Category Archives: Public Services

Explaining Authority

One thing I have found difficult in my librarian-instructor capacity is how to impress students with the idea that some sources of information are better than others. We are all comfortable with the concept that value is subjective. But does this apply to information? (My own answer varies depending on what day it is.)

Of students I have interacted with, I have met some who have not thought about source authority at all, and some who suspect there is a good source for the information they need but do not know how to find or identify it (because they have never before been expected to justify their sources?). Perhaps of the students I do not interact with, 100 percent are fully competent when it comes to finding and using information. It is possible that the majority of college students have a perfect grasp of information and how it is generated and used. Most of the students I work with at the library, however, do not.

In any case, I do not want to be heavy-handed and say “X sources are good but Y sources are bad,” first because even I do not think it is so black and white (see recent Elsevier story & the story about cancer research), and second because I do not think students will accept that message. That is the old librarian-as-gatekeeper, top-down mentality, which is no longer realistic. So I have been envisioning a fancy presentation containing the various examples I have been collecting of how you would look foolish if you relied on sources such as wikipedia for all your information. Unfortunately I have not gotten around to creating it yet, and such a thing would go out of date so fast that I am not convinced it would be worth the effort. (Although I did link to Colbert’s wikiality speech on one of our LibGuides.) Besides, when am I, the librarian, given classroom time to do something like that?

So I do not really know what to do, except briefly repeat the same old message about how it is generally a good thing to use sources from the college’s library, about how these are the sources instructors expect students to use, and unless I am questioned not be too specific about if and why they are ‘better.’ I am not so far down the libraryland rabbit hole that I imagine I will get a round of applause if I say “You should use the library because the library is on your side. The college library wants to provide you with high quality sources for your research. Our agenda is clearly stated. We do our best to provide an additional level of editorial process by reading reviews and making informed decisions for what should be added to the collection, and beyond that we are trying to make as much of it as possible accessible from home.”

Big fricking woop. Now I’ll go back to answering questions about how to cite web sites.

The Hardest Part of Being a Librarian

As the spring semester heads to a close, the amount of traffic at the library reference desk is picking up significantly. Students are needing last-minute help with papers and projects, trying to remember what their professors expect, and figuring out how they are going to complete everything by the due dates. Usually, students are lovely people to work with. Usually I really enjoy helping them, and usually I think they find my assistance very valuable.

Occasionally, though, I am reminded what the hardest part of being a librarian is for me. It’s not working with technology, it’s not having to constantly think on my feet, and it’s not the myriad other job duties: it’s working with difficult patrons. By “difficult,” I mean people who come to the library with chips on their shoulders, who are stressed because they are failing a class or have not gotten enough sleep, or who simply enjoy being in a power position and abusing whoever is sitting at the service desk. It is easy to blame superficial reasons for why people behave this way –- it’s the Millennials, the google mentality, etc. etc. — but I am sure there are studies linking stress and aggression and rudeness. The trick for the librarian is not to take it personally and not to redirect it at others.

I would not have become a librarian if I did not enjoy public services, but it is easy to forget how challenging it can be on the front lines every day. Librarians tend to be an introspective bunch, and the ability to remain calm and patient in every single situation is HARD, particularly if someone is deliberately trying to offend or antagonize you.

My point in writing this is not to complain about patrons but to give myself and all of us out there staffing service desks a little pep talk as the spring deluge hits the library. These are things I find helpful to remember:

1) No matter how rude or disrespectful a patron gets, there are always alternatives to losing your cool. If you feel yourself getting angry, take a step back, take a deep breath, and disengage yourself from the situation. Then figure out how to respond professionally.

2) Diffuse. Assist. Try and ignore tone. Focus on the problem that relates to the library, and do not feel responsible for the patron’s other problems. Be sympathetic, but do not join the student in badmouthing an assignment or instructor. Lead them in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves.

3) Go for a walk whenever you get a break. Listen to the birds. Listen to some music. Stare at something pretty. Whatever works.

4) If all else fails, call security. The presence of security personnel usually sobers people up. More importantly, keep in mind that you are not just one individual in a given situation — there are other people to back you up and support you.

Good luck, everybody!

Getting Students To Ask For Help Is A Higher Education Challenge

When we hear about or read research or surveys that gives us bad news about library services we may assume that we’re doing something wrong. It may be that we are. Or it may be that the academic library is but one service unit in a much larger higher education enterprise that suffers from a systemic problem. If there is a problem that causes our services to suffer we need to fix it no matter why it’s happening, but I think getting a better understanding of the larger issues that generate the problem across the institution – and then working with colleagues on a systemic solution – may be a better way to approach a challenge.

