On Technologies and Library Space

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Maura Seale, Research and Instruction Librarian at Georgetown University Library.

Now that the fall semester instruction rush is over, I have been able to spend some time catching up on my library blog reading as well as my own research. I recently read this post on Academic Librarian about the National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology 2011. The study basically found that undergraduate students are pretty attached to ‘standard issue’ technologies like computers and printers and recommends that universities and colleges should research what their particular students actually use and use that information to make policy.

This post made me think about the recent photo study I worked on at my own library. I work at Georgetown University’s Lauinger Library, which is the main library on campus. It houses the humanities, social sciences, and business collections, and unlike many campus buildings, is open 24 hours on weekdays during the fall and spring semesters. We’re primarily a residential campus and our building sees a lot of use. We (my department, Research and Instruction, and another department, Access Services) decided to do a photo study of some popular study spaces on the second and third floors of the library after hearing a presentation from Kathleen Webb of the University of Dayton. We knew that the library was heavily used and we were interested in figuring out how to make our spaces even more appealing to our students. On random days throughout the spring 2011 semester, we took photos and did head counts of nine distinct spaces. We analyzed this data over the summer and will be writing up our results shortly, after doing a few comparison dates in the fall 2011 semester.

I’m not going to talk about the conclusions we drew about the spaces themselves, as I’m saving that for the article, but our photos revealed a lot of interesting things about how students use technology. One of the spaces we photographed was our reference computer lab, which is very heavily used. That’s right – our desktop computers and especially printers are consistently used throughout the day. In the afternoons and early evenings, there is often a line at the printers; we even recommended that the library consider purchasing more printers, due to heavy use. Our reference room also has long tables that seat six, but they are usually occupied by four or less students, who use that space to spread out. What are they spreading out? Laptops, notebooks, and books, some of which are obviously library books. In the reading room on the third floor, students use the armchairs to read books and newspapers and the tables to use laptops, notebooks, and books.

It’s not that our students don’t use other technologies; I know that they use smartphones just from sitting at the reference desk and whenever I show a class how they can send a text with the call number and title to their phones, they get excited. But they’re still using that technology to find a print book and they snicker at the idea of Tweeting a call number and title. I really don’t see that many iPads on campus and I don’t know how much use our QR codes have really gotten. Sometimes I think that librarians want to anticipate change so badly, and are so keen on meeting our users’ needs that we jump beyond where our users are. It’s important to keep up on trends, of course, and to be open to technological changes as well as willing to embrace them, but we also need to stay grounded in what our specific users want and need. This photo study was invaluable in this regard and now we have evidence to make our case for more and better printers, as silly as that might seem.

What trends have you noticed in your user population? Are you doing anything to assess how technology is or is not being used on your campus? Have you discovered anything unexpected about your users in your own research?

Author: Maura Smale

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

5 thoughts on “On Technologies and Library Space”

  1. This is fascinating and fills a gap that I noticed in the most recent Project Information Literacy study on what technologies students use during crunch time. (Not many, as it turns out – most students were using a laptop or library computer and a phone, and they were using them with focus: few websites open, less multitasking than expected.) But what I wanted to know was how many had paper around them, how many had books – which wasn’t the focus of the study, but it felt as if something significant was missing.

    My guess is that we would really please our student users if we helped them simplify their lives and provided ways to focus, rather than offering more and more gadgets and features and content.

  2. I agree. I just had a meeting with the President of our campus last week and he is dreaming of an all digital library. I had to keep reminding him that the majority of our students hate ebooks and will not use them, even if it is the only resource currently available on their topic. It is great to want to be innovators, but that should never come at the cost of actually serving our students what they want and need.

    But the printing. Students love to print out everything, even things they will likely never read. Which is really just another argument as to how our students would rather than a physical object in hand than a digital one when doing work. Our administration often thinks that more technology is better, even when the students aren’t using it or don’t like it. Although I would love some new and better printers around here.

  3. Yes printing! We just added some machines that print, photocopy, and scan – but they are usually used to print. For a few years we’ve had computers designated as 10-minute quick print stations, right outside our largest print room. The lines form about 15 minutes before a class starts. This year our Support Services, who maintain the printers, added student workers who staff the print room during those pre-class rushes. It’s been a big help.

  4. Barbara, you said:

    “My guess is that we would really please our student users if we helped them simplify their lives and provided ways to focus, rather than offering more and more gadgets and features and content.”

    I really agree with this, and actually spend a lot of time talking with students about how to manage their research projects, especially grad students. Having *so* many options is more overwhelming than helpful. And we wonder why students satisfice….

    Robin and Tessa, printing is so popular that the students here have had a small revolution and gotten two-sided printing to be the default in many of the computer labs. They cared about it that much.

    I think it’s really important to collect this kind of data, because so much of what we hear about in library-land is TECHNOLOGY.

  5. I think Tessa made a good point that students print more items than they’ll necessarily use. I think this is particularly the case with grad students, who seem to print out lots of stuff. I think asking questions about the use of QR codes is sorely needed.

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