Category Archives: Student Issues

Use this category for posts about our students, student services, and other issues involving students.

Digital Library, Virtual Place?

All of our academic library services and resources have their origins in the physical world, but many of them can be and are replicated online fairly easily. Access to collections in multiple formats (text, image, audio, video), reference services, and library and information literacy instruction all have digital variants, and examples of each are out there in the academic library universe (though not all libraries may implement an online version of every physical service or resource that they offer). Of course any service or resource can be improved, but there are lots of well-understood and tested models for moving these kinds of services and resources from the physical to the digital world.

But what about another important reason that students (and sometimes faculty) come to the library: a place for academic work and study? There’s lots of recent research on (and speculation on potential) student uses of the library as place. We all grapple with issues around these uses of our buildings: quiet vs. noise, group work vs. individual study, technology-enhanced workspaces, etc. If your college or university is seeing lots of growth in student enrollment the way mine is, you may be noticing some of these issues increasingly often.

The library is different from other spaces students might choose for study and academic work. In my own research I’ve often heard this from students: how they sometimes struggle to find a spot in the library with the ideal combination of light, sound, and space for them to work in, and that they find it challenging to create a space for study in areas outside of the library: at home, on the commute, etc. Some students describe specific college libraries in my university system as “serious” and prefer to work there rather than their enrolled college library. Space for academic work matters to our students, very much.

Is it possible (or even advisable) to replicate or provide an online alternative to the academic library as a place to study? As Laura’s recent post pointed out, our libraries can be spaces for all sorts of productive conversations and collaborations, both formal and informal. But I’m in a small library in a large commuter college, and on urban campuses like mine it can be difficult to find locations to expand our physical space. I tend to view adding online services and resources as a strategy we can try to address some of the limitations of the physical world.

Is there an analog to the library as place in the digital world? Should there be?

Convenience and its Discontents: Teaching Web-Scale Discovery in the Context of Google

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Pete Coco, formerly of Grand Valley State University, now Humanities Liaison at Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

With the continued improvements being made to web-scale discovery tools like Proquest’s Summon and EBSCO’s Discovery Service, access to library resources is reaching a singularity of sorts: frictionless searching. Providing a unified interface through which patrons can access nearly all of your library’s collection has an obvious appeal on all sides. Users get the googley familiarity and convenience of a singular, wide-ranging search box and, according to a recent case study done at Grand Valley State University, the reduced friction patrons face when using library resources correlates to an increase — potentially dramatic — in the frequency with which they access them. While these tools will continue to be tweaked and refined, it’s difficult to imagine an easier process for getting students to scholarly sources.

That’s the good news, and the story you’re likely getting from your sales rep. And while none of it is untrue, in my role as a teaching librarian I’ve seen more undergraduate students struggle to get what they need from web-scale discovery than I’ve seen benefit from its obvious conveniences. These students often know intuitively how to get to results from Summon’s search box; often they figure out on their own how to get to the item itself if it is available in full-text. In the library’s statistics, these might be counted fairly as successful searches. But when I ask the student whether the article at hand is what they wanted, I get one response far more frequently than all others: “Not… exactly.”

Web-scale discovery is doing about as much for these students as we could reasonably expect, and, in doing so, offers teaching librarians a challenge and an opportunity. Both are at root about our thinking, and they stem from the same fact: these tools offer an unprecedented convenience. For all the familiarity it allows students, our decision to make library tools more similar to commercial web search can reinforce the idea — primarily amongst students, but also, potentially, amongst administrators making personnel and workload decisions — that information literacy instruction isn’t necessary because students know how to get what they want from Google. If the new tool is like Google, then why does it require instruction?

There’s a lot to unpack in that question. First and foremost, what web-scale discovery borrows from Google does not make it Google. Searching Summon for scholarly articles will never be like searching Google — not because Summon cannot approximate Google’s user experience, but because scholarly communications will never be like the things students use Google to find.

Consider the freshman student looking for a pizza parlor that will deliver to his dorm. He comes to his commercial web search with a knowledge base and a self-defined need: pizza literacy, let’s call it. Having eaten and enjoyed pizza countless times in the past, he knows what it is and the range of forms it can take. Over time, he’s developed a preference for sausage, but tonight he wants pepperoni. Perhaps in this instance, he’s working under unique constraints — he saw a coupon somewhere, and is hoping to find it online. Whatever his specific pizza need, could there be any doubt that this student has the literal and conceptual vocabulary to effectively communicate that need to Google? In a way that will undoubtedly yield him with an informed pizza-choice?

