Category Archives: Technology Issues

For posts about teaching technologies, library technology issues, new technology

“We Don’t Read That Way”

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura Braunstein, English Language and Literature Librarian at Dartmouth College.

I was chatting recently with a professor in my liaison department who was beginning research for a new book. Did she have everything she needed? Was there anything I should look into ordering? Yes, she said, the library was pretty well stocked with books and journals for the topic. However, many of the books she needed we only had as ebooks – for those, she would order print copies through interlibrary loan.

One of my colleagues had a similar experience. He was talking to several of his liaison faculty about a new ebook collection in the Humanities. The collection would be great, they told him, when they needed to look something up quickly, or search for a mention of a particular topic. But they would still want print books for serious study – ebooks weren’t the same, they told him, “we just don’t read that way.”

Many of these professors own Kindles or other ereaders, and love them – for reading the latest Ruth Rendell mystery on a six-hour flight to France to visit an archive. It’s one thing, they tell us, to read for pleasure on a screen – but it’s quite another to read for understanding, for critique, for engaging in the scholarly conversation. And this isn’t a generational matter – some of the faculty I know who seem most committed to print are younger than forty.

Does reading in the Humanities necessitate the long-form, linear, analog experience of the codex? Even when I tell these professors about the features available in some of the new ebook platforms – highlighting, annotation, sharing notes, etc – they still assert that they “just don’t read that way.” (And what applies to reading is even more crucial in writing – when it comes to tenure or promotion, they tell me, no monograph “born digital” would ever “count” in the way a print book would.)

Ebooks seem like sweet low-hanging fruit – they have enhanced searchability, accessibility at any time or place, and reduced storage and preservation costs. What’s not to love? Ebooks seem to make our students very happy. Often they don’t want to read a book cover to cover (although their professors might wish they would), and searching for relevant passages seems to satisfy their needs for many assignments. And journal literature seems exempt from the preference for print – I haven’t heard many complaints about deaccessioning back runs of print journals represented in JSTOR’s collections, for instance.

Is a user who routinely requests a print copy when the ebook is in the library’s holdings just multiplying the costs we thought we were saving? Should we deny these requests? Should we tell our Humanities faculty that even if they “just don’t read that way,” they should, because that’s the way the world of scholarly communication is moving in most other fields? Do we need to change their habits of reading, and habits of mind? Do we lead them to new formats or follow their preferences?

If You Give a Student an iPad…

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Veronica A. Wells, Access Services/Music Librarian at University of the Pacific. You can find her online at Euterpean Librarian.

If you give a student an iPad…she will ask for Angry Birds. This is one of the many lessons I learned when I handed four students each an iPad at a recent library workshop.

Thanks to a grant awarded to two of my colleagues, my library has had the opportunity to purchase and experiment with iPads for reference and instruction. It was quite entertaining to see the students’ reactions when I told them they would be using the iPads. It was even more entertaining to watch as they effortlessly used the requisite apps and navigated the device.

I attended ACRL’s Immersion Teacher Track Program last summer and I saw several librarians with iPads. I asked them if they were using them for reference and instruction. Most said they weren’t quite sure yet, but that they had been encouraged to experiment. To me, this is a very exciting time. There is no Best Practices with iPads…yet. Right now we are free to make up the rules, fail, and hopefully learn about ourselves, our colleagues, our students, and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this new technology. And that’s exactly what we’re doing at my library.

Earlier this month the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article discussing several iPad project presentations held at the annual Educause conference in Philadelphia, entitled Colleges Take Varied Approaches to iPad Experiments, With Mixed Results. None of these projects come from academic libraries, but I am really interested in the ways in which higher education institutions are experimenting with tablets and to see if they might have some advice for academic librarians. For example, Pepperdine University is comparing a group of students using iPads for their coursework to a group using printed books or laptops. According to the researchers, preliminary data shows that the iPad-using students appear to be more engaged with the course material. Perhaps this means that students might be “more engaged” in a library instruction session or a reference interaction when given the opportunity to use a tablet. For more details, check out the Pepperdine iPad Project website.

In my library workshop, we used the iPads with the help of QR Codes (or Quick Response Codes) to get students moving around the library in order to find books, sound recordings, musical scores, Billboard magazine, and the Multimedia Studio. In general, the class was relatively successful and I can’t wait to try it again with a larger group. While students were able to seamlessly and effectively use the iPads and apps, a couple of them struggled when it came to looking up something by call number and finding the music reference area. This fascinated me. Why is it that students can figure out an iPad without much effort, but not the physical library? Are they or is the library to blame? But I wonder if there might be a way for us to rethink our physical space of the library so that it “makes sense” to our digital natives like a tablet or cell phone does. It’s at least making think that I need to relocate the music reference section.

Have you experimented with tablets at your library? How have students reacted?

