The More We Know The Better We Can Do

Over at the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community they sponsored a webcast today that offered information about a unique project. The presenters were Susan Gibbons, Associate Dean, Judi Briden, Digital Librarian for Public Services, and Nancy Foster, Lead Anthropologist and Co-Manager of the Digital Initiatives Unit. You read that correctly. Foster is an anthropologist working with the librarians to help them learn more about their user community. In this presentation, titled “Ethnographic Methods and Participatory Design In a University Library”, Gibbons, Briden, and Foster explained how they are using ethnographic methods to collect information about how students and faculty members do their research and use the library (or other non-library resources). The research is funded by an IMLS grant.

One of the things they do is have students draw diagrams that illustrate how they conduct their research process. We saw examples of drawings made by students (these use stick figures folks – the students aren’t expected to be artists) that show where they start and how they proceed through the research process. The research team members collect and analyze the drawings looking for patterns to provide more insight into student research methods. They also ask students to indicate on campus maps those buildings they use and what they do in those buildings. This can provide insight into which buildings the students feel most comfortable going to for their computing, research, and socialization. Students are given disposable cameras and are asked to take photos of their rooms, and their work materials. Research team members visit students in their dorm rooms and videotape them working on their computers. I guess ethnographic research can be a bit invasive at times. They described how they are using similar methods to better understand faculty use of institutional repositories, as they hope to learn more about ways to encourage faculty to make use of the repository.

The point of the webcast was to demonstrate how a user-centered design process can help librarians to better understand our user communities and how they do – and do not – use our physical and virtual resources. Design thinking suggests we can continuously improve our services by asking how our resources can better fill the users’ information needs. But if we fail to clearly understand those needs it’s not possible to design the approriate systems that best suit our students and faculty.

Perhaps the most salient point that I took away from the presentation is that the more we know about our user community – the more information we gather about their research workflows – the more things we will know that our information competitors can’t possibly grasp. That should position us to customize or frame services in ways that will deliver services to our users that should far exceed what they can obtain from generic search engines. Wishful thinking? I think not.

BTW, there are some sample documents used in the ethnographic research available within the University of Rochester’s institutional repository. They are pubicly accessible.

Sorry, but because of the confidential nature of some of the photos and illustrations shown in today’s webcast presentation, it was not possible to archive the program. But if you missed this today you should have opportunities to hear more about this exciting research program. The team members will be doing some conference presentations, and I hope they’ll publish some of their research and findings in the future.

The Myth Of LIS Grad As Finished Product

One of the most frequent complaints about the job LIS education programs are doing is their inability to produce graduates that are workplace ready. That would be a great trick, but can any professional school meet that challenge? In an opinion piece written for the Chronicle of Higher Education (March 10 issue) Arthur Levine, President of the Columbia University Teacher’s College, writes the following about the criticism that gets fired at education programs for turning out poorly prepared teachers:

Education schools are asked to turn out “finished products.” That makes no sense. Teaching is one of the few professions in which brand-new professionals are expected to know everything on the first day. Schools take them and immediately place them alone in a classroom and say, “Teach.”

Yet upon graduating from medical school, new doctors are not rushed into the operating room and asked to oversee open-heart surgery. Instead they go through an internship and a residency, gradually gaining knowledge and experience under the guidance of experienced practitioners. New lawyers who join a law firm do not enter a courtroom right away to serve as lead counsel in a murder case, but work for a partner and get experience and increasing responsibility. New journalists are not assigned to interview the president, and the new M.B.A. is not asked to direct a corporate division.

What is also different about the teaching profession is where the “finishing” is expected to take place. Law firms do not say to law schools, and corporations do not say to business schools, “We just hired your graduate, so we expect your school to stay with her for the next year or so to complete her training.” They want to train their new hires in their own way.

So replace “teachers” and “teaching” with librarians and librarianship and I think you see the point. I agree with Levine that it’s unrealistic for library employers to expect the LIS programs to turn out finished products. However, Levine’s remarks also point out the importance of getting LIS students into internships. We’ve all heard the gripes of newly graduated LIS students who thought their degree alone would be their key to a library job. Turns out many employers want real workplace experience as well. I think many academic librarians expect to put the finishing touches on their hires that are recent LIS grads, and we probably want, as Levine says, to train them in our own way. Clearly academic librarians need to better connect with LIS educators to create more opportunities for LIS students to gain the “authentic and varied” practice that is an absolute necessity to the learning process – and to work within our own institutions to create more internships. Even if we put these learning opportunities into place, we need to recognize that LIS programs cannot – and perhaps should not – focus their energies on creating finished products.

NPR Addresses the Future of Libraries

According to the Talk of the Nation Web site, today’s program will be entitled, “The Bookless Library.” Here’s the blurb:

Information technology changes as soon we think we understand it. We look at how libraries keep up and redefine their role. How would you design a library for the 21st century?

For those of us who working during Talk of the Nation, transcripts and audio files should be by this evening. Want to participate, you can call into the program at 1-800-989-8255, or send an e-mail to with “21st century libraries” in the subject line.