Of course not. But consider the same student, his belly now full, turning to the research paper for his freshman composition course. Unlike his soul-deep craving for pepperoni, his need for “2-3 peer-reviewed articles” has been externally defined. If she is like too many of her peers, the professor assigning this requirement hasn’t done so in detail nor explained her pedagogical purpose for including it. She has given our hero but one bread crumb: go to the library website. Assuming his library’s discovery tool is featured prominently, it can potentially spare him the UI nightmare that would otherwise be the process of selecting a database to search. That’s quite a mercy, but it really only helps him with the first of many steps.

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Put another way: good learning is best facilitated by good pedagogy. The tool is not the pedagogy and it’s hard to imagine how it ever could be. Because of all the concepts and conventions implicit to scholarship, the scholarly resource that is not improved for students by expert intervention is and always will be a chimera. The future of teaching librarianship as a profession will only demand more vigilance on this point.

But for all these caveats, with the right framing discovery can be an excellent pedagogical tool. Because it relieves so many searches of the burden of that first question — which database should I search? — we can use our time with students to construct, together, answers to questions we all find more compelling. What is peer review? Why does it matter? Why would a professor use it as a standard for student research? Each can be elegantly demonstrated with discovery, and best of all, students can demonstrate it for themselves and each other while my guidance focuses on the concepts and conventions underneath all the clicking.

Rather than giving in to the temptation to compare discovery to Google as a means of marketing it to students, we should go out of our way to contrast the two. What is the difference between the commercial internet search and the library tool? What is the purpose each exists to serve? How does the commercial internet search engine decide what to show you? How does discovery? You might be surprised how sophisticated students can be when they’re given a space suited to sophistication. Discovery can help to create that space in your information literacy sessions.

Even in freshman courses, I’ve found that I’m able to dive right in to activities that lead to genuine and rewarding discussion. In one, for example, I have students choose a search term — usually the name of a superhero — and ask them to search it in both Google and in Summon (with the box checked for “scholarly” results only). To the average student my sessions, the distinction between thedarkknight.warnerbros.com and Batman and Robin in the Nude, or Class and Its Exceptions is instructive on its face. Discovery makes juxtaposition like this one quick, fluid, and highly demonstrable. My students don’t need to read more than the title and abstract of the latter to have a sense of the distinction at hand.

Discovery is also a great tool for “citation chasing.” Projecting a full citation in front of the classroom, I’ll preface the activity with a brief discussion of the citation itself. What is this text Pete is projecting on the board? Why does it exist? What are its component parts, and what do they tell us about the object it describes? Then I poll the students: how many of you think you could find the full-text of the article this citation describes using the library website? Depending on the class, anywhere from none to a half of the students raise their hands. Without discovery, I wouldn’t be able to say what I say to them next: The truth is you all can. So please: do. Within three minutes, the entire class has the full-text article on their own screens.

Discovery is not the tool for every task. Controlled vocabularies don’t federate well, and the student asking very specific questions of the literature is better off going straight to the disciplinary index. Known item searches proceeding from partial information are a recurrent challenge. We must be careful with the way we describe the scale of discovery to students. In our attempts to market discovery as convenient and easy, we may in fact be selling them on a product that doesn’t exist. In the absence of a clear purpose, convenience is not convenient.

But really, has convenience ever really been our only goal as educators? The commercial web has no doubt rattled the profession, and we must respond decisively to the vast changes it has brought to the information landscape. But when we start to speak primarily in terms of convenience, the risk is that we turn away from the terms of learning and pedagogy. It’s a choice you can make without even meaning to make it. The librarian who is able to choose between user education and user convenience, certainly, has the easier job. But will it be a job worth doing? Will his users get what they need from him? The hard thing, really, is find ways to give our users both with the fewest trade-offs. This is the tension at the heart of information literacy instruction. Romantics, we want to have it all. And so we should.

Collision Spaces

Please welcome Laura Braunstein to the ACRLog team. Laura is the English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College’s Baker-Berry Library. She has a doctorate in English from Northwestern University, where she taught writing and literature classes. She has worked as an index editor for the MLA International Bibliography, and serves as a consultant for the Schulz Library at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. Her research interests include collaborative learning, using archival materials in teaching, and the impact of the digital humanities on teaching and learning. She coproduced the ACRL Literatures in English Section promotional video, “Literature Librarians and Faculty: Partnering for Academic Success.”