Thinking About ‘The Filter Bubble’

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Jessica Hagman, Reference and Instruction Librarian at Ohio University. She blogs at Jess in Ohio.

Last fall, I taught a one-credit learning community seminar. During the week where we discussed research and library resources, I showed the class this video from Google, describing how the search engine works. I suspected that most students had no idea how links come to the top of a Google search results page and no basis on which to begin evaluating the results beyond page rank, a suspicion confirmed by research from the Web Use Project (previously discussed here on ACRLog).

Yet, when I asked whether the video surprised them or if the search engine process was different than they had previously thought, I heard the proverbial crickets. Finally, one student spoke up with a shrug, “I guess I’ve just never thought about it before.” While I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that few students spent time thinking about the mechanics of Google, it was startling to hear it stated so clearly.

I thought about this comment again a few weeks ago when I ran across a link to Eli Pariser’s TED Talk “Beware Online Filter Bubbles.” In the talk and his new book elaborating on the subject Pariser argues that companies like Facebook and Google use the data we share online to build a personalized bubble around each person in which they only encounter information, news and links that confirm their already established world view and assumptions. And while the bubble is pervasive, it is mostly invisible.

After watching the talk, my thoughts turned to the undergraduate researcher writing about a contentious social issue like gun control or abortion whose browser history limits the scope of the results they see on Google. I’ve discussed Google searching in many library instruction sessions, but it’s usually been to point out the poor quality of some of the search results and to encourage students to look beyond the first link. Starting in the fall, I will mention the personalization of search results as well, so that students are at least aware that their search results reflect more than just the keywords they searched.

The implications of the filter bubble may go beyond the research for a freshman composition paper, however. In the later chapters of his book, Pariser argues that the pervasiveness of filter bubbles may hinder learning, creativity, innovation, political dialogue, and even make us more susceptible to manipulative advertising. It’s difficult to discuss these consequences in a one-shot library instruction session, but to know that the bubble exists is a powerful first step to escaping it when necessary.

I will be teaching the learning community seminar again this fall, and this year I will show them Pariser’s talk. While I think it’s important that they be aware of personalized search and its potential implications, I’m also very curious to hear what students think about personalized search and a world of filtered information. While they may not have spent much time thinking about Google in the past, I hope that seeing the video will encourage them to think about how their own search history and browsing data affect what see – or do not see – online.

Is It Just Me Or Does It Seem Like Some Startup Is Always Stealing Our Great Ideas

Social networking and media are attractive tools for academic librarians. While we are still looking for the killer application for an academic library, our experiments and efforts to leverage social media to connect with students are worth pursuing and occasionally produce good results. There is evidence that having a presence in Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can increase the possibility for connection between the academic library and its community members. Some of us are taking a more strategic approach to using social media. We may be creating guidelines for the appropriate uses of media, staff teams devoted to the regular use of social networks and our parent institutions are getting more serious about their use of social media as well. Where we still struggle though is in figuring out how to exploit social media to get students to become more aware and make better use of academic research resources for their course-based assignments.

I’ve always thought the real success of social media for academic libraries would involve some type of application where we would create networks that allow our students to engage with us and their peers to get the research help at the point of need. Consider a scenario where a student is working on his or her research paper assignment. He or she needs to find several articles for background information, but hits a roadblock in trying to find a few on-target scholarly articles. Instead of falling back on an Internet search, what if the student could tap into a social network monitored by academic librarians who could quickly respond with advice and direct links to the appropriate resources? It’s similar to the embedded librarian approach, but without the need for a formal arrangement with a faculty member for a specific course. The network would allow librarians and students, and perhaps faculty as well, to informally engage with each other to promote academic success.

Now a start-up, entrepreneurial venture is pursuing the exact sort of thing we academic librarians recognize as a good idea, but are without the capital and infrastructure to create ourselves. As I read the New York Times article “Homework Help Site Has a Social Networking Twist” I got that deja vu all over again feeling. The article discusses a new firm called Piazza that is signing up higher education institutions for a homework support system based on social networking concepts. According to the article here’s how it works:

Students post questions to their course page, which peers and educators can then respond to. Instructors moderate the discussion, endorse the best responses and track the popularity of questions in real time. Responses are also color-coded, so students can easily identify the instructor’s comments. Although there are rival services, like Blackboard, an education software company, Piazza’s platform is specifically designed to speed response times. The site is supported by a system of notification alerts, and the average question on Piazza will receive an answer in 14 minutes.