Thanks to Christie Brandau, State Librarian of Kansas, for the tip!

Better Learn How To Run An Espresso Machine

Augusten Burroughs is a best-selling author. One of his books, Running With Scissors, has been on the NYT best seller list for over 70 weeks. You wouldn’t think that would make him a library futurist but he makes a rather interesting prediction for libraries in an short article published in the January-February issue of DETAILS magazine (sorry, it’s not online – but if your library subscribes check pages 96-97).

The article isn’t about libraries. It’s about relationships. Why I find it interesting is that it reflects our global fascination with Google. He writes “We are a Google Nation. Type in a few words on any subject and a staggering amount of information hurls forth in two seconds flat.” I found a connection here with Marc’s piece about “What Google Teaches.” It may not be that Google teaches students that books are not worthwhile, but what it definitely does teach, or rather how it conditions their behavior, is to have absolutely no patience for information retrieval. Burroughs writes that we are “a speed-obsessed culture”, and if our water won’t boil as fast as Google gives results then it’s entirely unacceptable. Do speed-obsessed people have what it takes to turn the pages of a reference book until they find what they need? That might require a bit of effort as well, and Burroughs also observes that as a culture we have become programmed to avoid two things: hard work and persistence.

As for using libraries and doing research, well they obviously require both at times. So as far as Burroughs can tell, in the next decade both libraries and librarians will probably be out of business. He writes:

“A mere 10, 15 years ago if you wanted to research something you went to a library. You opened the unwieldy card catalog, deciphered the geekishly long code, and walked a quarter-mile into the stacks to locate a specific book and the little piece of information needed. Now the only reason to go into the stacks is to have sex…My guess is that within the next decade…Libraries will be converted into more useful real estate – condos and coffee bars – and the librarians who work in them will be rounded up and retrained to operate industrial espresso machines and cash registers.”

I start teaching a library school course about academic librarianship in another two months. Our final class session focuses on academic library futures, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting ones. I think I’m going to skip mentioning Burroughs’ vision.

Of Course Our Libraries Should Be Easier To Use

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think that making libraries and their resources easier to use is a good idea? Probably not. I’ve been working in academic libraries for close to 20 years, and most of that time the planning and implementation activities I’ve been involved in were geared to reducing barriers to access for end users. First we offered only mediated online searching. Then we introduced online searching for end users on BRS and Dialog. Then we adopted CD-ROMs so end users could spend as much time as they liked doing their own searches using less complex interfaces. Next came the ability to allow remote access to web-based aggregator databases. Next up, perhaps true anytime, anywhere access to library content on your choice of device. Seems like a case of continuous improvement to me.

The ease with which search engines can be used for information retrieval, the comfort and convenience of book store chains, and consumers’ increased expectations to be able to do things themselves are just some of the examples of pressures on academic libraries to give library users a better experience. And taking into account past efforts to reduce barriers to access, ongoing discussions about the ways in which OPACs must be improved, the introduction of more creature comforts into libraries, the use of technology to integrate the library into the learning process, and the general innovation we find in academic libraries, can our profession really be characterized as being complacent about improving our operations and fixing what doesn’t work.

I tuned into Rick Anderson’s (Director of Resource Acquisition at Univ. of Nevada, Reno Libraries) Soaring To Excellence program on Friday, February 3rd, and one of the strong messages I came away with is that libraries are broken, patrons are running to get away from us at top speed, and that we don’t have a clue as to how to turn things around – nor do we care to. Anderson was prepared with advice on how to stop the bleeding, but I certainly found myself disagreeing with more than a few of his generalized observations and propositions (e.g., librarians are obsessed with making and enforcing rules; academic libraries should give up on educating users; abandon print – go totally online; we force users to find information the hard way because that’s how we’ve always done it; cataloging details are a waste of time; etc.). An outline of the program with more of Anderson’s problems and fixes is found at the STE site.

I do applaud Anderson’s effort to encourage academic librarians to take risks in finding ways to make using the library a better experience, and to continually question our values to determine if they still make sense in these challenging times. I think we would all agree with Anderson that our libraries need to improve, even if some of his radical propositions are questionable. As evidenced by the recent University of California Libraries report on “Rethinking How We Provide Bibliographic Services“, even catalogers are asking how to make OPAC content easier for end users to digest and interpret. But are our academic libraries broken? Do we need to make the radical changes Anderson suggests? I certainly don’t think so, and I’m sure many ACRLog readers would agree. I would encourage Anderson to look more closely at the many innovative ways in which academic (public and K-12 too) libraries are developing better user experiences. The picture, I believe, is much brighter than the one he painted on the program.

Many of the ideas upon which Anderson’s program was based can be found in a speech he made at a library conference in 2003. It’s provocative and worthwhile reading, and I commend it to you. In a recent unrelated e-mail communication to Anderson I shared the quote, “I never learned anything from a man who agreed with me.” (Dudley Field Malone). So while we will have our points of disagreement I’m likely to continue reading and listening to what he has to say – and you probably should as well.