Where People Turn When They Need Information

The year 2008 may indeed turn out to be “The Year of Information Overload“, but most Americans may be too busy searching for information to notice. When faced with problems that require information to identify appropriate solutions the internet is the “go to” resource for Americans. According to a new survey, when faced with the need for information for a serious problem (health concerns, career or education decisions, starting a business, seeking government assistance, etc.), 58% of Americans go right to the internet. What does this mean for libraries? Do Americans still seek assistance from professional librarians when they need important information, or has the Internet marginalized us even more than we thought?

The answers to these questions may be found in a new Pew Internet & American Life Project survey study titled “Information Searches That Solve Problems.” This study was released just yesterday, and the report deserves attention from library professionals. According to the summary page “the focus of the survey was how Americans address common problems that might be linked to government.” As any librarian would likely expect the first thing the majority of the survey respondents did was to search the internet. Next, most respondents sought help from a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer or financial expert. Hmm, guess what they say about librarians not being viewed as professional experts may have some truth to it. Actually, libraries (public that is) came in dead last with only 13% of the respondents reporting that they went to a public library for their information.

But here’s an interesting twist on which academic librarians should dwell. The study reports that young adults in tech-loving Generation Y (age 18-30) lead the pack among the 53% of Americans who reported a visit to the library in the past year for any kind of information or visit. Compared to their elders, Gen Y members were the most likely to use libraries for problem-solving information and general patronage for any purpose. Now although the report mostly deals with public library use, I would bet that a good number of respondents in this age category have regular access to an academic library. There’s no indication that the survey asked respondents to identify the type of library used. While we should refrain from jumping to the conclusion that academic librarians can be credited with turning Gen Y into library users, I think this can be seen as an indicator that academic librarians and their faculty colleagues may indeed be having a positive impact on the search behavior of Generation Y.

But before we begin the celebration with some well-deserved back patting, perhaps we need to temper our enthusiasm with this report’s mixed conclusion:

Instead of the internet making libraries less relevant, internet use seems to create an information hunger that libraries help satisfy. But many more people consider going to libraries than actually do. This suggests that libraries should try to untangle the complex web of reasons why different groups of people – even those who might profit most from using the library – don’t in fact use the library, and in some cases, actually shun using it.

I think it would help if the library, especially on our campuses, was a place people wanted to go – a destination – rather than a place they have to go. That’s why more academic librarians are thinking about the library user experience. What can we do to create an environment that will encourage our user community to want to use the library? How do we make 2008 the year of the great library user experience? I intend to explore this Pew report in more detail to learn why people use libraries to search for information – and why they don’t. The complete version of the report is available online.

What Happened To The Personal Web Site

You could make a case that the personal blog has impacted academic librarianship in several noticeable ways. First, changing the dynamic of how new ideas are proposed, and how new resources are shared. Second, shifting how academic librarians communicate ideas and engage in discourse. And third, and perhaps most significantly, influencing thought and establishing new trends in academic librarianship. Arguably, blogs appear to have eclipsed what was once the domain of the published journal article. While I still believe in the viability of the published article as a communication vehicle and as a demonstration of one’s ability to succeed in the venue of traditional disciplinary publishing, for many academic librarians – particularly those new to the profession – that may no longer be the case. And if blogs were ever to replace scholarly journal articles as the gold standard for those on the tenure track, published journal articles would likely languish even more.

But this post isn’t a discussion of the blog’s impact on publishing. It raises the question of the blog’s impact on another professional communication mode that seems to be on the decline – the personal web site. In the pre-blog days if an academic librarian wanted to achieve some of those things for which a blog now serves, a personal web site was the best available option. It could provide a personal profile, access to a CV, a listing of articles and presentations, resources that the site owner wanted to share with colleagues, and specialized resource pages designed to enlighten colleagues, promote new ideas, and create a name for oneself. Perhaps the blog’s ability to accomplish the latter is the primary reason why the personal web site is no longer the first choice – or a choice at all – for many academic librarians who want to establish themselves as thought leaders in the profession and influence their colleagues.

