Tag Archives: students

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.

Reflections on Service

By now I’m sure everyone’s seen Thomas Benton’s article in praise of academic librarians in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s getting a lot of link love in the blogosphere, and was in the top five most viewed and emailed articles on the Chron’s website early this week. I love being a librarian and reading positive things about librarianship, and I enjoyed reading Benton’s piece. The whole article’s worth a read but a few sentences near the beginning sum it up nicely:

[M]ore than any other class of professionals in higher education, librarians possess a comprehensive understanding of the scholarly ecosystem. They know what’s going on across the disciplines, among professors and administrators as well as students. No less important, they are often the most informed people when it comes to technological change–its limits as well as its advantages.

The article’s comments were mostly positive, too, but scanning through them there was one in particular that caught my eye. The commenter suggests that faculty and administrators value librarians because of the work we do for them which, in this commenter’s mind, equates librarians with “glorified research assistants.”

One of the reasons this comment struck me is that it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Librarianship is a service-oriented profession — service to our patrons, whether faculty, students, or staff, is a core value for many academic librarians. We want faculty and students to ask us questions about library and research resources.

However, sometimes it can be a fine line to walk between facilitating access to and use of library resources, and slipping into an assistant role as mentioned by the Chron commenter. Does our goal to assist with research in our institutions ever cross the line to acting as a research assistant? What does “service” really mean in an academic library?

Practice, Practice, Practice

The semester is drawing to a close at my college and students in the information literacy course that I’m teaching are deep into their work on their final projects. I’m taking a breath before the grading begins and already starting to reflect on the semester: what worked well, what didn’t, what I’ll tweak over the summer and what I can use again in the fall.

One thing has been apparent since my students turned in their annotated bibliographies last month. To put it bluntly: their sources are awesome. Each of them has found solid information on their research topics from a wide variety of sources including scholarly books and articles, conference proceedings, academic websites, specialized reference materials, newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other internet sources. I can honestly say that it was a delightful experience to read their bibliographies.

The students chose topics of interest to them which definitely seems to have helped them embrace the research process. But I think that the main reason they were able to find such excellent sources is time. We had time over the course of the semester to explore where information comes from; how and by whom it’s produced and distributed; how to search for, find, and evaluate it. We also spent time discussing when to use different kinds of information, for example, when it’s appropriate to use a journalistic source and when it’s better to find something scholarly. Like the old joke about Carnegie Hall, this semester my students had time to practice.

I don’t know that I’ve emerged on the other side of this assignment believing that credit-bearing courses are the one and only best way to teach information literacy, but my experiences this semester have certainly been eye-opening. It’s not that taking one course magically creates information literate students — as with English Composition courses and writing, this is just the beginning. But I do feel that the students have built a solid foundation that will serve them well as their information competencies continue to develop over the rest of their time in college and, I hope, throughout their lives.

Realistically, it would be difficult at my college to require an information literacy course of all students; there just aren’t enough available credits in most degree programs. So another thing I’ll be thinking on over the summer is how to port some of the successful strategies I used during the course over to the one-shot sessions that still represent most of the library and information literacy instruction we provide. And I’m hopeful that strategies from both kinds of instruction can continue to evolve and inform each other.

Browsing, Searching and Finding

January always brings lots of discussion about the future, and probably even more so this year now that we’re a decade into the second millennium. Collections are central in much talk about the future of academic libraries, which naturally leads me to thoughts about browsing.

I have a confession to make: I don’t browse through academic library stacks much anymore. There seem to be a few reasons for this:

  • I work at a small college library which is part of a larger university system that includes over 20 schools, each with its own library. Many of the books I need I borrow from the other colleges in the system via our shared catalog.
  • The discovery methods I use have shifted away from browsing. Typically I learn about new books through association news, ads in library science journals and magazines, or via blogs, Twitter or other internet sources. (It’s hard to say whether there’s a feedback loop here: if I worked in a larger library would I browse more?)
  • I also read across a wider range of disciplines than I did before I was a librarian. When I was an archaeologist there were a couple of call number ranges in close proximity to each other that I’d occasionally browse through (good old CC and GN), but if I tried that now I’d be all over the library.
  • And, I sheepishly admit to a bit of browsing fear: I always seem to have plenty to read, from journal articles to the biblioblogosphere to the three work-related books sitting on my desk right now. So I’m somewhat scared to spend time browsing in case I find more than I have time to read.

