Category Archives: Top Issues

For postings related to ACRL’s “Top Issues Facing Academic Libraries” (2002).

Feeling Lost In A World Of Search Zombies

Maybe I’m getting more removed from mainstream search. I know that some aspects of online searching can be complex, and depending on the uniqueness of some disciplinary databases (think about using financial screening tools in NetAdvantage or ValueLine Research Center) search can reach the extremes of complexity. But I would never have thought to associate the word “complex” with three basic search functions: formulating a search question; evaluating the results; and revising the search strategy. True, these basic skils are hardly intuitive for college students, but it certainly seems within their ability to learn – and I know that many have. So I was surprised to read this in a recent Jakob Nielsen column:

How difficult is it to perform a search on Google? I’m not talking about the challenge of formulating a good query, interpreting the results, or revising your search strategy to reap better results. Those are all very complicated research skills, and few people excel at them.

Complicated research skills? If you take away those basic skills what is left to a search? Have we created a generation of search zombies who listlessly tap away at the keyboard with no strategy at all just hoping they’ll find some information, and then mindlessly settle for whatever their first Google page yields? On the positive side, this suggests to me that librarians are among the few professionals who do excel at these tasks. While it’s great to know we have an increasingly rare skill , I’d feel much better if, as a profession, we were making greater progress in helping more people to develop these basic search skills, or getting more recognition for what we can do.

This leaves me with two thoughts. First, if excellence in navigating the complexity of search (and mind you that Nielsen isn’t talking about library databases – he’s just referring to search engines) is a rarified skill, why the heck can’t we leverage our expertise to raise our profile in society. You would think that the ability to cut through the web wasteland would be a prized skill that people would seek out. Second, if everyone other than librarians lack these skills, then the state of searching and the public’s research ability must be far worse than we might have imagined. Perhaps the “good enough” (or is it now “barely good enough”) mentality has finally turned the masses into search zombies. What’s the cure for that?

Kindle Is A Failed Concept Says Jobs

There was lots of excitement generated by yesterday’s Macworld 2008 presentation by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. Bet you can’t wait to get your hands on a MacBook Air. In an interview with some New York Times technology columnists after his presentation (the columnists called it “his performance”), Jobs had something interesting to say about other technology gadgets. The one comment I thought of most interest to our profession had to do with Amazon’s Kindle device for reading e-books. Jobs doesn’t have a problem with the technology, he just thinks it’s a pretty bad idea – and not because people don’t like to read e-books, they just don’t read much at all anymore. From the article:

Today he had a wide range of observations on the industry, including the Amazon Kindle book reader, which he said would go nowhere largely because Americans have stopped reading. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

When the Kindle first appeared there was a fair amount of discussion among librarians about how the device might be used to encourage reading. Jobs is pretty savvy about technology and consumer trends, and just the fact that he doesn’t see it going anywhere because people don’t read should be a cause for concern. Now perhaps his observation only concerns whether it can be a huge hit with consumers, rather than a niche product that will catch on with the 60% of people who do still read with some regularity. Perhaps the ultimate fate of books and reading will depend to some degree on academic librarians and things we might be able to do, perhaps working collaboratively with faculty, to encourage more reading and develop lifelong readers.

Then again, maybe Jobs would be satisfied if we all just watched television shows and movies on his company’s gadgets.

Notable Events of 2007

Well, it’s time again to look over the past year’s posts and discuss some of the most notable ones. This year, the ACRLog veterans are letting a few of us first-years take a stab at reviewing the important events of 2007. In a few days, you’ll see Part 2 of our ’07 recap, courtesy of Kim Leeder. We’d love to hear your thoughts on how these events have (or perhaps have not) influenced your year as an academic librarian. Please, also, leave a comment if there is something you think should have been included in our recap.

Academic Librarian of the Year Named

In February, ACRL presented the 2007 Academic/Research Librarian of the Year award to Lizabeth (Betsy) A. Wilson, Dean of University Libraries at the University of Washington. This award was well-deserved and the ACRLog bloggers joined academic librarians around the country in congratulating Betsy on such a great honor.

The Changing Role of Academic Librarians

ACRL published an interesting report based on an invitational summit held in Chicago in November 2006. The summit report focused on three tasks individual libraries must take on to heighten exposure on campuses (such as promoting their institutions as gateways to reliable information sources, providing more services and guidance to users, and becoming active participants in asserting the evolution of their institutions), as well as outlining several potential roles for ACRL in the future. Among these roles, it was suggested that ACRL facilitate communication and open dialogue with key constituencies, make a nationwide attempt to foster successful learning, embrace the changing environment of libraries, provide leadership in assisting librarians in using technology in their libraries, and take a more active role in communicating and embracing the paradigm shifts and changing demands of the academic world. ACRL made a point of encouraging feedback from academic librarians on the summit report, and designated ACRLog as the official “comments collector.” Thanks to all of you who contributed thoughts and suggestions.

ACRL Joins World of Podcasts

Following the 2007 ALA Midwinter meeting, ACRL unveiled a new podcasting series, which is designed to recap various programs. Steven Bell posted on the first podcast in the series, which featured ACRL vice-president/president-elect candidates Erika Link and Scott Walter answering a round of questions about academic librarianship. The podcasts are an excellent way for those unable to attend Midwinter to still benefit from ACRL’s many important programs and talks.

