Category Archives: Research Issues

Use this category for posts related to research projects, research conducted by librarians, the need for certain types of research, research in higher education

After The Values Study

ACRL has received a considerable amount of positive feedback about the Values of Academic Libraries Study. Perhaps you’ve had an opportunity to catch one of the presentations about the study that Megan Oakleaf, author of the study, or ACRL President Lisa Hinchliffe, have conducted at a number of different conferences.

At the Midwinter conference, during a meeting of ACRL’s Leadership Council (the Board, section chairs, and other miscellaneous representatives), a question was raised about what we do next with the Values study, or rather what comes after the study. If anyone at the meeting had a good idea, he or she chose not to share it because there were no responses to the question – and perhaps folks just had not yet had much time to give thought to that particular question. The study provides abundant information, from a mix of qualitative and quantitative studies, to help academic librarians provide evidence of the ways in which our libraries make valuable contributions to student and faculty success, and help to improve higher education. But the report itself is not a research study that provides concrete documentation of the value of academic libraries. What it does well is provide ammunition for library leaders who will want to argue for the value of academic libraries, and use it to make a case for institutional support. So the question about what comes next – what more can be done to create a strong connection between academic librarians and the value they provide – is a good one. I suspect ACRL is already cooking up some plans for next steps to extend the “value of academic libraries” initiative, but I’m not sure what they are.

As I’ve been thinking about this “what comes next” question, two possibilities have come to mind. I continue to believe that some of the most essential areas in which we can demonstrate the value of our work are student retention, persistence to graduation and student success beyond graduation. How do we connect our contributions to these higher education performance issues? I wanted to share some thoughts about this, and would like to hear what you think might make a good follow-up to the values study. One inspiration for a next step is the recently released book Academically Adrift that has created quite a stir in higher education circles with its finding that for many of our students there is little learning in their four years of college. The findings are based on data collected from a sample of 2,000 students from 24 four-year colleges. The students took standardized learning assessment tests three times during their college years.

That approach could offer some possibilities for a next step. With enough grant money a sample of students could be tracked in order to assess changes in their research skills. As seniors would they still be starting their research at Google? If asked, to what extent would they point to the librarians at their institution as playing a role in their academic success? Did the librarians have any impact on their ability to stay enrolled? The authors of Academically Adrift are already moving on to the “next step” in their research on student learning, and they’ll be looking more closely at alumni and what happens after college. Targeting alumni might even work better as a way to document the value of the academic library. If asked, what would alumni have to say about their library experience? I could see that as a more qualitative study, interviewing alumni to get more in depth information about their library experience, what value it provided and whether it was making a difference for them in their careers (assuming they’ve started careers).

A few colleagues and I previously did some quasi-experimental research on the use of LibGuides and whether, by examining the annotated bibliographies produced by the students in control and experimental groups, we could ascertain if the LibGuides made a difference in the use of library resources. While it was difficult to determine if higher quality work could be attributed to having access to the LibGuide, one thing we did notice is that there were clear outliers within the study groups. Some students performed far better, and perhaps that’s not unusual in any academic setting. Looking specifically at library research skills though, especially evaluation of content, what leads some students to excel? Another possible follow-up to Values Study could track the outliers into their post-graduate years to determine whether or not they still use their learned library skills in the workplace – and can any post-graduate success with work that involves research and/or writing be attributed to library research skills education. If we could link library research skill building with positive post-graduate or career performance that could definitely speak volumes about the value of academic librarians. There’s no question that these types of research projects are involved, somewhat complicated and almost a full-time job in themselves. That’s where ACRL’s connection with LIS educators to conduct the research makes good sense.

I’m not sure what will come after the Values Study. Given its success and value as a starting point, there is strong support in the library community for further research into the value of academic librarians and their libraries. In this post I focused on student retention and persistence to graduation. The Values Study also points to the academic librarian’s contribution to faculty research and productivity, as well as institutional prestige. There are important areas too for “next steps” research. ACRL is open to ideas for what comes next. Let ACRL know what you think would be a good next step. A great idea for what comes after the Values Study could come from anywhere in our profession.

Building Smart Collections for Today’s Users

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Anna Creech, Electronic Resources Librarian at the University of Richmond, Virginia. She also blogs at Eclectic Librarian.

Some days I look at my projects list and tasks and wonder how in the world I ended up here. They often appear to be more like what one might expect to be doing in an office of institutional research rather than in a library.

I am an electronic resources librarian, which I have found to be a title used for everything from online reference instruction to cataloging to acquisitions. In my case, I do little instruction or cataloging, and spend most of my time analyzing the digital resources we have acquired.

Increasingly, as libraries are forced to cut their resources even more severely, and in some cases, justify their existence, we have had to use more metrics to determine the value of our resources, whether they are personnel or materials. While this has been a tradition in libraries for as long as I’ve known them, it’s not what most of us thought we would be doing when we entered the profession. But, we can’t keep our heads in the sand any longer.

