Don’t Change The Resources, Change How Users Experience Them

That idea comes from a post to a blog I regularly follow called Creating Passionate Users. This particular post seems applicable to the BIG question we academic librarians are asking ourselves and each other these days. How do we get the users to user our resources? Time and time again surveys indicate that members of our user communities either start or do all of their research with non-library Internet resources. One response to the question takes the form of “let’s be more like the competition”. If you can’t beat ’em, just be more like ’em. Others are talking about Library 2.0, and how we need to leverage new technologies to make libraries more welcoming to the users. Well this post’s message is that if we want our users to know more about our “product” (i.e. library databases) and develop more passion for it, the answer isn’t necessarily to change it, but to change how our users experience it.

The key to creating a different experience is helping users learn. The post goes on to discuss how people engage with things more passionately once they develop the ability to recognize and understand their subtleties and nuances. I could well imagine undergraduates being able to distinguish among a set of library databases, and using each for the exact sort of research for which that database was designed. Our job is to create the learning opportunties, and get faculty involved in the process of connecting librarians and their students. If the suggestion that students could develop a passion for library research sounds too outlandish, perhaps the focus needs to be on helping students learn that library resources will enable them to develop a passion for what really matters to them – their chosen subject or discipline. If nothing else, this post reinforces my own thinking about the importance of library user education in academic settings.

Where I’m having a problem though is that academic librarians have been offering libary instruction for many years, but it has resulted in only limited progress in developing students who are passionate about using the library. I’m confident that our user education efforts have achieved successful cases, those occasional students who do become truly passionate about research as a result of what they’ve learned from academic librarians. But we certainly fall short in reaching the majority. That may be because much of our current library user education tends to allow only for surface, not deep learning. What would we need to do to make sure our users really experience our information resources in a way that gets them excited about what they are learning, and eager to learn more about and use them? I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that if we abandon user education because the competition doesn’t bother with it (and look at how successful they are) we’ll be depriving ourselves of at least one important strategy that can increase our relevancy to the user community.

Thinking About A Library Blog

I was just scanning the directory of library blogs, most of them academic, over at the College and University Feed Directory, and the list is growing quickly. So lots of us are jumping on the library blog bandwagon. I have yet to see much in the way of research that informs us about the effectiveness of a library blog. Do our intended audiences read them? Do they motivate users to make greater use of library services? Do faculty integrate library resources into their courses as a result of reading library blogs? Most importantly, how do academic library blogs contribute to students achieving learning outcomes? Many questions and few, if any, answers. We’re spending valuable time on these library blogs, but what’s the return?

A library blog certainly has potential as a tool for promoting library resources and services. That’s assuming that the user community is reading the library blog. How they manage to do that, and what we can do to improve the likelihood they will is the subject of another discussion. In this post I would like to point those who already have developed a blog for their library, and those who are thinking about it, to a blog post by Stephen Downes that offers some of the best advice I’ve seen for developing and sustaining a blog, personal or library. In “How To Be Heard” Downes takes the reader through a well-laid out blueprint for constructing a blog and getting it out to its intended audience.

If you’ve yet to discover the blogs and publications of Stephen Downes this is a good starting point. When it comes to discovering news and information about educational technology, and helping us to understand its impact, Downes is one of the best.

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.