1998 Presentation Has Held Up Well

As I was preparing for my class this week I came across some notes from a presentation that I had put in the folder, probably intending to use at some point, but long forgotten. This particular presentation was by James Neal and it was from 1998. Neal, who is now heading up library operations at Columbia University was still at Johns Hopkins’ Sheridan Librarian at that time, and they were involved in some unique entrepreneurial enterprises. As I re-read the notes I thought that much of what Neal discussed or predicted then reflected many contemporary issues that academic librarians are confronting now. For example, he discussed societal and cultural change that we needed to understand. Here are a few items mentioned:

  • Wireless will change how we compute and work
  • -mobile computing has had an enormous impact

  • MTV generation
  • -new modes of learning and the importance of user participation (sounds a bit like our current discussion of Millennials and Library 2.0)

  • ATM Environment
  • -self-initiated services are now routinely offered in academic libraries

  • User Expectation Revolution
  • -this one was right on target; this is the age of the user experience and it’s defined by users expecting simplicity, ease of use, and “if it’s not online it doesn’t exist” (which are the exact words he used to define what he meant)

    I was also intrigued that I had written some notes about new staff in academic libraries. Even then Neal was talking about academic libraries needing new professionals that would not necessarily be librarians, but who would bring to the library systems and learning skills that librarians were lacking. It’s interesting that Neal was thinking about this back then, and is now involving many different kinds of non-librarian professionals at Columbia (see his Library Journal article on feral professionals).

    So I thought what Neal had to say way back in 1998 has held up pretty well – and he gave some good advice for the future librarian in the digital age. Among those that still make sense:

  • Understand user behavior
  • – (little did we know how much Google would impact search behavior)

  • We’re in the teaching/scholarship/personal (user) development business
  • – a good philosophy for librarians that wish to avoid being marginalized

    It was certainly good to come across this old talk. I found it enlightening and informative back then, and while lots of things have changed since 1998 one thing that hasn’t is the value of what Neal shared with us that day.

    Maybe Academic Librarians Can Improve The Quality Of Cheating

    What would lead any academic librarian to say something like that? Am I being sarcastic or serious – I’m not quite sure myself. I certainly don’t mean to endorse cheating at any level in higher education. However, it’s apparent that cheating, whether it’s plagiarism or testing, may be spiraling out of control. I think what I do mean is that if students are going to use electronic devices in exam situations to access information perhaps we should at least be working collaboratively with faculty to educate students to access high quality information when they cheat during tests. Let’s take a step back.

    First, maybe you should read two articles. One is a piece from the New York Times about the epidemic of cheating and how IHEs are working to keep pace in detecting hi-tech cheaters. The other is an essay in today’s Inside Higher Ed – in response to the NYT article – advocating that instructors should accept students “Googling” for information during tests because that’s what we all do in real life anyway, and that efforts to keep one step ahead of students in preventing hi-tech cheating is doomed to failure. Both the essay and the comments (maybe even better than the article) do tend to agree that at the heart of the matter is a mixture of poor teaching and equally poor tests and testing environments that are conducive to cheating. My own reaction is that in some testing situtations allowing students to access information makes perfectly good sense – open book/note tests are nothing new. These tests are not about rote memorization, they are about analyzing a problem, accessing information needed to develop a solution, and then quickly writing an articulate response. Expecting students to have memorized everything learned in a semester will lead those who cheat to do so – and as the author asks – what’s the educational value of expecting rote memorization.

    Where I take issue with this piece is the assumption is that all students need to do in their exams is have access to Google. Has anyone told the author that Google doesn’t index all the information students might need in a testing situation (e.g., deep web resources)? Is it possible that students might need to find a quote from a scholarly article (not found on Google Scholar) to support a point? Might an e-reference tool in the library’s collection be the best resource to consult during a test? So here’s my suggestion. If an instructor wants to make the testing environment more reality based by allowing students to access information on the fly – call it cheating if you will – I say make the resources used a part of the test situation. For the lazy and uninformed students who use only Google – go ahead and deduct a few points. Reward those who diversify their information resources during the test. Does the student cite an article in a library database? Great, add a few points. Does the student use more than one search engine to compile information? Even better – add a few more points. Once students start to realize that becoming more knowledgeable about all of their information options – and recognizing that having the ability to demonstrate their diversified resource knowlege will pay off with better test scores – our information literacy chores may just get a whole lot easier.

    To Improve What You Do – Study People

    Academic librarians are no strangers to the process of asking our users “how are we doing?” Conducting user surveys, either for measuring satisfaction or service quality, are traditional methods for gauging how well the library meets the needs of its users. The results, we hope, will better inform us on how to improve library services, operations, and resources. The challenge with user surveys is that we don’t really know how accurately they measure our success. Usability studies have gained popularity more recently, but those efforts tend to focus solely on the library web site. But the idea is correct. Learn to improve by watching what people do when they use your systems, services, or resources. ACRLog has previously reported on how librarians at the University of Rochester are using anthropological techniques to study their user community. Clearly, the popularity of using such techniques is growing.

