Sensations Or Experiences: Which Do We Want To Provide

I may have a tendency to beat the drum about the importance of integrating our resources and services into the teaching and learning process – and advocating user education – so that we can help students achieve important learning outcomes. That goal often seems in conflict with those who advocate that we need to make things as simple as possible to eliminate complexity for library users for fear that complexity will drive them away. “Keep it simple” is usually code for “make it more like Google.” I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one who thinks we might be shortchanging college students by making their education a series of technology sensations rather than a true learning experience.

Well, thanks to Bob Rogers, an associate professor for 34 years at Queensborough Community College in New York, I know there is someone else out there who shares my concerns. In an essay in the November 2005 issue of University Business titled “When Will They Learn“, Rogers writes:

There is a difference between entertainment and learning, between sensation and experience.Experiences change us. We see a play, climb a mountain, visit a foreign city, go to war, have a child–or struggle to reach any grasp-exceeding goal–and we are changed. Such experiences don’t need to be repeated; we are different people for having gone through them once and the change is permanent. Sensation, on the other hand, is something that merely happens to us; it’s more like a stimulus that momentarily alters our state of mind, perception, or awareness. But when that stimulus is removed, the sensation will fade. Sensations need to be constantly renewed, re-experienced, and repeated in life…Change does not occur without resistance. It requires work, sometimes sacrifice, even hardship, to achieve.

I really like this idea of experience versus sensation. Do we want to help our students learn how to conduct research? If so, we need to create a persistent change in their research behavior; that’s what learning is – a persistent change in knowlege and behavior. That change is likely to occur only as a result of coordinated user education (call it information literacy if you like) that takes place in collaboration with faculty and is integrated into the curriculum. If we choose to simply provide a “search sensation” through a smorgasbord of resources for students, and we provide no guidance nor create expectations for their use and application for learning, than it should be no surprise when we discover they begin their research at search engines and largely avoid library resources. If this trend continues it won’t be because we were too complex for students, but because we didn’t integrate ourselves and our resources into their learning experience.

What will it be? Sensations? Experiences? Which would you rather provide?

The Debate Over Conference Participation

There is a fascinating discussion going on across the biblioblogosphere (and on the ALA Council list) about Jenny Levine’s comments about ALA policy regarding compensation for presentation at conferences. While some are posing this as a “generational” issue, or as an unfortunate financial reality that we should all simply accept, there are a wide range of thoughtful (and not so thoughtful) comments posted on multiple blogs linked through Jenny’s posts.

Having been a conference presenter and organizer for ACRL and ALA (and AASL), I know the problems that come with ALA’s strict policy regarding compensation. Likewise, I know that many people have complained about the multi-layered costs of membership in our professional associations (with ALA dues forming the foundation onto which divisional dues are built) and the financial demands made of those wishing to participate at all owing to equally arcane rules about attending both Midwinter and Annual every year during which you serve on a committee (kudos to those sections exploring virtual meetings and virtual committee membership!). All are symptoms of a larger problem affecting our association(s).

We talk a lot about wanting to increase active participation and about recruiting the next generation of leaders for our libraries and our professional associations, but policies like these provide a real hurdle to people dealing with stagnant salaries and declining budgets for travel and professional development. I have been lucky to be able to participate in a number of ACRL programs and I have benefited greatly from that participation, but it came at a high price and I can see why others might balk at it.

I hope that ALA Council will take these concerns seriously and I hope that ACRL will remember them when related concerns come up at meetings of ACRL Leadership (as they have in almost every meeting I’ve attended over the past few years).

Sense And Simplicity

That’s the name of a campaign that Royal Philips Electronics began a few years back to require that any product designed by the company had to have the end user in mind and be easy to experience. The tension between simplicity and complexity is one with which our profession is familiar. By their very nature research libraries can present complexity for their users. That complexity is no doubt behind the familiar “the library intimidates me” refrain often heard from the inexperienced college student. In an age when the quality of an information-seeking experience is judged against Google’s simplicity it’s critical to recognize that there has to be a balance between “more features, more functions, more power – and the demand that it be easy to use.” That quote comes from the article that inspires me to continue what will likely be an ongoing thread here at ACRLlog – “Good experience vs. Google experience,” which attempts to encapsulate a debate within academic librarianship about what it will take to both prevent marginalization and bring the user back to the library’s higher quality research content. Titled “The Beauty of Simplicity” from the November 2005 issue of Fast Company, it discusses what several companies, including Google, are doing to make simplicity the new competitive advantage.

For academic librarians this is a quandary with no simple solutions. In some ways we are in the middle. The products we provide the gateway to for our user communities are designed by external providers. Though they create advisory boards that seek our imput I’m not sure how much good that does because librarians have no training in design. How do we know what makes a database interface simple to use? While our profession has actively researched web usability, creating simplicity within a database that needs a fair amount of sophistication goes way beyond figuring out that a “Find Articles” link is easy for end users to grasp. We might even debate that making library databases simple isn’t in the best interests of our end users, and that our objective should be to invest in user education programming (e.g., information literacy) that will enable them to make effective use of the research library. Should our thinking about simplicity vs. complexity be influenced by the fact that students are at our institutions to learn, and learning to use library databases, even if they present some complexity, is part of that process.

At the end of the podcast with George Needham that was mentioned in ACRLog last week, he relates an anecdote in which a colleague states that “convenience trumphs quality every time.” How much attention must we pay to that line of thinking? In light of the OCLC “Perceptions” report perhaps we ought to make “sense and simplicity” more central to our information resources, and whatever else we might be designing for our user communities. While “sense and simplicity” may strike you as one of those “easier said than done” platititudes, providing high quality resources and services will do us no good if we can’t get anyone to use them.

Good Experience vs. Google Experience

There is an ongoing conversation/movement within our professional community that I refer to as “Googlelization“. I define it as the desire to make traditional library databases – and you can throw OPACs in there too – look, act, and feel just like Google. The rationale of the Googlelizers is that today’s information seeker simply wants results, and the less thought it takes to get more results even faster makes it all the better. In other words if academic libraries want to appeal to today’s searchers they’d better be able to give them a Google experience. I’d like to think we can do better.

I got to thinking about this when I came across a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes a good experience. According to the author there are three components that must intertwine to deliver a good experience for an end user. They are: (1) Aesthetics; (2) Meaning; and (3) Efficiency. To keep this post short I won’t describe each; you can read more at the original post. My point is that libraries can bring all three of those components together in delivering a good user experience.

Aesthetics and meaning, points out the author, are long standing elements of philosophical conversations that extend back to ancient Greece. But efficiency is more recent, and he specifically identifies Google as an example of “instant efficiency.” But I think many academic librarians could recall searches for which Google or another search engine provided results that were instant but not efficient, which by definition means a useful and effective practice. Certainly there are times when library databases can be equally frustrating. But in the context of a good experience perhaps there is more to one when it comes to finding information than just having access to search engines and databases. The meaning and aesthetics could come from the context of the search. Are the aesthetics better when it happens in a library environment of serious study or among fellow students? Is there more meaning when one can consult a librarian for assistance or help in interpreting search results?

There must be more to a good experience than just efficiency at all costs. Perhaps we would be well advised to concentrate on aesthetics, meaning, and efficiency in an effort to fashion a good experience for our user communities. I’m sure we must have some philosophers among our ACRLog audience. What do you think?