Category Archives: Libraries and Learning

For postings about information literacy, learning commons, and the role of libraries in higher education.

Digital Badges for Library Research?

The world of higher education has been abuzz this past year with the idea of digital badges. Many see digital badges as an alternative to higher education’s system of transcripts and post-secondary degrees, which are constantly being critically scrutinized for their value and ability demonstrate that students are ready for a competitive workforce. There have been several articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education discussing this educational trend. One such article is Kevin Carey’s “A Future Full of Badges,” published back in April. In it, Carey describes how UC Davis, a national leader in agriculture, is pioneering a digital open badge program.

UC Davis’s badge system was created specifically for undergraduate students majoring in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems. Their innovative system was one of the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition (sponsored by Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation). According to Carey,

Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.

As opposed to a university transcript, digital badges could provide a well-rounded view of a student’s accomplishments because it could take into account things like conferences attended and specific skills learned. Clearly, we’re not talking about Girl Scout badges.

Carey seems confident that digital badges aren’t simply a higher education fad. He believes that that with time, these types of systems will grow and be recognized by employers. But I’m still a bit skeptical over whether this movement will gain enough momentum to last.

But just for a moment, let’s assume that this open badge system proves to be a fixture in the future of higher education. Does this mean someday a student could get a badge in various areas of library research, such as searching Lexis/Nexis, locating a book by its call number, or correctly citing a source within a paper? Many college and university librarians struggle with getting information competency skills inserted into the curriculum in terms of learning outcomes or core competencies. And even if they are in the curriculum, librarians often struggle when it comes to working with teaching faculty and students to ensure that these skills are effectively being taught and graded. Perhaps badges could be a way for librarians to play a significant role in the development and assessment student information competency skills.

Would potential employers or graduate school admissions departments be impressed with a set of library research badges on someone’s application? I have no idea. But I do know that as the amount of content available via the Internet continues to grow exponentially, the more important it is that students possess the critical thinking skills necessary to search, find, assess, and use information. If digital badges do indeed flourish within higher education, I hope that library research will be a vital part of the badge sash.

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Lifelong Learning? I Need A Real Job.

Academic librarians connect with students during their college years in different ways, but we often know little about what happens to them once they depart our halls of learning. Sometimes we do keep in touch with those we met as students, possibly just by being Facebook friends, or a stronger friendship develops. Perhaps you’ve had that experience more than I have, although even in my own big city I’ve run into students I’ve known, and it’s rewarding when I discover they are establishing themselves as working professionals in their chosen careers.

In one less fortunate situation I kept contact with an MBA student who helped the library with a focus group project. This student was bright, articulate and just the quintessential go getter. I thought for sure he would have no problems with career success. However, for at least the next year after he graduated I continued to run into him in the campus fitness center. Month after month he told me how frustrated he was with his job search, and how he even began to question whether pursuing the MBA was a good choice. It was equal parts sad, depressing and frustrating to see this once vibrant and energetic student in such a state. I have not seen that student for a few months now, and I hope that’s because he finally found a job – or it might be that his access to the campus fitness center expired and that he cannot afford the monthly alumni fee.

That’s why watching “A Generation Lost in Space” was a challenge to view all the way through. It really brought back memories of my own encounters, and raises questions about what we can do as academic librarians to help our students acquire the skills that will help them get that first big career opportunity.

A Generation Lost in Space: Overeducated and Underemployed in America from Nick Padiak on Vimeo.

I would imagine that many academic librarians are already doing what they can to provide their students with resources and assistance to help them as job seekers. Likely strategies could include:

* creating resource guides specific to using library research tools for job research

* collaborating with colleagues in the career center to make sure they are aware of all the great tools we have for competitive intelligence research – and knowing that they are pointing students to them

* organizing library sponsored workshops on doing company and industry research that is job oriented

* allowing alumni to access business research resources on site (when allowed by licenses)

* providing one-on-one career research consultations with students

These are tremendously challenging times – as the video documents – for students heading out into the job market, especially when the students are graduating with less marketable majors. As academic librarians we often state that our mission is to provide students with lifelong learning skills – and that is often found in our mission statements or our information literacy goals. Granted, lifelong learning skills should be about more than finding a job. Those are important skills that will help students when they inevitably do find a satisfying career in their desired profession, and it will help them to keep growing and preparing them for future careers – among other things – such as being effective and productive community members.

When I see a video like this one and through personal encounters with students, I cannot help but feel we need to be doing more than talking about delivering lifelong learning skills (which always strikes me as somewhat ambiguous and impossible to measure or evaluate), and figuring out what more we could be doing to help our students have the best possible edge in a highly competitive job market. We can say that our job is to help them succeed academically during their time in college. What happens after that is not our responsibility – and given the nature of our work I’d agree with you. I’m just asking if there is more we can do. I do know that when I encounter our graduates who are feeling overeducated and underemployed, I am not about to ask how those lifelong learning skills are working out for them.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The semester is drawing to a close at my college and students in the information literacy course that I’m teaching are deep into their work on their final projects. I’m taking a breath before the grading begins and already starting to reflect on the semester: what worked well, what didn’t, what I’ll tweak over the summer and what I can use again in the fall.