Why am I thinking about personal web sites? One of my summer projects, not yet fully completed, was to move my personal web site to a new domain and to give it a redesign. I’ve been gradually moving the content from my previous employer’s server to a new location – my own domain. As the task nears completion it got me wondering whether the site and its content would still hold the same professional value as when I began a personal web site in 1998 or whether it would just be perceived as an anachronism. In the earlier days of the Internet having one’s own site was all the rage. I don’t believe the current choice is web site versus blog. I think it makes sense to have both. A blog is a superior way to share news and ideas with immediacy. Although it may be in decline, a personal web site can still offer some advantages. It provides a place for more in depth information. A librarian with a web site can establish his or her expertise in a subject discipline with a resource list or provide more detailed information about his or herself.

Given these potential advantages to maintaining a personal web site, I wondered how many academic librarians, both bloggers and non-bloggers, also maintain a personal web site. My methods were wholly unscientific. I merely searched the web by name or looked for a link to a personal web site from a blogger’s site. I examined three categories of of academic librarians:
* my fellow acrlog bloggers
* prominent academic librarians
* academic librarian bloggers

ACRLog Bloggers:

Marc Meola – staff page only
Barbara Fister – yes and yes
Lisa Hinchliffe – staff page only

What I would call a “staff page” – a page in your library web site that identifies you but really isn’t a developed site, doesn’t really count as having a personal web site. To my way of thinking a personal web site is more robust – it at least has more than one page and a diverse range of information and resources. Staff pages are pretty common, and most are pretty thin on content.

Prominent Academic Librarians:

Jim Neal – yes (doesn’t blog)
Julie Todero – yes (doesn’t blog)
Pam Snelson – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Susan Nutter – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Betsy Wilson – enhanced staff page (doesn’t blog)
Stanley Wilder – unable to locate page (doesn’t blog)
Larry Hardesty – staff page only (doesn’t blog)
Jim Rettig – does an election site count? (does blog)

Selected Academic Librarian Bloggers:

Library 2.0– An Academic Librarian’s Perspective (Laura Cohen) – no personal web site found
Academic Librarian (Wayne Bivens-Tatum) – staff page only
Ubiquitous Librarian (Brian Matthews) – yes (under construction)
Information Literacy Land of Confusion (Michael Lorenzen) – yes
Information Wants To Be Free (Meredith Farkas) – combination blog/web site
Medium is the Message (Eric Schnell) – yes, somewhat limited
Pattern Recognition (Jason Griffey) – no personal web site found
Wandering Eyre (Michelle Boule) – an expanded blog, not quite a web site
Library Marketing (Jill Stover) – staff page found; no web site
See Also (Steven Lawson) – no personal web site found
Baby Boomer Librarian (Bill Drew) – replaced his personal web site with a wiki

Note to my fellow academic bloggers: the results are based on quick internet searches and blog visits; if the information is not correct or you don’t agree with my assessment – chime in.

I also checked out a number of A-List bloggers to see how many of them maintain a web site in addition to their blog. Turns out that not too many of them do. Seems the trend is to blend some traditional web site content (CV, articles, presentations) into the blog site, usually in the “about” section.

So what can we learn from this? The sample of prominent (legacy) academic librarians I chose suggests that traditional web site content may be a bit more commonplace among that crowd, but certainly blogs are quite limited. While I found more of the blogging academic librarians less likely to have well-developed web sites, I found more web site-like content than I expected. But I think it’s safe to say that for most newcomers to the profession a personal blog will win out over a personal web site. LIS students, especially those about to graduate, should give serious consideration to a personal web site that can function as a portfolio of academic accomplishments and demonstrate web design skills. For the new grad, a web site may be of greater value than a blog.

A web site, in my experience, is more time consuming initially to design and implement, but once established it requires just occasional updating. I think there are some good skills to be learned from this process – FTP, file structures, web site architecture and design, absolute vs. relative linking, bookmark linking, etc. Re-designing my personal web site gave me an opportunity to get more Dreamweaver experience, to figure out how to get a flash file to load on a web page, and to experiment with new design features. Is the personal web site passe? For academic librarians that appears to be the trend. But I don’t doubt that its decline has something to do with the recognition factor and where a librarian gets more bang for the buck. In that department, these days, a blog has the web site beat by a mile.