Just as we have many people who are passionate about the preservation of materials, we need to have as many if not more people in libraries who are passionate about the stewardship of the resources we purchase. We can no longer afford to purchase material that sits on a shelf and may never be touched. We need to be smarter about the things we acquire and a big part of that is looking at trends in the past to predict the future.

When I analyze usage data, I am looking for the anomalies that indicate a problem with a resource, such as sudden drops in use, declining patterns, etc. I talk to the public service librarians about resources that seem to be declining in use to make sure they are still relevant to our programs and researchers. We consider accessibility issues and course offering patterns before ultimately deciding whether or not to renew the resource or continue to collect in that area.

I hope that someday, we will be able to shift the 80/20 rule towards 100% circulation so that more of the resources in undergraduate libraries are used and not just sitting on the shelf waiting for someday to arrive. Alternative purchasing models like patron-driven acquisitions and collaborative collection development agreements indicate a trend towards making more purchasing decisions based on what users want now, and less towards purchasing things they might want later.

I know that some librarians are concerned that just-in-time collections will have significant gaps that may not be filled later on, but I don’t think we can afford to continue to maintain large just-in-case collections of materials. Academic libraries need to transition from being warehouses of books to being collaborative and individual learning spaces where research and innovation happen, and in part that means using ILL, document delivery, and online content to supplement materials that are not on the shelf.

If a publication is significant enough to be of value to a researcher someday, then it’s likely that a library somewhere has purchased a copy. Besides, we live in the future now. There’s no reason why a book needs to be out of print when it could be sold or otherwise made available in electronic formats. The argument of “we must purchase everything now or it may not be available later” is becoming less and less relevant.

I also hope that someday, libraries will have business intelligence tools to help them assess the return on investment for their collections. We do the best we can with the tools we have, but I think we could better make use of staff time if we didn’t spend so much of it getting our mish-mash of systems to spit out comparable data. This is why I believe we should be actively supporting standards initiative like COUNTER (Counting Online Usage of Networked Electronic Resource), SUSHI (Standardized Usage Statistics Harvesting Initiative), and CORE (Cost of Resource Exchange). They’re just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a start.

We librarians are an intelligent and resourceful bunch. With the right set of tools, I believe we could come close to creating “perfect” collections to meet the needs of our users. With the right set of tools, we can be better stewards of the financial resources provided by our institutions. It’s time to work smarter, not harder.

Underground Resource Sharing

One outcome of the Netflix discussion that took place in the library community is that there seems to be general agreement that adhering to licensing agreements is the right thing for academic librarians to do for a number of good reasons. Not only is it a good way to avoid a potential lawsuit from Netflix or a movie studio, but it sets the right example for students and faculty. How can we expect them to abide by fair use guidelines and licensing agreements if the campus librarians are openly flouting them. We need to take the moral high ground, even if Netflix represents a reasonably good solution to the DVD distribution challenge.

So I find it interesting that this blogger is complaining about not having access to JSTOR as an alumnus of some college or university. Dr. Koshary writes:

I didn’t think this would happen, now that I’m out of grad school, but I’m feeling a fresh surge of hatred for Dear Old University. I tried to log in to JSTOR to look up an article, and found that I no longer have access to JSTOR through my DOU affiliation.

I’m pretty sure Dr. Koshary knows that JSTOR is a restricted database, and that most libraries are prohibited from allowing alumni to gain access (unless they make some sort of arrangement which likely isn’t cheap – and Dr. Khosary suspects his alma mater has such an agreement). At the end of the rant against his alma mater he asks:

I don’t suppose any of my readers has a better/cheaper idea for me to regain access to JSTOR?

Turns out they do, and most of those offering advice don’t seem too concerned about taking the moral high ground – or even abiding by their university or library’s guidelines for sharing accounts:

Do what everybody I know who’s been in your position has done: get a friend who has access to a research library and its databases to share their log-in and password with you. I know I’ve helped a few people out in this way, and I’ve done it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. Sure, it’s technically “wrong” but I’d argue that it’s more wrong to charge underemployed people money for access to scholarly resources.

I just ran into this, where my new school has some journal accesses but not many, and I crowdsourced it on facebook — some current Gradschooland students offered me their proxy server login, and another was already in the library and emailed me the pdf.

Everyone does it. Hell, I’ll give you MY login if you want

Virtually everyone I know who’s not employed by a top-tier R1 has a bootlegged EEBO account: through friends who are still grad students, advisors, or friends with cushier jobs.

Makes you wonder why we even bother with licensing agreements in the first place? As long as you can get it for free somewhere else that’s all that matters. Just how rampant is this practice? Wish I had a way to do an anonymous poll of faculty, grad students and alums to see how many think it’s all right to provide or take an account to give someone else free access to restricted resources. Based on this post – probably a lot more than we think. So much for setting good examples.

