Another Reason I’m Glad To Be An Academic Librarian

Compared to public librarians, I think that academic librarians have it easy in some ways. We tend to complain about students and faculty not using the library, but let’s face it, to a large extent we have a fairly captive audience. Many students need to use their academic library at some point, be it for a reserve item, to use a computer or to find a study room. The academic library is also conveniently located somewhere on campus that makes it easy for students to drop in during the course of the day. Few have to get in their car or take public transportation for a library visit.

Having attended a few public library-oriented sessions at ALA, I see that those folks have no audience except for the one they create. No one has to go to the public library; they have to want to go. So public libraries are getting savvy about marketing and designing programs to attract their community members of all ages. Compared to some of the outreach efforts I heard about it seems that academic librarians are not doing nearly as much to engage their patrons outside the library. And that may be because our survival is not entirely dependent upon it.

Oh, and academic librarians rarely have to deal with this sort of thing, but for our public library colleagues it must be the bane of their existence.

m-Libraries Conference

Wow. About time.

Those were my two immediate reactions upon seeing the announcment for “The First International m-libraries Conference” that “aims to explore and share work carried out in libraries around the world to deliver services and resources to users ‘on the move,’ via a growing plethora of mobile and hand-held devices … bring together researchers, technical developers, managers and library practitioners to exchange experience and expertise and generate ideas for future developments.”

A quick look around any library, shopping mall, airport, coffeeshop, grocery store, etc. and we see that library users are often on the move with mobile information devices. Yet – most of our resources and services are either place-bound or they are digitally available but assume a computer screen – not a cell phone, blackberry, or PDA. Have you ever looked at a library website through a mobile device web browser? I have. It wasn’t pretty. Forget getting to any of the licensed content.

I hope this is an area of quick and determined action for libraries but, even if not, the conference sessions look intriguing and may spur some new areas of activity.


Formula For Academic Library Success

We struggle to get our user communities to actually use all the databases in which we invest significant funds, and to do so in ways that enable them to succeed academically. Well, I heard some new research findings last week that suggested a simple formula for achieving academic library success that puts our challenge into better perspective. This formula comes courtesy of John Law, Director, Strategic Alliances & Platform Management ProQuest CSA. Law was the guest presenter at the the latest Blended Librarians Online Learning Community webcast (held 5/10). In a presentation titled “Observing Student Researchers in their Native Habitat”, Law described research, ethnographic in nature, that was conducted to see how students do research for actual assignments in their own surroundings. The findings should be of great interest to academic librarians.

Given what Law shared about his research results, there may be cause for optimism. It seems that students may be more savvy about using library research databases than we suspected. They also tend to depend on search engines less heavily for serious research than we may think, and more frequently as a complement to library databases. Yes, students may typically begin in a search engine, but that’s how they acquire background or introductory information. But they then seek out the library’s databases for more detailed information or scholarly content on their topic.

Law reported on a student who used library content to find scientific articles, but then needed to better understand some of the results and shifted to Wikipedia for an overview article, then went back to the library databases. It may be that students are growing more knowledgable about which tools to use for different types of research – maybe those instruction sessions are paying off – and yes – students indicated they often heard about library databases in targeted instruction sessions. Law also told us that faculty can have enormous influence over student choices for research resources.

But all is not well in academic libraryland. We’ve got a few problems. But knowing what the problems are allows us to fix them. Law’s research showed that all too often students simply don’t know what the library offers. As a result they often miss a relevant database for their research. And he found that library web sites can be so confusing that students will actually use search engines to locate their own library’s databases – often with peculiar results. And when they do find our databases, student run into all sorts of challenges getting into them (authentication issues). So here is the formula I’d like to see more academic libraries employ for better results:

Greater Awareness + Usable Websites + Flawless Authentication = Better Results

If we can put together these three challenges, identify where they are broken and then fix them so they work correctly, it can represent the first step in getting the better results we want our students to achieve. If you would like to see more of this presentation for yourself, an archived recording is available at:

You do need to have an account for the Learning Times Network to access the recording. If you don’t have one you can request it at the Blended Librarians web site.

Re: Reference

Scott Carlson has an interesting piece in the Chron on the battle of the reference desk – should it still be a place that offers face-to-face, point of need assistance, or should it be a virtual contact, through texting, chatting, and whatever new ways people prefer to communicate?