    The latest issue of PC Magazine has a lengthy article on “corporate anthropology.” It discusses how computer makers are hiring anthropologists who spend time with product users to better understand how consumers are actually using the products. From the article:

    Product development has historically been predicated on a “build it and they will come” basis. But times are changing, consumer choice is increasing and the game plan has evolved. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, uses a variety of research methods to study people in a bid to understand human culture. Since top companies across several industries are treating ethnography as a means of designing for and connecting with potential customers, technology companies have recently begun investing significantly more research time and money into the field. At chip giant Intel, for example, the company spent approximately $5 billion on ethnographic research and development during 2004.

    The reference to “build it and they will come” should resonate with academic librarians because that is frequently how innovation occurs in our libraries. We tend to put new services or resources out there for our user communities, and then we wait to see if anyone uses it. In those situations where new efforts flop we lack the methods to better understand why and what corrections to make. And even if these new resources or services are used, without a design approach there is no formative evaluation in place to identify where improvements can be made. I see the use of anthropological techniques as fitting into a design process in that it is a more thoughtful approach to the planning and implementation of services. But I also see connections between the use of “library anthropology” and “non-library professionals” in that most smaller university and college libraries, those with greater resource constraints and the inability to add folks like anthropologists to their staffs, will be more challenged to improve their libraries using these innovative techniques.

    So Google Wants To Make A Movie With Librarians

    I will really be curious to see if any academic librarians show up in Google’s movie. Google is accepting submissions from librarians who have a great Google story, and will then feature selected librarians in a short movie that will be premiered at the ALA conference.

    I certainly use Google to find websites when I can’t remember the URL or an article I think I’ve seen somewhere but can’t remember where (and I use other engines for the same things), and I use it regularly to get definitions or to see how certain phrases are used – and I’m a big fan of Google Desktop. But I can’t honestly recall any occasion in recent memory where I used Google to help a student with a serious (or even not so serious) research question. Maybe it’s because most of the research I do is business related and the questions I field are much better answered with library databases or specialized web sites than Google. And when I do library instruction I often try to provide tips for improving Google searches – as well as encouraging students to search more than one engine. So I’m not pro-library/anti-Google by any means. Just the same, this Google movie offer rubs me the wrong way. Do they think librarians are so desperate for attention that we’ll fall all over ourselves to appear in a movie that promotes a search engine rather than library resources? Obviously they do.

    So I’m really wondering if academic librarians will try to get into the movie. Maybe there are some academic librarians out there who have more opportunities than I do to get creative with Google. If you want to go for it, don’t let my bad vibes about the Google movie get in your way. Again, I’ve got nothing against Google, but my hope is that librarians everywhere will just completely ignore this movie offer. I think my gut feeling on this one is about having some personal dignity and pride in our craft, and not feeling the need to sell out to a search engine. I mean not one single submission. Google, when it comes to innovation you are near the top of the heap, but I think this is one idea that we can do without.

    Sweaty Guy Goes to Work for the Times

    Drinking lots of coffee and reading the New York Times is one of my favorite Sunday morning rituals. (I live in a part of the country where that’s the only day you can get the Times delivered.) But lately it’s a pleasure partially spoiled by the full-page ad that appears every week in the op-ed section. Dressed fashionably in black, with a bright orange Gothic T logo, it seems to be a hip new incarnation of the famous “sweaty-guy” from the Questia ads.

    College students, meet your new research assistant.

    Looking for help with that research paper? Find it at TimesSelect, the premium service at nytimes.com. With Times Select, you’ll get access to 25 years of articles from the Times – articles on politics, history, science, art, business, sports, and just about any other subject you’re assigned. And TimesSelect also offers e-mail alerts whenever a new article on your topic appears.

    How many ways can the New York Times sell itself to the same student? At my library we get the paper, the microfilm, the LexisNexis version, the Proquest version AND the Student Senate sponsors a newspaper program for a once-a-year student fee … and still students will say, glumly, at the reference desk “I found a great story in the New York Times but they wanted money for it, so . . . can you help me find something else?”

    We’ve been activists about making scholarship freely available on the Web, but we aren’t doing a very good job of making sure people know they have free access to the same resources that they are being enticed to pay for through the Internet. Just don’t wait for the New York Times or any other publisher to point it out. As Lawrence Lessig joked last November at the NYPL’s “Battle of the Books” event, when someone pointed out that people who discover books via the Google library project might avoid buying them by going to the library, “This is den of piracy, right here – the library.” Why stop at selling the library an exhorbitantly expensive institutional subscription when you can keep selling the same content to the same market multiple times?

    The only good news about this pitch is that most students are too savvy to imagine they could use one newspaper as their only source for papers in history, science, or politics.

    And we can rest assured the Sweaty Guy finished his paper, graduated, and got a good job with the Newspaper of Record.