Caught Between the Old and the New

Over the past academic year I’ve worked on a research project with a colleague to study the ways that students do their scholarly work, similar to the project at the University of Rochester a few years ago. We finished with data collection for this year and are spending the summer analyzing our results. We’ve gotten an additional grant and plan to collect data at a few more sites next year; ultimately we’ll produce a comprehensive analysis of all of our data. But in the short term, we’d like to share our preliminary results and analysis from this year’s research.

Here’s my dilemma: the fastest and most efficient way to disseminate our results is to share them on the website we’ve set up for the project. When I was an archaeologist we wrote up an interim report after each field season and a final report when the project was complete, and I’m thinking along these lines. However, I’m also a junior faculty member on the road to tenure, and the currency of the realm is, of course, the peer-reviewed journal article.

A peer-reviewed article will take considerably more time to be published, up to a year or even longer, especially if our submission isn’t accepted on the first try (as seems true for most article manuscripts). I’m a strong advocate of open access publishing, and it just seems wrong to keep our data to ourselves for all that time. But I do value the peer review process, and while I hope that posting a report on our website would generate comments, there’s no guarantee.

Ideally I’d like to write both a preliminary report, to be posted online by the end of the summer, and a scholarly article, submitted around the same time and (hopefully) published sometime next year. I’m not sure that we have time for both, though. While the summer months are slower in the library, we’re still open, and there are classes and reference desk shifts to staff and programs to plan for next year. So we are probably going to have to focus our energies on just one publication.

As I’ve been thinking on this recently there’s been lots of other news in the world of academic publishing. The University of California proposed a possible faculty boycott of the Nature Publishing Group. And an unusual scholarly publishing project came out of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University: Hacking the Academy, a book that gathered all of its submissions in just one week. I can’t help but think that we’re in an odd scholarly communication moment right now, stuck between old and new worlds of knowledge dissemination, and I’m not always sure how to chart my course.

The High Fidelity Challenge

Students no longer care about using high quality information.

Students are all too willing to satisfice for whatever content they can find along the path of least resistance.

Students are too dependent on search tools that facilitate their use of low quality sources.

These are common concerns we academic librarians have about our undergraduates. We lament that they’ve abandoned high quality library-supported resources for those that are easy to find and use but which offer lower quality content. As we’ve been told,convenience trumps quality, and our students often prove it’s true. Turns out that we are far from the only ones combatting this problem. I discovered a similar situation unfolding in an unexpected place, the hi-fidelity music industry. What’s happened is that the new generation is content to listen to music on mp3 players, but mp3s have the worst sound quality of any audio medium (e.g., CDs,DVDs,vinyl). Why is a new generation choosing to listen to poor quality music instead of opting for readily available alternate formats that offer superior quality?

In the literature of user experience, high fidelity refers to more than the quality of music. It refers to the practice of offering products or services that are high quality in nature, but which typically come with higher costs or less convenience. So why would anyone prefer high fidelity? It’s simple. Those who are passionate – or at least care – about quality tend to choose high over low fidelity. That explains the success of Starbucks in a world where cheap coffee is abundant. More academic libraries are exploring the creation of a great library experience. Some have added a new position with dedicated responsibility for the oversight of an improved user experience. There is no one user experience for academic libraries, but it’s likely we’d aim for an information seeking experience defined by “high fidelity”.

According to a New York Times article about the decline of interest in listening to music on high fidelity devices:

From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. “People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

No one in the industry is quite sure how to change the way people listen to music or understands what would encourage them to move back to high fidelity music – in the way that appreciating music played on high quality devices was prominent in the 1950s. If anything, new research suggests that over time the younger generation is just adapting to lower quality sound. According to the article, Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings.

Is there a parallel phenomena in our undergraduates? Have they become so accustomed to retrieving an avalanche of information for just about any search they perform that they’ve lost the ability of past generations to distinguish between high and low fidelity? It’s a good question and perhaps one we need to explore further through research. But for now perhaps our best strategy is to follow the path of those who offer high fidelity experiences. They know they they can’t reach everyone. They know the majority will be satisfied with low fidelity. But they also know a minority of individuals, those with a passion for more, will continue to seek out a quality experience. It’s the minority that’s keeping them in business.

Discovery engines like Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service may be the modern equivalent of a low fidelity search system, like mp3 players that have lousy sound quality – but the vast majority pay it no mind. They at least are a step above web search engines so we can feel better about them and tell ourselves they make a difference (e.g., something is better than nothing), and that there is indeed a possibility they will lead a student to discover a resource about which he or she previously knew nothing. And what about the high fidelity resources and services we offer? We need to recognize the undergraduates and graduates who are passionate about research, and concentrate our efforts on introducing them to and helping them develop their passion for high fidelity. Just as there will always be music aficionados who appreciate better sound, we’ll have members of our community who appreciate better resources. Let’s not forget that we have something of value to offer them.