The ACRL session already covered here gets some play, pointing out that feelings run high and an either/or response can cause real friction. It reminds me of a now-pointless canard: Should we promote use the Internet or of libraries? Obviously, both, and both are converging.

At Gustavus, our students have so far voted with their feet, not their thumbs. They prefer face-to-face, and they attend a residential college expecting it. We chat, too, using their IM client or a chat box right on our Web page, and that’s handy. If I could figure out how to make my thumbs work and how I’d pay for all those text messages, I’d probably do reference that way, as well. But since I carry my wireless laptop to the reference desk, I don’t feel I’m wasting time. I’m just as mobile as our students and get plenty of work done while being visible and available. And being there when they have a question is big for our students – whether the question is big or small, it’s important to them.

Debating The Future Of The Reference Desk

If you want to get into a contentious discussion with a reference librarian, suggest that you think it’s time to get rid of the reference desk. In my last post I mentioned the debate about the reference desk at Columbia University in which I participated. I should mention that my fellow debater was Sarah Watstein, AUL for Research and Instructional Services at UCLA and a co-editor of RSR/Reference Services Review. Sarah took on the role of the negative debater, and made some good arguments for why we need to maintain the reference desk. So what were some of the debate points, both pro and con?

Here are some of the key points I made in affirmation of the resolution that we should eliminate the desk by 2012:

– A reference deskless model that can work owing to mobile technology; several libraries have already done away with the traditional desk or are no longer putting subject specialists at desks (UC Merced, Colorado State U)
– Having students or paraprofessionals at desks may mean an occasional missed opportunity for a teachable moment or even a mishandled question; but are librarians perfect – and think about how many students already go to the circulation desk or never come in at all; look not at what we have to lose but what we have to gain by getting out from behind the desk
– Advanced technology like the Vocera device can allow librarians to be connected with users at any point in the building; why sit behind desk “just-in-case” when we could be putting our professional skills to better use elsewhere; move to a “pre-emptive” just-in-time model of reference service
– We’re not getting real reference questions anymore; we are getting lots of printer and computer questions (you call that reference?); we are getting more questions that require time consuming consultations and those should be managed at locations other than reference desks
– The reference desk is just a symbol for reference service; getting rid of the desk does not mean getting rid of the service
– Leveraging new technologies to eliminate reference desks will not eliminate the human touch; it will only mean it migrates to other service points such as classrooms, consultation rooms, residence halls, academic departments and all those other places on campus where we can personally connect with our user community

Here are some of the key points Sarah made in opposing the resolution:

– The reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service, but also to the culture of our academic libraries in general; an academic library without a reference desk is unthinkable
– In our increasingly impersonal world, the value of personal service has never been higher. Think “automated attendants.” It’s critical to maintain the human touch in delivering reference service; if we do it all by mobile phone, video and computers (txt, IM, chat, email, etc.), we will lose the ability to connect with our users
– Transactions may be down but academic library reference desks are still incredibly busy; our reference desks are symbols of our service in action.
– Search and discovery in our complex information environs is not getting any easier. Think formats and interfaces. Think bells and whistles. Today more than ever users need an intermediary; reference librarians can perform more efficient, more precise and more knowledgeable searches
– A teachable moment in person is not equal to a teachable moment online; if we remove the desk we remove vast opportunities for teachable moments to happen; information literacy can help but it’s not producing nearly the level of self-capable student researcher we desire
– What about Brodart? Gaylord? Thos. Moser? The library furniture business is alive and well. Product options abound! Today’s desks are designed to serve not just a purpose, but also our audience. They are more durable, have greater aesthetic appeal, are more customizable, and truly complement the versatile learning environments that increasingly define our academic libraries. Our trusted sources for library furniture will see us well into the 21st century.

How personally committed are Sarah and I to these views? Well, let’s just say that a good debate should really polarize the issues so that we can clearly express the pros and cons and achieve a better understanding of what we have to gain and lose by making significant changes in our service delivery models. Will research libraries still have reference desks by 2012? We don’t think desks will become extinct over the next five years, but we do believe the profession will be experimenting with multiple reference models some of which will not require a traditional desk. Methods and modes of providing reference service will continue to change – – and must, if we are to stay relevant to our users.

Note to readers: This post was co-authored with my debate partner, Sarah Watstein.