as they mine chapter titles and the index for keywords. I’ve begun to push books much more vocally in my instruction sessions for these very reasons.

However, books come with stumbling blocks, too. Ideally students could search our library catalog and find the books they need for their assignments right on our shelves. We have a collection that serves our students’ needs well, I think, especially in the degree programs. But we are a physically small library, and it’s difficult for us to build a book collection to serve the general needs students have in English Composition I courses, for example. While some of those sections focus on New York City or Brooklyn in their reading and research, in other sections students can choose their own topic, or the faculty member picks a topic of interest which may change from semester to semester. It’s difficult to keep up with these changing topics and, though all of those classes come to the library for an instruction session, we often don’t know which topics students select unless they stop by the Reference Desk to ask for help with their research.

My college is part of a university in which all of the libraries circulate books in common, as do many academic and public library systems. Students (and faculty/staff) can have books delivered between the colleges in just a few days, and we encourage students to take advantage of this service when they’re hunting for sources on their research topics. But sometimes students aren’t doing their research far enough in advance to accommodate the time required to have a book delivered, and, while they can also visit the other colleges’ libraries in libraries in person, they may not have the time for that, either.

What about ebooks? Ebooks can help bridge the just-in-time gap, though they are not without their own issues: subscriptions to ebook packages that may shift the titles available over time, confusing requirements for reading or downloading on mobile devices, variable rules about what can or cannot be printed, etc. And while all of the ebooks we offer in our library can be read on a desktop computer, of course we can’t always accommodate all students who want to use a computer in the library.

So I’m left wondering: how can we get more (and more relevant) books into the hands of our beginning students? And, barring that, are there other resources that cover that middle ground between the general knowledge of encyclopedic sources and the specific, often too advanced, scholarly research of journal articles?

Change–The Encyclopedia Britannica Editors Say “It’s Okay”

If you were saving some of your budget to purchase the next print edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I have some bad news for you. Yesterday the editors announced that after 244 years of publication, they are going to stop printing bound volumes and instead will focus on digital editions. This decision is not altogether unexpected, given that most reference sources are going digital, but it remains somewhat surprising to those of us who are used to the 30+ volume set gathering dust on the ready reference shelf.

I found Encyclopedia Britannica’s blog post on this announcement very interesting. I was expecting something nostalgic, mournful, or even bitter. Instead, with the title of “Change: It’s Okay. Really,” it sounds as if they’re ready to move on. The Britannica Editors write:

A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge.

Unlike the blog post, the comments below the post are more melancholic. For example, one person says, “It’s a sad, sad day. I need no internet, no electrical outlet, and no batteries to read print.”

I vividly remember using the Encyclopedia Britannica in the children’s section of my public library in order to complete various homework assignments from elementary through high school. These are good memories, but will I miss the hardbound monolith? About as much as I miss the television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m serious—Buffy was a historical data point (at least in my own evolution) and this amazing show as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica helped me survive high school.  And now I believe that the time has come for us to let go.

At a recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative meeting, one of the presenters asked the audience if anyone had used the Encyclopedia Britannica within the past 12 months. Only one woman raised her hand and she explained that she used it to show a child how we used to look up information without computers or the Internet. This is how the Encyclopedia Britannica will continue to live on: as a symbol of how we used to gather and find information.

Poignantly, about 30 minutes after reading a news article about this announcement, I witnessed a pair of students pull one volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf. Now, this is literally the first time I have ever seen a students use this resource in my library since I arrived here a year and a half ago. I couldn’t help but wonder—why didn’t they just Google the information they were looking for? Or use one of our online encyclopedias? My guess is either their professor asked them to consult to it or perhaps they learned how to use the print volumes at their public library just as I did. Nevertheless, it made me smile.

Please feel free to share your memories of the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Buffy for that matter) in the comments below.

Three Cheers and Two Questions for the DPLA

Robert Darnton gave a talk at my institution last week about the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). He presented a progress report, the details of which he has outlined in the New York Review of Books. The first prototype of the DPLA, using technology developed in the project’s “Beta Sprint” competition, should be released in April 2013.

Darnton’s inspiration is familiar to most academic librarians: publisher greed has turned the public good of knowledge into a private commodity. Rising subscription prices have created an enclosure movement whereby the knowledge commons has become a gated community. The DPLA is envisioned as a “mega-meta-macro library” that would harness the technology of the internet to disseminate and preserve the world’s information for all, and for the ages.