Though they definitely use the library, I don’t typically see faculty at my college browsing our stacks, either (maybe their reasons are similar to mine?). But I have noticed that students often want to browse in the library. Many students, especially those new to the college, stop by the reference desk and ask “Where’s the psychology section?” or “I need to look at the architecture books.” It’s easy to forget how opaque an academic library, even a small one, can seem to undergraduates. Last semester a student said to me, in an awed whisper, “the library is so big.”

All of this leads me to wonder about the future of collections at my library. If faculty don’t browse much anymore, how would they feel if we were to propose moving some of the lesser-used materials to off-campus storage? Though common at many college and university libraries, faculty may not agree with this strategy, as we saw late last year with the faculty protest at Syracuse University.

On the other hand, if students are still browsing, how can we make it easier for them? We have those nifty bookmarks from ALA with the Library of Congress call number ranges printed on them, and I like to pass those out to students who ask about broad subject areas. Would it be helpful to students if we added signage that displayed the subject names next to the call number range signs on our shelves?

Whatever happens, I’m sure that the next decade will bring lots of change for our collections, and I’m eager to see what’s in store for the future.

Encouraging Engagement

Right now we’re in the midst of our busiest time in the semester for instruction at my library. I coordinate our information literacy program so instruction is always a big part of my job, but it looms even larger for me at this time of year. If I’m not teaching a class, I’m probably thinking about the classes I teach.

Like many other colleges, most of our library instruction program consists of the single required library class for all English Composition I students. Much has been written about the challenges of the humble one-shot, and I think we do a good job with these sessions given their constraints. Still, over the past couple of weeks I’ve begun to target on a few things that frustrate me. The more I’ve thought on this, the more I realize that a critical factor is engagement.

Student Engagement
It’s no secret that students often find their library sessions to be less than inspiring, and are often more engaged with the computers and each other. Some of these are classroom management issues, though we do require that professors attend sessions with their students, which usually encourages students to pay attention. But relevance is a factor, too: do students see the material covered by librarians as relevant to their coursework? There’s lots of evidence that students are more engaged when their library session is scheduled at the point of need, just as they are starting research on a paper or project. (Anecdotal evidence from the sessions I’ve taught supports this, too.)

One solution is to schedule our English Comp sessions just as students receive their assignments and are beginning their research. We’ve tried a couple of different scheduling strategies, including spreading the sessions evenly over the semester, and concentrating the classes in the few weeks just after midterms. But speaking with students and faculty and our student evaluations reveal that sometimes the sessions are too early, sometimes too late.

Next semester we may try contacting all English Comp faculty just before the semester begins to ask when they’d like to schedule the library session. We’ll need to be sure to emphasize that the best time for students to visit the library with their class is concurrent with their research assignments. Ultimately this scheduling method may not be possible because of sheer numbers: we’re a small library, and this semester there are 126 sections of English Comp. But given the real increase in student engagement that I’ve observed in my classes that do have a research assignment, it’s probably worth a try.

Faculty Engagement
I’ll admit that when I first started teaching library sessions I vastly preferred the classes in which the instructor sat quietly in the back of the classroom while I made my presentation at the front. I was nervous about my own teaching skills, especially covering all of the material in the session, and it seemed easier to go straight through it all without diversion.

Now that I’ve been at this for awhile I really value my library sessions with involved, engaged faculty. I can appreciate many of the reasons that faculty may sit quietly through the class. Many faculty appreciate that librarians have specialized training in research skills and information literacy, and are happy to give us space to teach in our discipline. But when an instructor engages with the librarian and the class — offering additional examples of relevant topics, search strategies, and keywords; reinforcing the need to critically evaluate sources; etc. — these sessions seem to be the most valuable for the students (and also more enjoyable for me).

Encouraging faculty engagement seems like it might be a bit more difficult than with students. A colleague suggested that we maintain the same pairings between librarians and instructors across multiple semesters. This would allow us to develop a closer relationship with faculty teaching English Comp, and help us tailor the library session more closely to the assignment in each class. Again, we may hit a snag because of the large number of sections, though with the increase in enrollment this semester we’ve got a new crop of adjunct English Comp faculty, so this may be a good time to try.

I’m sure there are lots of other strategies for encouraging student and faculty engagement in library instruction sessions. What methods have you used successfully? Which haven’t worked so well?