Tag Archives: usability

They Need Us, They Really Need Us

Yesterday morning a friend’s retweet caught my eye. Apparently last week the productivity blog Lifehacker ran a survey in which readers were asked whether Google’s search results seemed increasingly full of spam and less useful. About 10,000 Lifehacker readers took the survey, and the top responses were eye-opening:

  • Nearly 34% of those who replied chose: “Absolutely. The spammers have gained a significant foothold.”
  • And almost 44% voted: “Kind of/sort of, but it’s still the best way to get at the good stuff.”

Of course this is a huge and open-ended survey question — exactly what kinds of information are users searching for? Looking at the comments (and the general content published by Lifehacker) it’s clear that most of the respondents probably use Google for typical, everyday searches: looking for news, weather, directions and travel, reliable product reviews and recommendations before purchasing, health and medical facts and advice, etc. I’d wager that most of the users who answered the survey weren’t referring to searches for research or scholarly information.

But I found these results especially interesting in light of Brian Sullivan’s satirical piece recently in the Chronicle reporting on the end of the academic library. The second factor he noted that contributed to the death of the academic library? “Library instruction was no longer necessary” because databases had become so easy to use, just like search engines.

(I should note that, while occasionally frustrating, I generally enjoy speculative futuristic scenarios about libraries and librarianship — they’re fun to read, and can be genuinely thought-provoking.)

Leaving aside issues of usability in library databases for the moment (because I think there’s still a long way to go), it doesn’t seem like instruction and reference librarians should strike out in search of new jobs quite yet. If Google and other search engines are increasingly not cutting it for even the basic, everyday searches for most people — usually the easy stuff, right? — how can we expect students to come to college already fluent in finding quality research information on the internet?

I was also struck by one of the Lifehacker commenters who wrote: “Part of the problem could be that people expect Google to read their minds.” We see students struggle with choosing and using appropriate search terms at the reference desk and in our classes, and we know how different the results list can be. What goes in determines what comes out — last semester I helped a student who was surprised to see that when she included the words “research paper” along with her topic in a Google search, her search results were dominated by websites selling term papers (which was, I hope, not what she was looking for).

So while I do hope that search engines and library databases continue to become easier to use and to give us better quality, more relevant results (and that seems likely to happen), I’m not at all ready to call it quits. I think we’ve still got a long way to go before our students won’t need library instruction.

Focus on Flexibility

This semester the information literacy course that I’m teaching started off in our main library classroom. It’s a fairly typical instructional space with rows of desks topped with computers, an instructor computer at the front, and a couple of projection screens. It’s a nice room – we got 30 new, faster student computers over the summer, internet connectivity is solid, and we have some nifty classroom management software that allows us to push out content to the student machines as well as project content from student machines onto the big screen.

About midway through the semester my class moved into a new workshop space in the library. This room is smaller – we can only fit about 16 students – and has an instructor computer, a lockable laptop cart, and a smartboard on one wall. I absolutely adore this room! Instead of long, hardwired rows of desks we have round tables that seat 4 students each, which makes group work so much easier. The space is so flexible – we can use the computers when we need them, but when we don’t they can be tucked away in the cart (rather than tempting students with Facebook). I do miss the classroom management software, and sometimes the wifi is a bit dodgy, but this room is about as close to my ideal instructional setting as I’ve ever had.

This midsemester venue change has me thinking about flexibility: of design, of space, of our library facilities. Like many colleges our enrollment is up and we definitely feel it in the library. Sometimes it seems like we are bursting at the seams, especially as finals week looms ever closer. How can we get the most out of the space we have?

Studying is another library use that could benefit from greater flexibility of our physical space. Students work in many different ways: in a group, individually, quietly, and in discussion. When the library gets busy our group study rooms fill up, and other groups studying in the library disturb students who want quiet, individual study space. We do have designated quiet and conversation areas, but it’s easy for a group working together to get too loud for an open area. What if we could use partitions to design flexible, pop-up group study rooms? Would that be a way to maximize our space for multiple uses? What if we left them open rather than requiring groups to check out a key? Would single students monopolize a group room for long periods of time?

What stands in the way of flexibility? I think funds play a big part. For example, during the busy parts of the semester our classroom is booked solid with classes and workshops, but at other times it’s empty. I often hear students complain that there aren’t enough computers available for their use at the college. Why can’t we use the classroom as a student computer lab when there aren’t any classes? In this case I can answer my own question: that room isn’t staffed when there are no classes in session, and we would need to add staff to open the room for drop-in use by students. I can also envision logistical headaches in the mixed classroom-lab scenario, for example, having to shoo out the students using computers when a class is about to come into the room.

Even small renovations to spaces that already exist require funding, which can be hard to come by these days. However, in this economic climate it’s probably unlikely that many of us will see expanded or new library buildings, especially in space-starved urban areas. Advocating for funds for flexibility might be in all of our futures, to help us get the most out of the space we have. Is your library moving toward more flexible use of space and facilities?

The Pros and Cons of Reinventing the Wheel

Now that the slower summer months are here I’m taking some time to work on a couple of big projects. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about online tutorials. We have a large student population and a relatively small library, and I’m always looking for ways to extend our instructional efforts. Tutorials covering various research skills, information literacy competencies, and library services may be one way to stretch our resources and reach more students and faculty than we can in the classroom or at the reference desk. And tutorials delivered via video, audio or text can provide additional means of instruction to accommodate multiple learning styles.

On our library website we link out to several great tutorials from other colleges and universities. There are also many online tutorial repositories out there with loads of good content, including ACRL’s own PRIMO: Peer-Reviewed Instructional Materials Online Database. MERLOT, the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching, also features research-related tutorials.

But recently I’ve started to think that we should create our own tutorials. Local conditions are certainly a factor. Some resources, like the catalog, are unique to us, so we can’t just link out to another OPAC tutorial. But we are part of a large university system, so in theory we could link to tutorials for shared resources created at other campuses.

There may be usability issues as well. When patrons open a linked tutorial from another library — even if it’s in a new browser window — I worry that we may lose them from our own website. If we use tutorials from other libraries, we must consider how to direct users to those resources from our own library homepage. What about training materials provided by database and service vendors — do they have a place alongside our own, librarian-created online instructional materials?

There’s also the issue of branding: must our online instructional materials have our own logo and library name? I wonder whether local branding is important to students and faculty, and how our users feel when they’re directed to a tutorial created by another institution.

Academic libraries come in many shapes and sizes, though we all share a similar mission of which instruction is a critical component. But no institution has infinite funding and personnel. While the tools for creating web guides, audio podcasts and video tutorials get easier to use (and less expensive) by the day, it still takes time and effort to create them. And many institutions have already created excellent online instructional materials.

Do we spend too much time reinventing the wheel when we create local versions of tutorials on common topics? Is it smarter to link out to materials created by other entities? Or is a mix of the two the best strategy?