The High Fidelity Challenge

Students no longer care about using high quality information.

Students are all too willing to satisfice for whatever content they can find along the path of least resistance.

Students are too dependent on search tools that facilitate their use of low quality sources.

These are common concerns we academic librarians have about our undergraduates. We lament that they’ve abandoned high quality library-supported resources for those that are easy to find and use but which offer lower quality content. As we’ve been told,convenience trumps quality, and our students often prove it’s true. Turns out that we are far from the only ones combatting this problem. I discovered a similar situation unfolding in an unexpected place, the hi-fidelity music industry. What’s happened is that the new generation is content to listen to music on mp3 players, but mp3s have the worst sound quality of any audio medium (e.g., CDs,DVDs,vinyl). Why is a new generation choosing to listen to poor quality music instead of opting for readily available alternate formats that offer superior quality?

In the literature of user experience, high fidelity refers to more than the quality of music. It refers to the practice of offering products or services that are high quality in nature, but which typically come with higher costs or less convenience. So why would anyone prefer high fidelity? It’s simple. Those who are passionate – or at least care – about quality tend to choose high over low fidelity. That explains the success of Starbucks in a world where cheap coffee is abundant. More academic libraries are exploring the creation of a great library experience. Some have added a new position with dedicated responsibility for the oversight of an improved user experience. There is no one user experience for academic libraries, but it’s likely we’d aim for an information seeking experience defined by “high fidelity”.

According to a New York Times article about the decline of interest in listening to music on high fidelity devices:

From 2000 to 2009, Americans reduced their overall spending on home stereo components by more than a third, to roughly $960 million, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group. Spending on portable digital devices during that same period increased more than fiftyfold, to $5.4 billion. “People used to sit and listen to music,” Mr. Fremer said, but the increased portability has altered the way people experience recorded music. “It was an activity. It is no longer consumed as an event that you pay attention to.” Instead, music is often carried from place to place, played in the background while the consumer does something else — exercising, commuting or cooking dinner.

No one in the industry is quite sure how to change the way people listen to music or understands what would encourage them to move back to high fidelity music – in the way that appreciating music played on high quality devices was prominent in the 1950s. If anything, new research suggests that over time the younger generation is just adapting to lower quality sound. According to the article, Jonathan Berger, a professor of music at Stanford, said he had conducted an informal study among his students and found that, over the roughly seven years of the study, an increasing number of them preferred the sound of files with less data over the high-fidelity recordings.

Is there a parallel phenomena in our undergraduates? Have they become so accustomed to retrieving an avalanche of information for just about any search they perform that they’ve lost the ability of past generations to distinguish between high and low fidelity? It’s a good question and perhaps one we need to explore further through research. But for now perhaps our best strategy is to follow the path of those who offer high fidelity experiences. They know they they can’t reach everyone. They know the majority will be satisfied with low fidelity. But they also know a minority of individuals, those with a passion for more, will continue to seek out a quality experience. It’s the minority that’s keeping them in business.

Discovery engines like Summon and EBSCO Discovery Service may be the modern equivalent of a low fidelity search system, like mp3 players that have lousy sound quality – but the vast majority pay it no mind. They at least are a step above web search engines so we can feel better about them and tell ourselves they make a difference (e.g., something is better than nothing), and that there is indeed a possibility they will lead a student to discover a resource about which he or she previously knew nothing. And what about the high fidelity resources and services we offer? We need to recognize the undergraduates and graduates who are passionate about research, and concentrate our efforts on introducing them to and helping them develop their passion for high fidelity. Just as there will always be music aficionados who appreciate better sound, we’ll have members of our community who appreciate better resources. Let’s not forget that we have something of value to offer them.

3 thoughts on “The High Fidelity Challenge”

  1. I agree that we need to cultivate our power users, the students and faculty who are passionate about research. I am comfortable with building a niche to support the users who want high-touch service.

    But your three starting propositions seem odd to me. When was the time when students cared specifically about using high-quality information, when they did not satisfice? I think there’s fifty years of user research (at least since Zipf) that says users (including students, faculty, and professionals) have always used the tools which were most readily at hand and easy to use. Prior to the web the only tools available were library tools. That has changed now, but the underlying user behavior hasn’t.

    It’s not the students’ fault that they operate in a different cultural context, one where there are free and powerful search tools they are already familiar with…and also one where they can trade a difference in sound quality lots of people can’t hear for digital access to almost everything recorded.

  2. I’ve never been persuaded by the chronology of these arguments, which range from “kids are less critical these days” to denouncing our whole society as having become less intelligent. Do we have any longitudinal data that proves this? I’ve never seen any. In fact, I think, were you to give people in the 1970s a chance to trade in their cassette players and turntables, they would do that; technology has changed, people haven’t. The same parallel exists in information; 1970s’ patrons would’ve preferred Google to our clunky reference books which became outdated every five years. We always wanted convenience over quality, don’t blame us now that we have it.
    Secondly, vinyl sales have increased over the past few years, i.e. this Nielsen report [] but there are plenty of other data out there saying the same thing. Just as the majority will always fall for convenience, there’s always a select set of people who love quality and will never sway. Librarians : Quality Information :: Vinyl Buyers : Quality Sound.

  3. I doubt that the MP3 player has replaced serious HiFi equipment. I see it rather as a repalcement for the walkman, the boom box and the transistor radio. And anyway, MP3 is designed to compress only the parts of the audio signal that are not perceptible to the human auditory processing mechanism. At higher encoding rates, I can’t hear the difference between MP3 and PCM (audio CDs). People do connect their iPods to their high-end stereo equipment, and as the article says they still spend almost a billion dollars a year on stereo equipment.
    Secondly, speaking from a purely subjective standpoint, I find that the convenience of Google searching makes it possible for me to access high-quality original research more frequently than ever before. A typical example is when I read something in the press about a medical study (e.g. cell phones causing brain cancer), I can often find the original article or a preprint by searching for the authors’ names, affiliation and a few keywords, and verify the claims of the press article. And that is for simple questions of my daily non-professional life, where I would not possibly have the time or energy to consult a library, or even try to figure out which Library website or documentary database to use. In the pre-internet age, I just had to trust the journalists to make an accurate, comprehensive and non-sensationalist summary.

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