I was encouraged and inspired by Darnton’s talk. As the project moves forward, I have two questions, both relating to possible unintended effects of the DPLA on long-term preservation of library materials.

Darnton described how the DPLA would employ a “moving wall” model of access to collections. Much like JSTOR’s archives of journal articles, the DPLA’s holdings would ideally lag three to five years behind currently released material (once some very thorny copyright issues have been untangled). Local institutions – public and academic libraries – would complement the DPLA by continuing to provide access to newly published books. The DPLA’s “opening day” collection would aggregate existing digital projects, such as the Hathi Trust and Internet Archive, enhanced by unique digital collections from rare book and special collections libraries.

My first question is: to what extent would this moving wall disincentivize academic and public libraries to maintain and preserve their own print collections, once the DPLA’s materials are available? My institution, like many, has deaccessioned back runs of JSTOR journals. With pressure on our libraries to reappropriate shelf space, will we see the same trend with book collections? Will public libraries lose support from their communities if “everything” indeed becomes available on the internet?

Second – and I must credit one of our library’s interns for this question – since the DPLA will aggregate many different digital collections, how confident are we that digitization standards will be consistent? Darnton admitted after the lecture that provided certain baseline standards are met, the project may have little control over quality. Individual institutions do such a nice job in digitizing their own materials, he suggested, that they could be models for the rest of the project. But given the amount of material targeted for inclusion, and the unlikelihood of reprocessing millions of pages of material already digitized, we can probably expect a wide variation in standards. How important is this, to us and to users?

Before the lecture, I joked to a friend that we were about to watch an episode of “Darnton Abbey.” Librarians in Darnton Abbey will be both upstairs and downstairs – we should labor to support the project, but we, like all users, will also greatly benefit. In the face of trends that threaten to enclose information in an estate of privilege, the DPLA aims to democratize knowledge for all.

Reflections on the 2012 EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Meeting

Two weeks ago I attended the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) meeting in Austin, Texas. EDUCAUSE is focused on furthering higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. ELI is an EDUCAUSE community dedicated to the development of learning through technology innovation. This was my first EDUCAUSE conference and it was exciting to attend a meeting dedicated to learning, technology, and higher education.

Learning analytics was a big trend at the meeting. In fact, there were several sessions dedicated to projects involving learning analytics and a panel debate on its efficacy and future. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept , learning analytics is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about student learning. At least from what I’ve seen so far, learning analytics programs are typically incorporated within a course management system as a tool to improve student success by making it easy to tell when students appear to be struggling.  Those opposed to learning analytics are afraid that it is too superficial—how do you define student success based on a number of logins, clicks, and quiz grades? I think that learning analytics has a lot of potential—especially in the realm of online learning, but I doubt it will ever be able to replace the connection between a teacher and a student.

One of my favorite presentations at the conference was given by Janet Zadina, an educational neuroscientist. She presented on her research on brain processes during learning. One of her main recommendations is that teachers need to provide as many pathways or opportunities as possible to allow the brain to make connections. My main takeaway from her presentation is that the ubiquitous “one-shots” library workshops are not allowing for long-term potentiation, or long-lasting signals between neurons. Academic librarians have known all along that our one-shots aren’t enough, but now we have scientific evidence to back up our gut feelings!

The NMC Horizon Report, a product of the New Media Consortium and ELI, monitors emerging technology trends in education around the world.  The 2012 edition was released about a month ago. There was a session at the meeting devoted to the report in which we heard the highlights of the key findings. There weren’t too many surprises. Mobile apps and tablet computing are expected to become pervasive within higher education in the next twelve months. In two to three years, game-based learning and learning analytics are expected to receive widespread adoption. Lastly, the authors see gesture-based computing and the Internet of Things as emerging in about four to five years. You can download a PDF copy of the report here.

The only disappointing part of ELI was hearing presentations on research projects that seemed to neglect the role of libraries. For example, I saw a presentation on a pilot project that examined student use of digital learning resources. It sounded like the researchers did not consult their librarians nor did they include any questions on library usage in their survey. This just goes to show that librarians need to become more involved in organizations such as EDUCAUSE so that we can ensure that our voices are heard.