Don’t Change The Resources, Change How Users Experience Them

That idea comes from a post to a blog I regularly follow called Creating Passionate Users. This particular post seems applicable to the BIG question we academic librarians are asking ourselves and each other these days. How do we get the users to user our resources? Time and time again surveys indicate that members of our user communities either start or do all of their research with non-library Internet resources. One response to the question takes the form of “let’s be more like the competition”. If you can’t beat ’em, just be more like ’em. Others are talking about Library 2.0, and how we need to leverage new technologies to make libraries more welcoming to the users. Well this post’s message is that if we want our users to know more about our “product” (i.e. library databases) and develop more passion for it, the answer isn’t necessarily to change it, but to change how our users experience it.

The key to creating a different experience is helping users learn. The post goes on to discuss how people engage with things more passionately once they develop the ability to recognize and understand their subtleties and nuances. I could well imagine undergraduates being able to distinguish among a set of library databases, and using each for the exact sort of research for which that database was designed. Our job is to create the learning opportunties, and get faculty involved in the process of connecting librarians and their students. If the suggestion that students could develop a passion for library research sounds too outlandish, perhaps the focus needs to be on helping students learn that library resources will enable them to develop a passion for what really matters to them – their chosen subject or discipline. If nothing else, this post reinforces my own thinking about the importance of library user education in academic settings.

Where I’m having a problem though is that academic librarians have been offering libary instruction for many years, but it has resulted in only limited progress in developing students who are passionate about using the library. I’m confident that our user education efforts have achieved successful cases, those occasional students who do become truly passionate about research as a result of what they’ve learned from academic librarians. But we certainly fall short in reaching the majority. That may be because much of our current library user education tends to allow only for surface, not deep learning. What would we need to do to make sure our users really experience our information resources in a way that gets them excited about what they are learning, and eager to learn more about and use them? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that if we abandon user education because the competition doesn’t bother with it (and look at how successful they are) we’ll be depriving ourselves of at least one important strategy that can increase our relevancy to the user community.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Change The Resources, Change How Users Experience Them”

  1. This is a very important question. It really boils down to “what is the purpose of academic libraries?” – at least in terms of their role in student learning. (Obviously, major research libraries have multiple purposes, including support of faculty research and building major collections that can be mined for many purposes.) Do they exist to foster intellectual curiosity, creativity, and depth of knowledge of subjects being studied – and fine-tuning critical thinking and moral understanding while they’re at it? Or do they exist to provide students materials and a setting to be successful students?

    These aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but for many, many students the library’s collections are only used to complete assignments to pass courses. They don’t expect to be particularly passionate about the subject matter, it’s a task to be completed – a game, and not a very compelling one. Naturally, if there are shortcuts you can take to win the game you take them. Of course, we can teach shortcuts and earn their gratitude, but we won’t make them passionate. Maybe we need to investigate further what that really means.

    This question also mirrors one that for me needs to be answered rather urgently. Do our information literacy efforts focus on helping students be good students or on making them proficient lifelong learners? If they learn to use our library’s resources to do academic work, will that knowledge transfer to settings beyond college and to need that are personal, not driven by assignments? (I doubt we have any evidence that it does.) And where will they do their research in future, if they become passionate? Grad school is an obvious answer, but what about those who have other plans? Will our efforts also help them read the morning paper with a critical eye, dig a little deeper when they notice discrepencies, make them feel empowered to act when something’s wrong? And possibly – just possibly – turn to a library when they need more information.

    I think our IL efforts focus too much on helping students (especially first year students) become better college students. We need to work more not only with individual faculty and their courses, but with academic planning processes that might be able to help an institution define what the purpose of a college education is – because without answering that question, we won’t really have a good answer for what the library is for. And we’ll have less of a chance to make the experiential, engaged learning it offers happen for our students.

  2. Some excellent points in both postings. I agree that lifelong learning needs to be the primary emphasis. I think one aspect of academic librarianship that continues to be put on the “back burner” is the notion that the academic library is not (and cannot) serve similar functions as a public library. While I understand the obvious necessity of maintaining primarily an “academic” collection, the physical space at academic libraries can be used in unique ways to enliven students’ lives, similar to the ways public libraries serve the social and community needs of their patrons.

    By creating a physical space that is inviting, and adopting a friendly atmosphere, academic libraries (and librarians) will seem more approachable. The result, I hope, is that more students will want to learn more about what the library can do for them. I try my best to create relationships with students, and follow up with their assignments. It is time consuming, but I make direct interaction with students a priority, and have found that one positive interaction between a librarian and a student can have a ripple effect among their peers.

    We need to break down barriers between students and librarians, lose the jargon, and position ourselves as outgoing peers, colleagues, friends. I have found that when students are comfortable approaching me, they are more willing to absorb information literacy techniques which will no doubt stay with them when they move on.

    The modern day academic environment can be an alienating place; the library has an opportunity to address this problem by creating positive social interactions which can intertwine with the process of user education. Ultimately, such interaction can lead to a greater desire for lifelong learning and improve information literacy on a societal level.

  3. I’ve long thought that “lifelong learning” is such a vague concept as to not really be useful. It can mean so many different things. In the end I think that the library’s main mission is to support the curriculum.

  4. But, since most universities claim a learning outcome of the curriculum is lifelong learning … we still need to grapple with this. If I might make a plug for a conference that should be a place to grapple with others … see Loex-of-the-West 2006: Information Literacy for a Lifetime –

  5. Thanks for pointing out the conference, Lisa. I know “lifelong learning” is vague, but isn’t that what the curriculum ultimately is for? So if we support the curriculum, um, aren’t we …? In fact, I’d argue that the library has a better view of what it’s all about because we support the WHOLE THING! not just this program or that, this piece of gen ed or that goal … the WHOLE THING! so we may actually have a better perspective than anyone else.

    I really like what Ameet said. I think we can learn a lot from good public libraries and from our users about what they enjoy about a good library (or a good bookstore) and make our libraries more inviting, stimulating, and rewarding. Because if a student can feel at home there, in an otherwise intimidating or alienating academic environment, they’re well on their way to taking their place in the world.

    It’s such a banquet – we should set the table well and make sure people feel there’s a place at it for them.

  6. I think that our information literacy efforts at the college level will achieve spotty results at best until IL is integrated into the curriculum in such a way that students are forced to have to find information and use resources like databases in every single class! Plus, it needs to be discipline-based – the context of doing research within a specific discipline gives meaning to the whole process. Otherwise students think that library instruction is just busywork. Indeed, learning to do research well within a discipline is a terrific lifelong skill if one does intend to go into a particular profession. (I know that this is only tangentially related to “lifelong learning” per se, but I worry sometimes that our goals are far too broad when we attempt to teach students to find information in any situation. )

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