A biologist friend just moved in to a beautiful new laboratory building on campus. Her old lab had been crowded and outdated: her graduate students made coffee in her office and there were women’s restrooms only on every other floor. Now she has state-of-the-art research facilities, a spacious office, and her graduate students have their own lunchroom. There’s a restroom right around the corner. So why does she miss the old, inefficient building? Because she never sees anyone anymore. Gone are the chance encounters and serendipitous meetings that would happen, even in the restroom, when a colleague in another department would ask how her research was going.

What my friend misses are the “collision spaces,” those informal physical gathering places, corridors, and hubs on campus where people collide and interact. In a recent blog post, the Ubiquitous Librarian wrote of his visit to TechPad, a collaborative office environment for startup companies near his campus. He mused that academic libraries could learn from the way that business incubators build into their floor plans collision spaces for “serendipitous conversation and discovery.” What does it take to enable an academic library to become a collision space? A cafe? Comfortable seating? Shelter from the elements? A fortunate position in campus geography? Tolerant food and drink policies?

As many lament the coming irrelevance of the academic library, I keep seeing evidence that these rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated. The most vibrant collision space on my campus is the library. Day after day it is packed with students, faculty, community members, and visitors to campus. Since we’re in a rural area, we don’t limit access to ID holders from our college. We have long embraced our identity as a resource for the community, and we value the connections that are enabled by being a crossroads for different kinds of users.

Social networking has certainly helped many of us make opportune connections in the virtual world. I would be truly sad, however, if our face-to-face arenas for networking disappeared. Day after day my work is enriched by being able to say: hey, it’s great to run in to you! How is that project going? What are you teaching this term? What can I do to help?

On Technologies and Library Space

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Maura Seale, Research and Instruction Librarian at Georgetown University Library.

Now that the fall semester instruction rush is over, I have been able to spend some time catching up on my library blog reading as well as my own research. I recently read this post on Academic Librarian about the National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011. The study basically found that undergraduate students are pretty attached to ‘standard issue’ technologies like computers and printers and recommends that universities and colleges should research what their particular students actually use and use that information to make policy.

This post made me think about the recent photo study I worked on at my own library. I work at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, which is the main library on campus. It houses the humanities, social sciences, and business collections, and unlike many campus buildings, is open 24 hours on weekdays during the fall and spring semesters. We’re primarily a residential campus and our building sees a lot of use. We (my department, Research and Instruction, and another department, Access Services) decided to do a photo study of some popular study spaces on the second and third floors of the library after hearing a presentation from Kathleen Webb of the University of Dayton. We knew that the library was heavily used and we were interested in figuring out how to make our spaces even more appealing to our students. On random days throughout the spring 2011 semester, we took photos and did head counts of nine distinct spaces. We analyzed this data over the summer and will be writing up our results shortly, after doing a few comparison dates in the fall 2011 semester.

I’m not going to talk about the conclusions we drew about the spaces themselves, as I’m saving that for the article, but our photos revealed a lot of interesting things about how students use technology. One of the spaces we photographed was our reference computer lab, which is very heavily used. That’s right – our desktop computers and especially printers are consistently used throughout the day. In the afternoons and early evenings, there is often a line at the printers; we even recommended that the library consider purchasing more printers, due to heavy use. Our reference room also has long tables that seat six, but they are usually occupied by four or less students, who use that space to spread out. What are they spreading out? Laptops, notebooks, and books, some of which are obviously library books. In the reading room on the third floor, students use the armchairs to read books and newspapers and the tables to use laptops, notebooks, and books.

It’s not that our students don’t use other technologies; I know that they use smartphones just from sitting at the reference desk and whenever I show a class how they can send a text with the call number and title to their phones, they get excited. But they’re still using that technology to find a print book and they snicker at the idea of Tweeting a call number and title. I really don’t see that many iPads on campus and I don’t know how much use our QR codes have really gotten. Sometimes I think that librarians want to anticipate change so badly, and are so keen on meeting our users’ needs that we jump beyond where our users are. It’s important to keep up on trends, of course, and to be open to technological changes as well as willing to embrace them, but we also need to stay grounded in what our specific users want and need. This photo study was invaluable in this regard and now we have evidence to make our case for more and better printers, as silly as that might seem.

