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.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

8 thoughts on “Don’t Make It Easy For Them”

  1. Interesting post, a lot of which I agree with (however not always easy to achieve in practice!).

    I agree with the idea that information literacy sessions can be more rewarding both for the students and the teacher if students are able to discover the tools for themselves, however think some initial guidance is needed (perhaps which databases to use and how to get to them). This method of teaching is also intensive and therefore often needs more than one member of staff to support the session as students explore. It’s certainly my preferred method of teaching though; I found many students learnt more this way.

    I also agree with your point about the reference desk, I see the role of a librarian as one who can show people how to find the information for themselves, therefore empowering them to do it in future. Having said that, many of the students I encountered on an enquiry desk didn’t want that – they see the librarian as a resource to utilise to get you your research. They pay their fees and expect us to offer a service – doing their research for them. It’s a difficult thing to address. I always took the approach that I would try to show them how to do something, but I had some colleagues who would just do it for them. Some students preferred learning to do it for themselves, others just wanted us to do it for them and found my approach frustrating.

    I think a balance is needed but it can be difficult to know what is best and I think this probably changes depending on the situation and the persons involved.

  2. I’m a big fan of your writing Andy (and as we’ve previously discussed on Twitter, your job title!) but on this point I disagree with you.

    I actually agree with the principle, just not that we in libraries should go ahead and apply it. The whole ‘teach a man to fish’ thing I am in support of: demonstration is clearly less effective in the long-term than asking the student or patron to engage with the problem and find out how to solve it themselves. And I certainly support interactive, rather than lecture-led, info lit teaching. But as a general rule, I think that the library is there to serve the customer and that we should do that in the most convenient way for them – rather than getting involved with the pedagogical stuff. Particularly with the paying-customers in UK Universities paying more than ever.

    My normal job is to be in charge of the digitisation programme to support learning and teaching at a University. All but one academic department loves this service – the one department thinks that providing PDFs online rather than asking the students to go out and find the books for themselves is spoon-feading. I appreciate the point, but for me the library’s role is to provide the information service to assist the student in their studies, via the most timely and useful platform possible – not to challenge them in this way. Going and searching for books etc is not a particularly useful life skill to learn – finding information online is.

    What really matters, for me, is the idea that libraries should be welcoming and helpful and accessible, in order to endure. We need to be positive, and permissive, and to be seen to be making things easy for people. Rather than challenging or forbidding in any way. So while I can really appreciate the arguments you make and the other related arguments that support them, I think libraries need to put their survival first, and that means making things as easy for their patrons as possible. Can you see where I’m coming from?

  3. Jo – While I think it would be nice to have two people in the class working together, it’s not always feasible and I think this sort of active learning can be done with one person. It’s very different from traditional library instruction, but also like you said, much more effective. It also takes some getting used to and it involves giving up control. You don’t always know exactly what direction the class will take (as opposed to a straight demo or lecture). But teaching in this way takes some burden off of you as a teacher and puts the responsibility of learning on the students.

    I also really like your point about balance. It’s not always possible to make the student do everything. Like you mentioned, sometimes a demo is necessary. Sometimes if a student simply can’t access something due to technical problems, you have to send them a PDF. At the reference desk it’s especially tricky. There are simply some students who don’t want to learn, or come in at the last minute with their paper already done and tell you that they need some journal articles to back up what they’ve written. These situations are frustrating. But there are many other times when you can help students learn and help themselves. And my point is we should always be looking for these opportunities.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the post over at your website.

  4. Ned – You make a decent argument. I agree that libraries should be welcoming, helpful, and accessible. And I agree that we shouldn’t purposely be trying to frustrate students every step of the way. But I’m not quite sure I agree with your contention that the library (I’m talking about academic here) is there only to serve the patron and do so in the most convenient way possible. I think as an institution of higher education, part of our goal is to educate students. Service should definitely be an integral part of what we do, but I think we cannot lose sight of the big picture goal of education.

    One question this brings up is whether librarians are only support staff or if they are educators as well. It’s my contention that librarians in higher ed should view themselves primarily as educators and secondarily as support staff. We go into the classroom and teach. Some of us (this is another related debate) have faculty rank. We know the assignments that students are working on. Education of the students should be our aim.

    As we’re looking at the bigger picture of educating our students, we should be asking ourselves “what does THIS student need RIGHT NOW?” If we look at each student and their situation, as Jo mentioned in her comment, I think we can both educate students while being welcoming, helpful and accessible. It’s not an either/or proposition. One student, might be baffled about actually finding a book in the stacks. So we could go with them and show them it’s not too difficult. A junior might already know how to search the catalog, but they need someone to talk to bounce ideas off of and get their topic more focused. There are always opportunities for education and that should be our default. We should always be looking for them and trying to seize them. If a student isn’t ready or is simply getting frustrated then I would back off. But it is very possible to educate without frustrating students. Does this make sense?

    Thanks for the comment Ned.

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