Back in December 2008 Ricklibrarian wrote a post about an article in the journal Reference & User Services Quarterly that had some research to which librarians should pay attention. What caused Ricklibrarian’s consternation was a finding that when college students had unsuccessful subject searches using library resources they had some counter strategies such as “use google” or “browse for books”, but not a single student indicated he or she would ask for help from a librarian. What librarian wouldn’t be alarmed by that finding?

But is there something unique about the library or librarians that causes students to avoid asking for help? We should ask ourselves why students would not even consider the possibility that there is someone designated to provide help. Another higher education survey I came across suggests that the problem isn’t the library or even librarians. Rather, it may be the students who exhibit a general reluctance to seek out help in academic environments. More significantly, the reason why students may not ask for help can point to larger problems in higher education organizations that may have nothing to do with the library.

A recent survey of online learners discovered that many dropout without finishing even a single course. But of greater interest is the study’s finding that despite the availability of a support network, the majority of these students quit without ever asking anyone for help – not financial help, not personal help from a faculty member, not help from campus health providers, not help from librarians. Now admittedly there are some differences between a remote learner and an on-campus student with respect to access to a help/support system, but the findings suggest that despite the abundant availability of help in higher education organizations students have a tendency to try to go it alone. Or, given the popularity of social networks, it may be they solely seek out help in these networks. Librarians have shared evidence of students using facebook and twitter to send out a “who knows how to research this assignment” message to their network. But one piece of data suggests a potential strategy for doing better. The study found that:

“53 percent craved more online student services and Web-based academic advising. Self-help, time management, and organizational advice also ranked as coveted offerings among students who dropped out (46 percent)”.

If we want students to ask for help we need to establish a more personal level of relationship that creates the bridge to interaction. We need to do more than just stand behind desks waiting for students to walk up and ask for help. The desk, with its anonymous and impersonal structure for providing help, appears out of touch with today’s students and their desire for personalized, network-style connections. These research studies and surveys are telling us we’ll miss huge numbers of students if that’s all we do. To be approachable, a librarian has to gain credibility as a member of a student’s network. Ask any librarian who gets out to classes and speaks to students, who goes to their school events, who does a good job of outreach, and he or she will tell you more students are coming directly to their office – bypassing the reference desk – to get help.

The next time we hear about students completely ignoring the library as a source of research help, perhaps we need to take a step back and think about the questions we need to ask, of ourselves and our campus colleagues, to learn more about our students and their help networks – and how we best get linked in. I suspect that the answer – and possible solution – will have something to do with meeting that craving for personalized, relationship-based help.

Purgatorio

I have a dilemma.  It is one that puts me in direct conflict with myself, and is remotely related to my post from November about where to draw the line when helping patrons.  We received a new printer/copier for student use back in October.  It has a document server that allows students to select the document they want to print and combines that with a coin-operated printing system.  For the most part, it works exactly the way it should, and should save me having to take printing payments every few minutes.

 

However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.

 

But this is what actually happens: the student prints, then comes to me at the desk.  “Did my syllabus print?”  I point to the large printer four steps to my left, and show them the instructions on the wall above the machine.  I continue my work (or my discussion with the student I am helping) and listen for the sounds of the printer.  As soon as I am free again, I look over.  The student is usually still standing there, staring at the machine.  I walk over, and ask them if they need help.  They have a panicked look, and say “I don’t know what to do!”  I walk them through, step by step.  “Oh – I didn’t see the instructions,” is quickly followed by “That was easy!” 

 

OK, I get that initial reaction.  New technology can be intimidating.  There’s a fear of breaking the machine, or messing it up somehow.  But the same student will come back two hours later and we will repeat the process, almost word for word.  I spent over *four hours* yesterday showing the nursing students – over and over – how to use the printer.  And they used it last semester!

 

However, even after two months of usage, students still look on it with fear and trembling and ask my help over and over and over again.  I have a large sign with step-by-step instructions, complete with pictures of all the relevant bits.  It’s a four step process.  Put your money in.  Press the “Document Server” button.  Use the touch screen to highlight your document.  Press Start.  I even have instructions at each computer workstation: Print as you would normally.  Walk to the printer.  Follow the instructions printed there.

 

So I ask those wiser than myself: how do you teach folks how to use the technology so they become self-sufficient? More importantly, is there some kind of trick to creating printed instructions that actually are useful to a new user?  I really do want to help, but I also can’t afford to spend half of every day just helping people print. 

 

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?