One thing has been apparent since my students turned in their annotated bibliographies last month. To put it bluntly: their sources are awesome. Each of them has found solid information on their research topics from a wide variety of sources including scholarly books and articles, conference proceedings, academic websites, specialized reference materials, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other internet sources. I can honestly say that it was a delightful experience to read their bibliographies.

The students chose topics of interest to them which definitely seems to have helped them embrace the research process. But I think that the main reason they were able to find such excellent sources is time. We had time over the course of the semester to explore where information comes from; how and by whom it’s produced and distributed; how to search for, find, and evaluate it. We also spent time discussing when to use different kinds of information, for example, when it’s appropriate to use a journalistic source and when it’s better to find something scholarly. Like the old joke about Carnegie Hall, this semester my students had time to practice.

I don’t know that I’ve emerged on the other side of this assignment believing that credit-bearing courses are the one and only best way to teach information literacy, but my experiences this semester have certainly been eye-opening. It’s not that taking one course magically creates information literate students — as with English Composition courses and writing, this is just the beginning. But I do feel that the students have built a solid foundation that will serve them well as their information competencies continue to develop over the rest of their time in college and, I hope, throughout their lives.

Realistically, it would be difficult at my college to require an information literacy course of all students; there just aren’t enough available credits in most degree programs. So another thing I’ll be thinking on over the summer is how to port some of the successful strategies I used during the course over to the one-shot sessions that still represent most of the library and information literacy instruction we provide. And I’m hopeful that strategies from both kinds of instruction can continue to evolve and inform each other.

Designing A Library For Learning

We would all agree that learning takes place in an academic library – and other library buildings too. When members of the user community are at our libraries using a computer to find information it can result in learning. When student groups prepare for an assignment in a library study room it can facilitate learning. When they sit in a quiet space and contemplate reading material students will engage in learning. Then again, if learning is defined as a permanent change in behavior, we really never know if any actual learning happens in the library. But what if we could design the library building environment that facilitates “intentional” learning and brings people together in new types of communities for education and relationship building? We’d want to do that, right?

I recently had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Scott Bennett on the topic “Libraries and Learning: A History of Paradigm Change”. You may know Bennett as a library space planning consulting and Librarian Emeritus of Yale University. I was somewhat familiar with the topic because it is based on Bennett’s article in the April 2009 issue of portal:Libraries and the Academy [note: portal is now providing public access to forthcoming articles but has not yet done the same for the back files]. In the presentation Bennett explained the three paradigms, reading, books and learning. Early academic libraries were reading centered and featured grand reading rooms, such as the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library Reading Room. That’s a well known example of a library space intended to offer the community a place for contemplative reading. The next great academic library paradigm was book centered. My own research library, built in 1964, is a good example as the design is cleared intended to maximize book storage and browsing over the needs of people using the library and those who work there; the two are kept apart.

Bennett spent the bulk of his talk on achieving the new learning paradigm. There’s been some evolution here. The Levy Library at USC. The growth of the information commons. The hallmark of this paradigm is greater proactivity about creating spaces where intentional learning happens. Bennett was quite adamant that we needed to design spaces for intentional learning, not simply adding cafes and lounges because it is trendy but because the design will be learning centered – and we’ll think in advance about the purpose of each space and how it can contribute to learning. But what do we mean by intentional learning and how would spaces make it happen – what about librarians? Our job is to think more like educators than service providers. In closing Bennett showed us a chart based on his many studies of library building programs on which there are just two columns. The left represents resources dedicated to “library mission” and the other represents learning mission. It’s clear that the library mission – resources dedicated to providing services – is much greater than the learning mission.

So how do you design a building that supports intentional, or what I might call, authentic learning? We may have to wait until Bennett shares news from his next exploration project in which he’ll identify 12 behaviors that contribute to intentional learning – and how the library’s design can stimulate and support those behaviors. The more we know about what helps students learn and what’s important to them, the better able we are to design the space to support it. To my way of thinking Bennett struck me as a constructivist who would have students spend more time in study rooms learning on their own or from each other. But after some discussion we found common ground on connectivism where the learning is achieved through relationships and community. Students also learn when they create, and libraries designed for intentional learning should offer spaces where students synthesize existing information to create new ideas and course projects.

After hearing Bennett I am cautiously optimistic that it is indeed possible to design a library building that promotes intentional learning. That said, for a new library building it is also possible and even desirable to evoke the past with an eye-catching reading room – or some modern variation on it – and blend that with some book-centered spaces. A library for the 21st century can blend the two paradigms of the past with Bennett’s new one for the modern library.