Tag Archives: instruction

Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Don’t Make It Easy For Them

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Andy Burkhardt, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Champlain College in Vermont. He also blogs at Information Tyrannosaur.

I love customer service in libraries. I love improving our systems and services so they are more user-friendly. I love helping students with their research and answering their questions. But I don’t want to make things easy for students. If I did, I wouldn’t be giving them what they want: an education.

In information literacy sessions, which of these two scenarios is easier for students: letting them sit there while you demo the catalog and a database or having them play with the search tools themselves and then explain to the rest of the class how they work? The first one is way easier. Students can sleep, text, or zone out without having to think or learn anything. The second situation is exceedingly more challenging. Students have to actually have hands on contact with the tools. They also have to learn them well enough to explain them to their classmates. They have to talk!

At the reference desk, what’s easier for a student: when a librarian searches the catalog for them and gives them a relevant book, or when the librarian asks them a bunch of questions, has them explain their topic clearly, and makes them search the catalog? Clearly the first one is nearly effortless for the student. Ask and they receive. The second one is significantly more demanding. After asking a question, the student is asked more questions back. They have to work to define and redefine their topic into something clear. And they have to try searching for a book themselves!

When an online student is looking for an article, should we just send a PDF or should we make a quick screencast about how to get to that article in our databases? Sending the PDF as an email attachment would be much easier for the student. It would also be much easier for the librarian. In fact, things that are easier for students are often easier for librarians too. It’s easy to send a PDF. It’s simple to go through the motions of demoing a database you have shown hundreds of times. It’s a cake-walk to give a student a book and send them on their way. But if we take the easy route, we’re failing them. Learning isn’t easy; it’s hard work. It can be interesting, challenging, confusing, overwhelming, engaging, scary and really fun, but not easy. It’s never easy. Part of our service to students is challenging them so they learn and grow.

I try to remember not to make it easy for students, but also not to make it easy for myself. If my job is starting to seem easy, I’m doing something wrong.

Must Scheduling be Sisyphean?

I was planning to post last week about something interesting I’d read in the library or higher ed news and literature, but I haven’t kept up with my reading as much as usual recently. The task that’s been occupying my time? Scheduling our English Comp library instruction sessions. It’s not the most glamorous or fun part of my job, but it’s one of the most important. Every semester the scheduling process seems to drag on and on, and I find myself thinking that there has to be a better way. But once the schedule is set my grumpiness fades away, conveniently forgotten until the beginning of the next semester. I always intend to spend time between semesters researching scheduling alternatives, but there’s usually a project that’s so much more interesting that it elbows scheduling out of the way.

We use Google Calendar to keep track of the library’s schedule (not just instruction, but reference, meetings, etc.), and I’m reasonably satisfied with it. It’s the process of scheduling classes and librarian instructors that I think could use some tweaking. In the past I’ve waited until a few days into the semester to get the final list of classes from the English Department (sometimes sections are added or canceled at the last minute, depending on enrollment). Then I’ve taken the class list and our calendar and slotted all of the sections into our library classroom schedule. And then I’ve tentatively assigned instruction librarians to the schedule, trying to make sure that no one is responsible for too many early morning, evening or weekend sessions. Once the instruction librarians have approved their schedules, each of us has contacted the English instructors for the library sessions we’re teaching. Occasionally there’s a bit of horsetrading when an English instructor requests a date change, but usually not too much.

This semester we tried something a bit different and asked the English faculty when in the semester they’d like their library session to be scheduled, emphasizing that we’d like their students to come to the session with a research topic in hand that they can use to practice searching for library and internet resources. I got a preliminary list of classes from the English department and contacted faculty a few days before classes began, but there were still a handful that I wasn’t able to get in touch with until the second week of classes. About two-thirds of the instructors responded with their preferred dates, and I was able to give most of them their first choice (I’d asked for 3 possibilities). I put the remainder of classes in our schedule as before and contacted those instructors to let them know. We also decided we’d try asking the instruction librarians to pick the classes they’d like to teach, so each of us chose our sections once the schedule was set.

I do think that scheduling went a bit smoother this semester, but it’s hard to know exactly why. We have significantly fewer sections of English Comp this spring than we had in the fall (64 rather than 126), which definitely impacts scheduling. But in some ways I feel like the amount of time spent scheduling hasn’t changed, it’s just been spread out more evenly: I’m fielding emails from faculty and putting sessions into the calendar in dribs and drabs over the course of the two weeks rather than in a couple of big, multi-hour scheduling binges. We’ll see if this method can hold up in the fall.

How does your library schedule instruction sessions? Are there any tips or tricks for streamlining the process that you can share?

Maintaining Your Instruction Mojo

This post is somewhat of a follow-up to my last one on the involved library administrator. In that post I identified some reasons why an academic library administrator should consider staying actively involved in public services. That includes teaching instruction sessions.

There are many dimensions to being a great library instructor. Teaching regularly can certainly help to keep those skills sharp, and it affords the needed opportunity to experiment with learners, to try new things, and to stretch one’s capabilities in the classroom. While I advocated that academic library administrators should endeavor to continue their teaching role (BTW, there are college presidents that continue to teach regularly), having fewer opportunities to do so isn’t without consequences. For one thing, you become a bit rusty. In addition, since moving into administration is something you typically do in the latter part of your career, you’re a bit older, maybe less energetic and perhaps a bit less eager to try new things. Oh, and the students look much younger.

I volunteered for a few freshman instruction sessions this semester and I got to thinking about whether I’m going to appear too old or out of touch to the students. Using a cultural reference to the sixties that no contemporary student would understand is not beyond the realm of possibility for me. I’m certainly older than most of the lecturers teaching the courses. I’d like to avoid coming off as out-of-touch. On the other hand I absolutely don’t want to seem like I am trying too hard to be cool. I got to thinking about this a bit more when I came across an article in the August/September 2009 issue of The Teaching Professor titled “Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy“. (sorry – not freely available online). The author raises concerns about how to keep her teaching methods fresh so millennial students can connect with her.

The author suggests the five R’s for engaging millennial students:

1. Relevance – The big challenge is to connect course content to the current culture – learning has to be relevant to them.

2. Rationale – Today’s students were raised in a non-authoritarian manner. They won’t comply because the instructor is in charge, but will be more likely to do so when given a good rationale.

3. Relaxed – They thrive in a less formal environment in which they can interact informally with the instructor and each other.

4. Rapport – More than previous generations they are used to having adults in their lives and show interest in them. They appreciate it when instructors show interest as well or when we connect on a personal level.

5. Research-based methods – Millennials have grown up constantly engaged so they can tend to bore easily, so be prepared with active learning methods

These are good tips to keep in mind. Something else that can help is the ability to demonstrate comfort and flexibility with technology. Being a geek could potentially score additional points with today’s students. Again, trying too hard could be problematic, but showing some skills with the smart classroom technology or navigating the web could work in your favor. If you end up having to ask the students for help you may be in trouble.

So how have things been going for me? I now remind myself to dress more casually on days I teach an instruction session. For these groups, I don’t think a suit and tie makes the instructor appear as likable or approachable. I make sure I’m comfortable with the technology. In fact I downloaded our clicker software and spent time learning how to create slides that will work with the clicker technology we’re using in our instruction this semester. I can’t say for sure if I’ve got my instruction mojo working at full capacity, but things seem to be going well. No one fell asleep in the 8:00 am class I did last week.