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 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.

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

  • When “Good Enough” Isn’t
  • One of the things I like about blogging for ACRLog is that I get to share some of my favorite writers and their columns with the readers – especially when they can add interesting perspectives to our understanding of higher education. One of the columns I’ve been following for a number of years is The Irascible Professor. The IP (really Dr. Mark Shapiro) works at Krispy Kreme University somewhere in California. This week’s installment features a guest column titled “Just Tell Me I’m Wonderful and Give Me An A“. The author describes the difficulty in delivering constructive criticism to students who’ve been handed “A”s in most of their college courses even though their writing (and no doubt research skills to match) is atrocious. There have been a number of articles in the library literature, on issues related to student research skills, that suggest librarians should be satisfied when student research is just “good enough.” I suppose the problem with “good enough”, as this column suggests, is that it’s relative. When students finally confront a professor that does not accept “good enough” and who sets higher expectations for research, it can cause students to react badly. If we consider ourselves teachers, then perhaps we – and our faculty colleagues – ought to pay more attention to raising our expectations for student research rather than allowing them to settle for good enough.

  • What Can We Learn From An MTV Study
  • Last week MTV released a study titled “Just Cause.” This study explores youth activism and what factors motivate students to engage in social causes. Since the study examines the behavior of youth ages 12 through 24, I thought there might be something there that could shed some light on how academic librarians might improve their ability to connect with students. It is important to pay attention to demographic and behavioral studies of our primary user community. So what did I learn (I browsed through the complete 81 page version of the report)? For one thing, within this population segment there are several subgroups identified by names such as “candy strippers”, “teacher’s pet”, “watchers” and “growers”. The data tables may be worth a look if you want to learn more about sources of influence and factors that motivate students to volunteer in communities. But overall, I didn’t see anything of a truly revealing nature in this report. But it does show that a segment within the younger generation does seek out volunteer opportunities and service to their community. How might we tap into the passion for activism that is found in the younger generation? Are there ways in which academic librarians could support student involvement in their communities? It’s something worth thinking about.

  • Libraries Losing To Google On The Comic Page
  • You know that Google has truly permeated popular culture when it’s the subject of a Family Circus cartoon. In Friday’s strip (4/28 – unfortunately not on the web) Billy’s doing some research and claims “It’s easier to Google people than to find them in an encyclopedia” – and that’s while the Mom is holding the encyclopedia volume. Hardly a ringing endorsement for traditional research tools I’d say. I guess this proves Billy is a Millennial. Well, we can only hope in a future strip Dolly will have some words of wisdom about doing research the old fashioned way.

    But Google’s presence in the comics didn’t stop there. The very next day (Sat. 4/29), in Overboard, Louie and Raymond – two dogs for those who don’t follow this strip about goofy pirates – are Googling “dirty pictures” on their laptop computer. So I thought it was bad enough that Billy Googles for his homework, but then I find out that even dogs that live on a pirate ship are using Google for their research.

    Not that I’ve got anything against Google but you might think that the library would eventually get some good publicity in the comics. Not so. The last library sighting I recall is from that Zits strip from a few weeks ago in which Jeremy is doing some history research on the computer while his mother remininces about going to the library. After he finishes his research in several seconds (also a Millennial) Jeremy says “Wait, you went to a library?”. Again, hardly a ringing endorsement.

    So even in the world of comics Google is getting all the attention, while libraries are getting dissed. I can only imagine what sort of impact this is having on all the impressionable youth who turn to the comics for their reading pleasure.

  • Will Just Keep An Eye On Second Life For Now
  • I read the BusinessWeek article on Second Life with great interest. It’s an interesting concept, and seems to be a logical next step in the wave of social community development taking place on the web. When you join Second Life you can, as the article says “roam endless landscapes and cityscapes, chat with friends, create virtual homes on plots of imaginary land, and conduct real business.” You had to know that some librarians would try to get involved in this, and it appears a group has already created a library for this virtual world. I’m not quite sure I get it yet, but perhaps this is part of the “be where the users are” movement. For now I’ll just keep an eye on this one. I think we’ve still got plenty of work to do in our “first life”, especially when many of our students are turning to Internet search engines for their assignment-based research. Let’s do our best to connect with them in local places and virtual learning spaces before we broaden our reach into new virtual worlds beyond our academic communities.