Tag Archives: students

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?

Social Networking News Roundup

Recently I’ve followed several interesting online discussions about social networking. Here are a few highlights:

  • Social media researcher danah boyd’s work involves interviewing teens across the country about social networking; she’s collected some fascinating data. In her recent talk at the Personal Democracy Forum Conference in New York she discussed class issues across various social networking sites. Boyd has found differences in the use of Facebook and MySpace in high schoolers of different socioeconomic statuses. Facebook is seen by many teens as more mature and higher status, a place where the “honors kids” hang out, while MySpace is often viewed as somewhat childish and lower status.
  • Ezter Hargittai of Northwestern University does similar research from a quantitative (rather than a qualitative) perspective. Last week she discussed the results of her survey of social networking preferences of first year college students in 2007 and 2009 on Crooked Timber. While her data shows that Facebook use is up and MySpace use down across the board, it also suggests that the class distribution found by boyd in high schoolers persists among college students. Facebook use is highest among first year students of higher socioeconomic status, and MySpace is most heavily used by students of lower socioeconomic status. Hargittai’s data reveal racial differences in social networking choices among freshmen, too.
  • Finally, a post last week on ReadWriteWeb discussed the analysis of Facebook user data by interactive agency iStrategy. These data show that while the total number of Facebook users continues to grow, the past six months has seen explosive growth in the number of users who are 55 and older: over 500%! On the flip side, the number of high school and college users has shrunk in the first half of 2009. Are new users simply declining to list their educational status, or has Facebook lost some appeal for students now that all of us “old folks” are there?

What does this all mean for academic libraries? Facebook has witnessed explosive growth in recent years, and many of us have created a presence on the site to promote our libraries and connect with students. But boyd’s and Hargittai’s research reminds us that we may be missing the opportunity to connect with an often sizable segment of our student population if we restrict our social networking efforts just to Facebook.

On the other hand, if college students are fleeing Facebook (a creepy treehouse effect?), perhaps it’s not the best place for us to be focusing our energies. And if students are leaving Facebook, and MySpace use is down, too, where are they going?

Thinking About the Future

As the end of the semester rolls around I’ve been sorting through the evaluations that we ask our English Composition I students to fill out at the end of their required library session. I was scrolling through the spreadsheet of student responses the other day and one in particular jumped out at me: “How will this help us in the future?”

It’s often said that there are no bad questions (and I agree), but there are also some really good questions and that’s one of them. Why DO our students need what we teach them in a library session? How will they apply what they’ve learned in our classes to their lives in the future?

I spend the first part of my classes trying to emphasize that information literacy and the research skills they’ll begin to learn in college are transferable knowledge. I give them concrete examples of the relevance of information literacy to their careers (preparing for job interviews, staying current in their fields, etc.) and their lives beyond college (finding health information, moving or traveling to a new place, etc.). I’m at a college of technical and professional studies, and planning for their future jobs is always on students’ minds.

I also point out that becoming a proficient searcher is relevant to their work here at college, when they’ll need to search for library materials, and for searching the internet (again, both in college and in their everyday lives). I stress that different questions require different information to answer, and the importance of evaluating information, especially on the internet but also “traditionally” published information.

Our time in the library sessions always seems too short, but I feel like I do a reasonably good job of explaining the relevance of research skills and information literacy to the lives of our students both in college and in the future. So, what happened in that class? Did the student come to the session late, or sleep (or web surf) through the beginning, when I usually cover these topics?

Or are the reasons I give to students not compelling enough? Maybe they’ve heard it all before, that every subject they’re required to study is relevant, and since they haven’t actually gotten to their post-college careers and lives it’s not real for them yet.

Whatever the student’s reason for asking the question, it’s still a good question. I’ve written it on a post-it and stuck it above my computer monitor so I can keep it in mind when thinking about the future of our information literacy and instruction program, too.