Where Is Your Library Link And What Does It Say About Your Institution

There was an interesting thread on COLLIB-L on Tuesday the 18th about the institution’s home page and the place of the link to the library on that page – or its lack of presence . It began with one librarian reporting her institution was about to makes some changes to its web site and its intention to “demote” the library from a prominently placed link on the home page to simply being included in a link to academic units. What advice, this person asked, could we give to help in making a case for keeping the library link prominently placed on the home page. After some practical suggestions, such as gathering page view data to show the library’s importance to the community, were offered the exchange morphed into a debate of sorts on the need for an obvious library link on the institutional home page.

I observed there were two different perspectives on the function of a library link on the institution’s home page. Was the link needed for prospective students or current students? There was a general consensus that the institution’s home page was perceived by the administration as a marketing resource for prospective students and their families. From that perspective, why is a link to the library needed to promote the institution? Surely our marketing colleagues would rather see links to student blogs or campus amenities. You could make a case that a prominent library link is a symbolic gesture that communicates to prospective students that the library is still “the heart of the campus.” Or you could make a case that the library is more important to prospective students than previously imagined. I suggested making that case for the library link by pointing to a report mentioned previously here at ACRLog that documented the library building was ranked highly among factors prospective students using in making their college decisions. If the building is important to students then it may be having a library link on the home page does make a significant contribution to the marketing effort – as well as a statement about the institution’s commitment to important values.

But if our concern is the current student what is the real value of a link on the homepage? Shouldn’t we have better ways to get them to our resources. Think about it. If a student wants to use a library database, navigating to it from the institution’s home page could mean 4 or 5 clicks which is too many. I suggested getting an INFO domain (e.g., http://yourlibraryname.info) and then spreading the word to use that domain name to quickly get to the library (e.g., http://gutman.info – note that you need to create a redirect to the actual URL of the home page). Another option could be to create a set of portals (see a prototype here as an example) for your different schools or majors that is truly focused on the information needs of those students. If we create something of value that saves students time and energy they’ll take notice and you won’t have to worry about them finding the link to the library on the university home page. As far as saving the student time and giving them convenient tools to work with, Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gave a good suggestion when she shared a link to her library’s customized toolbar. This is a great idea, though there’s a bit of effort involved in creating the customized toolbar, but if you can get students to integrate the library into their web brower, who needs a link on the institution’s home page. You can contact Lisa directly if you’d like a copy of a handout about the toolbar created for a poster session.

Chris Olson, of Chris Olson & Associates, would argue that even with these tools and specialized applications, having a link to the library on the institution’s home page was a marketing opportunity for gaining students that the institution would throw away by eliminating the link to the library. Sharing her marketing savvy, Olson wrote “it’s not about visibility…it’s not about making it easy for students to find the library. It’s about positioning the library in a business context and using business/bottomline-oriented arguments to convince people of the library’s value.” She added that just arguing that the library deserves to be on the home page isn’t sufficient, but that we should argue that presenting it there makes good business sense. Sounds like that argument could appeal to business-oriented administrators. But do we have the research or data to support the argument? Tom Kirk, library director at Earlham College, also brought up the value of examining web site data, but made the observation that data alone would hardly yield the information we need about student behavior in using institutional and library web sites. Until we do know more about how students use our web sites, Tom said, we may be unjustified in arguing for what belongs on a home page. As for alternatives, Tom suggested that many of our institutions have specialized portals for communicating with current students and faculty, where a more prominent library link could be placed. He also suggested that having the library under “academics” has “become a de facto standard alternative to a link on the home page?” So if they do move your library link from the home page to academics, don’t take it too badly. Dan Gjelten, Director of Libraries at the University of St. Thomas, brought the voice of moderation to the discussion by reflecting on the tensions between campus web site as marketing space and information resource. He argued that it needs to be both but that the emphasis probably needs to be on attracting new students. He said, “It is a big world wide web and it is many things to many people. I believe there is room enough for all of us.” So perhaps there is a way we can figure out how to share the institutional home page space in a way that is mutually beneficial for the library and institution. Dan also referred the list to a new ECAR report (note – your organization needs to be a member to view online) on how the University of Toronto addressed the challenges of creating an institution-wide web space to better serve the academic community. It could be that report has some information that will help to better define how the library contributes to the institutional web site.

In the end, while the consensus on the list was that academic librarians should advocate for a library link on the institution home page – if for nothing more than purely symbolic reasons – it may be that we are lacking a strong argument backed by data for why the library deserves to have link space among the valuable web real estate that is the institutional home page. For us it seems to boil down to a set of psychological (you really love us, don’t you), sentimental (we are the “heart of the campus”, right) and territorial (we deserve this space because we’re more important than…) needs that demand we have a presence on the institution’s home page. All the arguments aside, I still think (and many of you would no doubt agree) that it makes a nice institutional statement when there is a prominently displayed library link on the home page. But in the age of “marketing trumps all” thinking and the need to provide a user experience, we may find ourselves having a tough time making a case for the library link on the institution’s home page.