ACRL Storms Baltimore

This past year’s ACRL National Conference was held in Baltimore, MD, home of John Waters and Chesapeake Bay cuisine. Several of the ACRLog team attended the conference, and the blog benefited from their reports. Here are a few highlights, based on the various experiences:
*Michael Dyson started off the conference by encouraging librarians to using traditional stereotypes to our advantage by drawing on them to promote change and creativity in higher education settings
*ACRL unveiled a new conference bag, which offered useful amenities such as a water bottle holder and cell phone pocket
*Professor Emerita at Towson University, Luz Mangurian, offered insights into how people learn, and how librarians can use this information in their teaching. One of the main points she stressed was skipping the traditional lecture, and getting students involved with the learning processes – this will help information find its way into the long-term memory
*Bill Miller, Jerry Campbell, and Brian Matthews gave tips and suggestions for improving reference services by asserting the value of our services to students, collaborating with faculty to get students serious about quality research, getting out of our “comfort zones,” and connecting with users through social networking. According to our blogger, the main emphasis in this presentation was “pre-emptive reference.”
*It was suggested that ACRL could do a better job with increasing attendance on Sundays, the last day of the conference. Perhaps a last-day brunch or an extra booth with door prizes or drawings would benefit those smart enough to stick it out until the last day.
*There were many programs devoted to social computing, or “Library 2.0″ (blogs, wikis, etc.), with the highlight being PennTags, a project that uses tagging in catalogs.
*Another popular topic was cooperation with fellow librarians. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open if you want to run a successful library and implement the aforementioned social tools.
*One of the most important aspects of conferences such as ACRL is networking. Academic librarians have the perfect opportunity to talk with like-minded individuals and meet colleagues they can partner up with on a new project. It’s important to foster these relationships even after you return home from the conference.
*If you missed out on the conference, or want to relive the wonderful moments, check out the conference video produced by Nick Baker (of “March of the Librarians” fame).
*Finally, in the words of blogger Marc Meola: “Charm City lived up to its name. Everyone loved Baltimore and John Waters.”

University of Michigan Skips MLS Choice for University Librarian

Some heads turned when the University of Michigan decided not to choose an MLS-degreed librarian to fill the position of University Librarian and Dean of University Libraries. Instead, UM hired Paul Courant, former provost and professor of Public Policy, Economics, and Information Science. At the time of hire, Courant was a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Library and Information Resources. This appointment raised questions in the world of academic librarianship as to whether or not there is a new trend of hiring non-librarians for administrative positions. While this is not the case with Courant, who has experience with academic libraries and higher education, the issue may be compounded by the fact that some libraries hire administrators that have little or no experience with or knowledge of academic librarianship. This “trend” is definitely worth watching, as it could have quite an impact on academic librarians in the future.

Thanks again for your loyalty to ACRLog. Our readers are very important to us, and we hope our posts have given you new perspectives and insights into the trends and stories that have shaped academic librarianship in 2007. The entire blogging team sends well wishes for a fantastic new year; let’s hope 2008 proves to be just as exciting and newsworthy!

So The Library Director Walks Into the Provost’s Office And Says…

“I have great news for both of us! You care about increasing student retention and I care about getting more funding and staff for the library. Now you can make both of us happy.”

“And how do I do that?” asks the Provost.

“Well” says the library director, “I just read a new research study that confirms that institutions where the libraries have the greatest expenditures and the most staff demonstrate a significant positive effect on student retention. So you can stop wasting money on all those orientation programs and just shift it to the library.”

The Provost hesitates a moment and replies “But if I hired lots more faculty, student advisers and plowed lots of funds into a great new student center, that would all increase student retention. Pretty much anything we do to give students a better chance at academic success – as well as more socialization and interaction with faculty outside of the classroom – will likely increase retention – and I’ve got studies to support that. Can you tell me what specific things our librarians are doing regularly that contribute to student retention – and can you document it? That’s what I want to know.”

The dejected looking library director appears to be thinking about it and then says “Let me get back to you on that soon,” and quickly shuffles out the door.

Back to reality. Wouldn’t it be great if we could easily demonstrate, with some numbers and charts, how spending on libraries contributes to student retention. That’s the core message of an article titled “Return on Investment: Libraries and Student Retention” in the latest issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship (September 2007, v.33 n5, pp. 561-566). In this study the author, Elizabeth M. Mezick (an accounting professor at Long Island University), concludes that library expenditures and professional staff have a significant positive effect on student retention. In a previous post I asked how academic librarians can do more to connect our work to student retention. And in a comment to that post Chadwick Seagraves pointed me to a study that concludes virtually the same thing that Mezick does. In essence, the more you spend on ibrary resources the more strongly associated that spending is with higher student graduation rates. But as this other study reports, virtually all instructional expenditures contribute to retention. What Mezick does add is a finding that the relationship between expenditures on resources and retention is greatest at baccalaureate colleges, while the relationship between expenditures on staff and retention is greatest at doctoral-granting institutions.

So does this new study advance our knowledge and our ability to conclude that the library, it’s staff, services and resources, contribute positively to student retention. To an extent, the answer is yes. If nothing else it appears to give some ammunition to those who might need to defend the library when other administrators argue that library resources are wasted in an Internet age. I’d still like to see academic librarians develop the metrics that enable us to demonstrate or confirm that the contributions we make as educators, not just the information commodities we deliver, boost retention rates.