Go to the Piazza site and read some of the testimonials from faculty such as this one: “Piazza has proven to be an ideal forum for my class. Compared to conventional bulletin boards, the design makes it much easier for students to find relevant posts, and for my staff and me to keep track of outstanding questions.” At first Piazza sounds like the typical course management system discussion board where students might post their questions. Piazza adds the social networking component by issuing alerts so questions receive an answer quickly. Apply that to a research help scenario and instead of waiting around for a librarian to respond to a question posted to a discussion group, a text message could alert the librarian that a student needs assistance pronto. Even if a librarian wasn’t available to provide immediate assistance, in a large network research help could be provided by a more experienced student or faculty member, with a librarian checking on the accuracy of the response and improving on it if needed. Piazza is designed to reward good responses.

One thing I did notice about Piazza is that most of the highlighted courses are in the hard sciences. No doubt most of the assignments are problem-based, rather than research projects. The article states that while Piazza now has subscribers at over 300 institutions (it may be just one or two faculty per institution), it’s not making a profit and isn’t exactly picking up new customers like gangbusters. That’s something we academic librarians often overlook when we ask questions like “Why didn’t we create Google (or Amazon or YouTube, etc.)?” We seem to think that we have a natural instinct for coming up with surefire entrepreneurial concepts that involve the organization and distribution of any type of information content. What we fail to recognize is that most of these ventures lose money and disappear quickly. We like the idea of starting up an innovative new business venture, but we rarely think of the risks involved. Even if Piazza doesn’t make it, as the article points out, there are plenty more startups out there with every intent to disruptively innovate higher education with new concepts and platforms for helping students to learn by interacting in different ways with each other and their instructors. While we academic librarians may not be on the forefront of creating the new innovations, we may benefit by following the action closely and picking the right ones with which to partner.

Embracing Discovery

This summer my library, like over 60 others, is implementing Summon. Serials Solutions’ discovery layer is meant to provide our users with that “one search solution” we’ve all been waiting for for so long by sucking all our resources (catalog records, local digital collections, and database content) into one central index that searches it all at once and links back to full text wherever it’s available.

So far, it’s kind of working that way – a tedious and detailed testing process is revealing big gaps in the index for us and more failures in linking than I’d like, but we are still very early in our implementation. (Whether these are Summon errors or local implementation errors is hard for me to tell, since there is not a transparent admin module to control the local index we’re building.) A built-in “database recommender” gives users additional options for finding resources based on their Summon search results – a feature I would like a great deal more if it didn’t provide such strange recommendations sometimes, like the humanities and social sciences index FRANCIS for the search “eating disorders.” (That technically works, but there are other places I’d probably try first.)

One very interesting side effect of our implementation is the conversations we’ve been having, both within my library and with other libraries in Ohio, about what we expect from Summon. Many people have expressed the idea that discovery layers will be something librarians promote to novice library users, but that we’ll still be directing users to our catalog for known-item and advanced searching, and to our existing database lists to choose advanced subject-specific resources. While I understand the impulse behind this idea (especially as I experience the limitations of the discovery layer during our testing), I am worried it is unrealistic in the short term and ultimately does our patrons a disservice over time.

On May 9 I spoke at a statewide electronic resources management forum in Ohio about usable database records and lists. Alan Boyd, Associate Director of Libraries at Oberlin College, asked me what I thought the future held for such lists. I said that in five years I expect our reliance on local A-Z lists and the like will be replaced by a more contextual and topic-driven solution, like Summon’s database recommender, within our discovery layers, and that we’ll be abandoning the format-specific information silos we currently maintain. This suggestion, however, was met with vigorous disagreement from some in the audience.

I see the point: discovery layers are very new. They don’t (and probably won’t) include everything we own, the indexing they provide is subject to the whims of the highly competitive publishing and library database industry, and they are not entirely successful yet at synthesizing detailed information in very disparate source formats (MARC, MeSH, Dublin Core, etc.). However, it is as naïve to assume we’ll continue to develop or even maintain the front ends of our ILS systems as it is to assume our users will want to seek out and learn how to use them. In a usability project we did last spring on the BGSU library’s website, we watched users struggle again and again to find known items in our OPAC, use our databases-by-subject lists to choose resources by topic, or navigate our e-journal portal to find the full text of an article from its citation. The reality is that the tools we have now don’t actually work that well without specialized knowledge: most users don’t know you have to search for the journal title and not the article title, or that catalog searches are messed up when you include punctuation, or that sometimes when you search without the subtitle you have more success – and why should they? When I was in library school I read Christine Borgman’s excellent article “Why are Online Catalogs Still Hard to Use?” It was published in 1996. Why are online catalogs still hard to use, even now, in 2011?

I hope we will be able to move beyond them. Perhaps discovery tools, like Summon, will be our vehicles for doing so (dozens of libraries are making that bet this summer, including my own). In the short term we’re going to be balancing the needs and knowledge of our current users with the limitations of our current tools, but we need to be ready to embrace a future in which powerful searching of vast repositories of content replaces navigation for both known items and discovery, and where we both build tools to support this new future of finding and are ready to abandon the old ones that never worked that well anyway.