The September Project

Many ACRLog readers are familiar with The September Project, but not everyone is in the loop. I thought it was a good time to check in with David Silver, who teaches Media Studies at the University of San Francisco, directs the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, and co-directs The September Project. He blogs at silver in sf.

What is the September Project?

The September Project is a grassroots effort to encourage public events in all libraries in all countries in September. Participating libraries, mostly public and academic, organize events about issues that matter to their communities. All events are free and open to the public. Since 2004, over 900 libraries in 30 countries have participated in the September Project.

September is so busy. Can a library be involved in, say, October instead?

September is crazy! Its arrival is predictable, but each year it surprises us.

In 2004, we began the September Project as a way for people to come together in libraries and reflect upon the world – all on September 11. Since then, most libraries are moving away from September 11 and hosting events throughout the month of September. And some libraries, especially academic and school libraries, are organizing events throughout fall, when their campus communities are back from summer break and the beginning-of-term rush has slowed down a bit. September Project events have been known to take place in September, October, November, and August – as well as nearly every other month of the year!

Is there a political agenda involved?

The September Project has no political agenda.

It is, of course, political. These days, to exercise any form of public discourse is political, eh? To publicly assemble is political. To organize anything free is definitely political. To talk about issues that matter – to talk about the war, to talk about human rights, to talk about the Earth – that’s political. In our times, any idea that encourages us to be citizens rather than consumers is highly political.

But as for some kind of centralized political agenda – the September Project has none.

How are academic libraries are participating?

Academic libraries are organizing events that include art, cartoon, and photography exhibits; author readings and common books; book and graphic novel displays; dance and musical performances; film screenings; interfaith dialogues; panel discussions, student presentations, and faculty talks; reading lists and library resources; and voter education and voter registration. The diversity of events organized by academic libraries is really staggering. It reminds me how vital college campuses can be. It reminds me, again, that the library is the heart of campus.

Here’s a few examples of what US academic libraries are doing this year.

Portland State Library has been hosting an art exhibit (it began July 25 and runs through October 10). The exhibit features facsimiles of Pablo Picasso’s preliminary sketches for his landmark mural/masterpiece Guernica.

At North Carolina Wesleyan College, Lisa Kirby, an assistant professor of English, is collaborating with Pearsall Library on events centered around the themes of religious understanding, diversity, and tolerance. Along with an exhibit in the library and a common, campus-wide reading, there will be a guest lecture on September 11 by Dr. Umesh Gulati, a scholar of religious studies and cross-cultural awareness. The talk is titled “Democratic Reconstruction of Religions and World Peace” and is a collaboration between North Carolina Wesleyan College and the North Carolina Humanities Council.

The events at the University of Utah are exciting but I’m biased. Marriott Library, in collaboration with the Tanner Humanities Center, the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and the Associated Students of the University of Utah, has organized a series of events during the week of September 11. Events include a “September Speak Out” in front of Marriott Library, a talk (“Democracy as an Ongoing Project: Threats and Challenges to Democratic Governance in the U.S.”) by Alexander Keyssar, a Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a talk (“why i blog and why you should blog”) by me.

At the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, the UNCW Common Reading Program selected Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for the fall 2007 campus-wide read, co-sponsored by longtime September Project participant UNCW’s Randall Library. On September 11, there will be a campus film screening of the documentary Afghan Stories, followed by faculty presentations on Afghan culture, the legacy of September 11th and life during wartime and its impact on the people of Afghanistan.

(I hope we’ll hear from Barbara and her colleagues at Folke Bernadotte Memorial Library who have plenty of experience with September Projects. The Hurricane Katrina Teach-in, held on September 16, 2005 at Gustavus Adolphus College remains, to me, one of the ultimate models of an engaged college campus.)

The best way to learn more about the September Project is to visit our blog – the september project. While there, be sure to click the link labeled “academic library” in the tag cloud on the right side of the blog to see what other academic libraries are doing for their September Projects. If you are a librarian, please consider organizing a September Project event at your library.

If you are not a librarian, please a) print out this blog post, b) bring it with you to your favorite library, and c) place it in the hands of a librarian. Librarians will know what to do it with it.

And by all means, let’s use the comments for conversations.

Thanks, David!