Public Funding (sic) of Higher Ed

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for us here in New Jersey: flooding, government shutdown, and now the inevitable budget cuts to higher education. The Rutgers librarians I’ve seen recently look like they’ve been head-butted in the sternum, and the other state colleges and universities didn’t fare too well either. I had lunch with some (really tough) commmunity college librarians yesterday and when I asked them about the budget cuts they said, “budget cuts? yeah we’re used to it.”

And that’s the problem. States all over the country have been underfunding public higher education for the past 20 years, continuing to move in the direction of a privatized model by raising tuition. It’s said that higher education is no longer considered a public good. More and more college presidents are calling for a national debate on the subject. F. King Alexander wrote recently in the Chronicle$ about how the current system actually contains disincentives for the states to fund higher ed:

States, of course, vary in their ability to maximize federal revenues through grant, loan, and tuition-tax-credit programs. However, those states that have, in fact, shifted the burden of financing higher education to students by substantially increasing tuition and fees in lieu of tax support — like Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont — are able to draw relatively greater direct student-aid subsidies from the federal government. In contrast, states that have struggled to keep tuition low through higher taxes and greater public support — like California, Kentucky, New Mexico, and North Carolina — find themselves disproportionately disadvantaged in receipt of federal dollars for student-aid grants and subsidized loans.

In 2002, higher education funding was on an ACRL list of top issues facing academic libraries. Looks like we may have to make a permanent slot for that one.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

Choosing Where To Be Simple Or Complex

I’ve ranted in the past about my annoyance with those who spout platitudes about library web sites needing to be more like Google or Amazon – although those two sites couldn’t be more different. Why do we need to be more like those web sites? Well if people like those web sites, goes the rationale, then people will like our web site better if it’s more like those sites. Part of the rationale of developing a library web site that is more like Google or Amazon gets back to the simplicity factor. If it’s simple people are more likely to use it – and find what they need quickly. But it may not be as cut and dry as choosing between simple and complex. That’s why I liked what Gerry McGovern had to say about this issue. He says that not everything on a web site can be simple, so it’s up to the web managers to decide what basic items to make simple, one-click resources, and which may take some additional clicks. Like Don Norman, McGovern points out that Google is simple for searching ordinary web pages, but not so simple if you want other features or types of information they offer. McGovern concludes that making a web site simple is not easy work because not everything can be simple. Decisions need to be made about what will require more complexity. Rather than being fixated on coming up with academic library web sites that mimic Google, Amazon, or any other commercial site, consider a library web site that is a reflection of local needs. Where does your community need simplicity, and where can they cope with more complexity? Figure that out and let it serve as a guide to your web site’s development.

Educating The Creativity Right Out Of Students

Education is our business, so it behooves us to pay attention to what experts have to say about the education industry at any level. Higher education and K-12 are inextricably woven together. I recently came across this video of an education visionary giving a talk that I thought was worth sharing. In this 18 minute presentation, Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, and a leading expert on innovation and human resources, focuses on how education stifles creativity. The presentation was made at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, which is an annual event where leading thinkers and doers gather for inspiration. Here are a few of the things he had to say:

“Creativity is as important as literacy.”
“If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original.”
“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
“Nobody has a clue what the world will look like in five years, yet we’re trying to educate people for that world.”

Since we don’t know what that world will be like, perhaps the best we can do is foster creativity and innovation that will enable today’s students to adapt to and succeed in a new environment. I’m going to make more of a personal commitment to encourage students to be creative in my library instruction sessions. It won’t change their overall college experience and it will mean taking more risks in the classroom for me, but I’ll feel like I’m making a small contribution to their future.

Dark Days Of Education

When it comes to education visionaries, Chris Dede is certainly no slacker. The learning technologies expert at the Harvard Graduate School of Education takes on what he sees as some current failures of the United States education system in this 8-minute video interview(scroll down and click on Dede’s photo). It’s quite a contrast to Robinson’s presentation. Dede acknowledges that education has to be more than preparation for the workplace, but he discusses the strong links between business and education in those countries that are developing high quality education systems. His main problem with the current education climate, which he refers to as “the dark ages in education”, is that unlike other professions higher education has failed to educate the public about what teaching and learning methods will work best to prepare students for a 21st century global economy. He believes that most citizens are stuck in the 1950s when it comes to visualizing what should be happening in classrooms. Dede’s commentary reminds me of a course in which the instructor asked “What is the purpose of education?” It was clear that for most societies the answer is to build a stronger economy than competitor countries. We might like to think that education has more noble goals, such as liberating individual creativity, but Dede makes the point that most parents want an education system that gives their children more economic opportunity than they had for themselves. Dede’s concern is that in these dark days the US government is moving away from the investment needed to create schools that will give students the necessary skills to achieve economic success in a flattened global economy. Given the ongoing funding challenges faced by the vast majority of higher education institutions (just read about what’s happening in New Jersey right now) it may be quite some time before we emerge from the current dark age of education.

