Our Assumptions Require Caution

One benefit of the semester winding down is the opportunity to catch up on readings and podcasts. EDUCAUSE produced several from the latest conference of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). One worth your 30 minutes is a chat with Susan Gibbons, Assistant Director for Public Services and Collections at the University of Rochester. She talks about some of the technology they are experimenting with at UR’s Library, which does seem to be developing a culture for cutting edge resources and services.

One of the trends discussed is the personalization of library services. Gibbons mentioned giving students the ability to add reviews to catalog records, and to receive book recommendations from the library based on borrowing patterns. I ask if students really want that sort of thing. Let’s say the typical undergrad borrows several books to write a paper for a required class. Will they appreciate receiving announcements a semester or two later for new books based on a topic they have no intention of ever researching again? Maybe we need to first determine if anyone wants that sort of service. Just because Amazon does it doesn’t mean we should. Turns out the students pretty much ignored these services, and Gibbon says “We were surprised they didn’t jump on this.”

The dangers of assumptions about what we think the user community wants – versus what they really need – is made again when the talk turns to institutional repositories. Gibbons says “We thought our faculty would just add stuff, but they don’t.” They thought faculty would be compelled, for one reason or another, to self archive their content, but “faculty don’t yet see the benefit”. So the job becomes figuring out how to get users to actually use these services. Maybe we need to be more focused on figuring out what users want and need, and then making it available to them.

That’s where this interview gets even more interesting, because the folks are UR are doing just that. Seems they got a grant that allowed them to fund an anthropologist to study the work flows and behaviors of faculty and students to determine what services would really support their work. Gibbons makes a great point about WIIFM. Faculty will use our services when we can clearly demonstrate WHAT’S IN IT FOR THEM. She says that if it gets their research more citations, if it gets them more recognition, and more visibility – they will use the repository. This information is coming out of the anthropologist’s research into where the users go, what they do, how much time they spend on different projects, etc.

It’s a shame we can’t all conduct our own anthropological studies of our user communities. It sounds like an excellent idea that could help us to target our resources into focused services that we know our users want and away from those that we develop based only on our assumptions about what they need – particularly when those assumptions are based on business models and commercial activity that doesn’t necessarily translate well to our academic libraries. Give this podcast a listen and see what you think.

ALA Forum on Education for Librarianship

ALA President Michael Gorman will be sponsoring a “Forum on Education for Librarianship” at Midwinter. From the Midwinter catalog of events:

Forum on Education for Librarianship
Friday, January 20, 2006, 1:00 -5:30 pm
Location TBD

ALA President Michael Gorman invites library practitioners, educators and students to participate in a half-day forum to explore the big issues in library education: What is the nature of the profession of librarianship and what does the 21st century librarian need to know? How do we translate this understanding of our profession into a meaningful LIS curriculum? What are the implications for ALA accreditation? Presentations on these hot topics in LIS education will be followed by participant discussion and feedback. This is your opportunity to make your voice heard on an issue of vital importance to the future of our profession.

You may register using the online registration form at https://cs.ala.org/forumoneducation. There is no fee to register for this event.

I won’t be able to attend, but I hope someone will and will mine it for issues related to academic and research librarianship that can be blogged.

Libraries Not Alone In Competing With Internet Services

There’s been no dearth of articles in the mainsteam media and in our own literature over the last two years about how Internet services (a generic term for you-know-who) are eating academic libraries’ lunch. To a large extent much of what’s being said is true. Most members of our user communities no longer routinely make the library portal their first stop when they need information, whether it’s for ready reference or more in depth research. But perhaps we don’t need to be the first stop, but just one of the stops that should be made. Perhaps we need to focus more on how we influence our user community to think of the academic library as a stop that’s worth making. And if we can learn from the lessons of others who are in situations similar to our own, then we may find ways to create that influence. But where are such case studies to be found? How about the newspaper industry.

I draw your attention to an op-ed article in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Like libraries, the newspaper is being portrayed as the 21st century equivalent of the buggy whip maker. It’s a dinosaur soon to be extinct, and who will really miss it because no one really makes use of it any more anyway. Sound familiar? While I’m not sure about the presentation of data that suggests that the Inquirer is actually more heavily read than thought, I think there are some points made here to which the academic library community should pay attention. First, newspapers are realizing that Internet services are eating their lunch, and they are doing something about it, mainly having their own competing Internet presence. Well, academic libraries are way ahead of them. We’ve been on the Internet pretty much since day one. Somehow we failed to make ourselves essential and indispensible to our user communities and they went elsewhere. But we do have an Internet presence and we need to continue to capitalize on that.

The second, and more important observation, is that newspapers are continuing to be relevant to their communities because they are effectively influencing how people think and act. This article clearly demonstrates how the Inquirer rallied individuals to create change in their communities through reporting, editorials, and partnerships within the community. If we look at our academic user communities as a newspaper sees its readership community then we might find some parallel ways to reach and influence their thinking and action. One of the primary ways we can do this is through user education. Whether it happens when a librarian speaks to students directly or when a faculty member has integrated the library into the fabric of the course, it’s an opportunity to influence a member of the user community. Beyond that, like newspapers, academic libraries can create partnerships with other academic units to allow for more opportunities to reach the user community. Newspaper editors appear to be savvy in identifying issues of relevance to their communities where they can get involved. That may be a strategy worth studying more closely.

In the good old days academic libraries could sit back and focus on building and organizing collections while waiting for business to come through the door. Just as newspapers can no longer count on everyone picking up a newspaper on their way to work, academic libraries can no longer afford to wait for the user community to acknowledge our resources and services. We need to pay more attention to industries in situations similar to our own, and identify strategies that will allow us to be more influential in getting our users to think about all their potential options when they have an information need – and how we can be at or near the top of their decision tree when the search process begins.

Professional Education, Recruitment, and the Online Degree

Library Link of the Day brought me this interesting essay on online degree programs. In it, Karen Glover of Georgia Tech asks why a recent survey of HR professionals showed that they view online degrees as less “credible” than degrees earned through traditional, face-to-face programs. She wonders about this bias, and so would I (although Glover doesn’t say that the survey she cites was of HR professionals in libraries, which seems a significant point to omit). I’ve taught in 2 online MLS programs (Illinois and San Jose State) and have found the majority of my students to be as actively engaged in preparing for a career in libraries as anyone that I knew during my own F2F MLS program at Indiana. Although my perspective on their work is typically limited to what they do for my class, I certainly think that they have the opportunity to receive as good a pre-service professional education as I did (although, as anyone who has read my work knows, I’ve taken issue with a number of aspects of professional education for librarians, in general, and those issues are not any less evident in online degree programs).

Professional education and recruitment into the profession have been identified by ACRL as one of the top issues facing academic librarianship, and there is no question that the availability of online degree programs has opened up the field to people who cannot relocate to one of the cities housing a F2F program, and has opened up opportunities (albeit limited ones) for practicing librarians also not located near one of these programs to take part in LIS education. I know that I would not be at all “concerned” if a candidate for a position at Kansas had completed the ALA-accredited degree through an online program (and I might well be thinking about how that experience could translate into effective delivery of services to faculty and students making use of Blackboard here). Others? Is Glover’s citation of the general study not applicable to the academic library environment, or is this something that needs further research within our own community? Is there any difference between completing one’s pre-service professional education in an online environment vs. completing continuing education (much of which is sponsored by LIS programs and by ACRL) in that same environment?