What trends have you noticed in your user population? Are you doing anything to assess how technology is or is not being used on your campus? Have you discovered anything unexpected about your users in your own research?

Publishing Fat Cats, Collection Curation, and Serving Today’s Patron

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Heidi Steiner, Distance Learning Librarian at Norwich University.

The greatest reflection I find myself having following this year’s LJ/SLJ Ebook Summit is only vaguely about ebooks. Instead my mind is circling around balance. I tuned in to the “Marketing Ebooks to Students” panel ready for ideas about how I can get the online students I work with even more sold on ebooks to fill their immediate needs. I greatly enjoy Library Babel Fish and was excited to hear Barbara Fister’s perspective, which turned out to be: “I’m not quite ready to market ebooks to my students yet.” Barbara raised many questions we should all be thinking about. Her probing questions touched on patron privacy, censorship, preservation, sharing, putting money into yet more temporary licensed bundles, the long-term ramifications of providing patron driven acquisitions for last-minute needs, curating collections for the future, and talking to our patrons, both students and faculty, about what they really want. As a result, my brain is now in a seemingly inescapable conundrum.

While Barbara was speaking, I found myself focusing on her mentions of patron driven acquisitions (PDA) and trying to rectify her well-argued thoughts with my personal mental framework around PDA. Most people probably think of patron driven acquisitions in the most traditional sense: patrons initiating purchases of books for the physical collection. This may be in place via request buttons in the library catalog or some other mechanism. With ebooks in the fold, there are also plenty of libraries experimenting with patron driven ebook acquisitions. In my mind, I go directly to the model of PDA we use at my library, which is built around on-demand ebook rentals. Herein lies where my internal struggle begins. How do we balance standing up to the man, curating collections for the future, and serving the patrons we have now?

At Norwich University we serve an array of unique populations, including corps of cadets and civilian on-campus undergraduates and entirely online students in the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Our online students are on a tight course schedule with most in 6-credit hour, 11-week graduate courses, many with steady research requirements. At the library, we are constantly looking for ways to make necessary resources available quickly and seamlessly for all our patrons, but the online students pose the greatest challenge. This is notably important considering the impossibilities of physical interlibrary loan for books when students are around the globe. Collection and content curation can only take a small library so far, especially in serving such a diverse group of patrons. For us, patron driven acquisitions, specifically ebook rentals facilitated with Ebook Library (EBL), are a stop gap in the hole of needs and expectations. We choose what of the EBL catalog to make visible in our collection, patrons can see five minute previews of any given ebook and then request a loan. Ebook rentals default to a week and we pay a percentage of the ebook’s retail price with each rental instance. A purchase trigger goes off after the third rental to stay cost-effective. In my mind, our model of PDA at Norwich is more easily equated with interlibrary loan than collection development.

I often cannot help but ask myself why we are throwing money at publishers to buy books with roughly a 30-40% chance of circulating, when we can provide students with on-demand rentals thus guaranteeing use. What are we giving up by feeding the fat cat publishers and using collection development policies to make a best guess at what might get used one day? It’s a double-edged sword. We are feeding an industry that restricts knowledge to only those with access, while still curating a collection for the future, but may not be providing the resources our patrons need now; it is impossible to predict each possible need. On the flipside, what are we giving up with PDA in any of its possible incarnations? Depending on the scenario, it could be a lot or a little. PDA could mean sacrificing the integrity of our future collection, but it can also mean a satisfy patron today and knowing money spent was actually used for something. Fister’s short yet very powerful talk definitely provides some further clues to both answers, but it seems to me that nothing is that cut and dry.

We are maintaining balance through a combination of traditional, liaison program based collection development and patron driven ebook rentals at Norwich, but I cannot honestly say we are doing much to fight the fat cats…yet. In her talk, Fister argued we should be reinventing the academic monograph, as we are already spending money on books and just might posses the expertise to make it happen. This is an awesome thought and worthy quest, but where do small libraries fall in scholarly content creation? Certainly we can load open access ebook records into our catalogs, as Fister suggests. We can also work towards open access awareness, encourage and push publication in open access journals with our faculty and practice it ourselves, but what role can small college and university and libraries legitimately play in production?

I want to cultivate services that are right for our patrons now, but also desire building a library that is sustainable into the future. How are your libraries reacting as publishers keep an iron fist and ebooks proliferate, all while patron driven acquisitions meet immediate needs? Where do you find balance?