Gotten Any Complaints About Your OPAC Lately?

The discussions about the OPAC and all that ails it go on unabated. I will acknowledge that the tone of the conversation has shifted from mere complaining to a greater focus on ways to improve the OPAC. For example, see Eric Morgan’s discussion of the next generation catalog posted at LITABlog. Given all the discussion about why the OPAC needs to improve you would think that academic libraries are besieged with complaints about the library catalog. Somehow I doubt that this profession’s concerns about the OPAC are shared by library users. As evidence of that I turn to the recent OCLC “College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources” report. When the respondents were asked “If you could provide one piece of advice to your library what would it be?” a mere 2% of the respondents suggested improvements to the local library online catalog (see page 4-6). They were much more focused on improving collections and computing facilities in the library. So if 98% of library patrons (Ok, I know it’s statistically inappropriate to extrapolate this finding from a small sample to all academic libraries) have no real concerns about the OPAC, why is there such a fuss being made about fixing something that the users don’t even think is broken? On a day-to-day basis in your library do you see patrons having massive search failures with the OPAC? Are they demanding enhancements? I recall that when I worked at the University of Pennsylvania the greatest patron reaction to the debut of our then new web-based Voyager OPAC was a mass call for the return of the telnet-based catalog. The new OPAC was simpler by far, but patrons perceived no problems with the telnet system which did just what they needed. I agree that we should always be working to improve our systems and make research a more satisfying experience for our user communities. We shouldn’t only give attention to problems when users get vocal about them, but should work proactively to consistently improve our libraries. But reports like the OCLC study suggest that our patrons are more concerned about “quality of life” factors such as having working photocopiers, good customer service and up-to-date book collections than they are about their library’s catalog system. Are we focusing our priorities in the right places? I think I’ll remain content to wait for my ILS vendor to tweak our OPAC while we direct our attention to getting students to use the library’s resources and services.

See You At the Baltimore Acquarium

I recently learned that the Baltimore National Acquarium will be the venue for the Saturday night social event held at the ACRL 13th National Conference in Baltimore. The conference goers will have the whole Acquarium to themselves that night, and it should be a great opportunity to see the exhibits without needing to fight the crowds. I love Acquariums and Baltimore’s is certainly one of the best you’ll find anywhere. I hope to see you there.

You Only Hurt The Ones You Love

And whose LIBQUAL+ feedback you heed . . .

If there is one request that I have seen from students in every user survey to which I have ever been privy, it is the request for more hours. Here at Kansas, we have two 24-hour facilities, and our feedback from students remains: “More hours at Watson Library” (one of the two that is not already 24-hour).

Now, on the other side, today’s Inside Higher Education reports on the concerns of campus health care professionals, who worry that 24/7 access to libraries and computer labs may result in increased physical and mental health problems among students due to lack of sleep. It’s an interesting argument, but it seems to me that I spent plenty of nights in college not getting enough sleep even before libraries were 24/7 and, yes, before the World Wide Web!

I’m not sure how this is our fault.

Other reasons to stay up all night that are perfectly legitimate: (1) being involved in theatre (my college pre-occupation; rehearsals and tech calls routinely lasted until 3 am); (2) working (more and more students have to work 20+ hours/week to afford college – see this week’s CHE – my first job in college was working library security from 12-3 am); (3) being involved in undergraduate research, esp. bench science (those experiments often have to be checked regularly all night long; hence the long-time call for 24-hour science libraries); and (4) being a student in Engineering or Architecture (I don’t know why, but those students are always up all night working on projects).

There are some good opportunities for collaboration here, though, around real Information Age health issues, e.g., repetitive movement disorders, Internet (now video poker) addiction (see last week’s story in the NYT Magazine), etc., but I don’t see them shutting down the libraries or labs, and I don’t see them turning off wireless access to the residence halls after 10 pm.

Financial Aid and the Digital Divide

CHEPA is the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at USC. Every few months, I check out the new issue of its newsletter, The Navigator. The Spring 2006 issue had an interesting piece on the digital divide that suggests a new opportunity for collaboration between academic libraries and student affairs.

A report on a forthcoming study of low-income, urban high school students that suggests that the ongoing digital divide can have a significant impact on student access to financial aid, i.e.: “students increasingly have access to financial aid information on school computers . . . [but] lack the practical knowledge needed to complete the application process . . . . Because of little to no training of college counseling staff and/or students at the high school site, many students engage in financial aid processes online without a clear understanding of how to be a proactive advocate for one’s own financial aid needs.”

Now, imagine: instruction librarian + financial aid office + diversity recruitment officer + Office of Civic Engagement = workshop provided at urban high schools (or at convention of high school guidance counselors) aimed at making high school counseling staff and first-generation college students more information literate about the financial aid process.

There’s also a little piece on new research on Video Games and Student Learning – another hot topic on the conference circuit this year!