To Improve What You Do – Study People

Academic librarians are no strangers to the process of asking our users “how are we doing?” Conducting user surveys, either for measuring satisfaction or service quality, are traditional methods for gauging how well the library meets the needs of its users. The results, we hope, will better inform us on how to improve library services, operations, and resources. The challenge with user surveys is that we don’t really know how accurately they measure our success. Usability studies have gained popularity more recently, but those efforts tend to focus solely on the library web site. But the idea is correct. Learn to improve by watching what people do when they use your systems, services, or resources. ACRLog has previously reported on how librarians at the University of Rochester are using anthropological techniques to study their user community. Clearly, the popularity of using such techniques is growing.

The latest issue of PC Magazine has a lengthy article on “corporate anthropology.” It discusses how computer makers are hiring anthropologists who spend time with product users to better understand how consumers are actually using the products. From the article:

Product development has historically been predicated on a “build it and they will come” basis. But times are changing, consumer choice is increasing and the game plan has evolved. Ethnography, a branch of anthropology, uses a variety of research methods to study people in a bid to understand human culture. Since top companies across several industries are treating ethnography as a means of designing for and connecting with potential customers, technology companies have recently begun investing significantly more research time and money into the field. At chip giant Intel, for example, the company spent approximately $5 billion on ethnographic research and development during 2004.

The reference to “build it and they will come” should resonate with academic librarians because that is frequently how innovation occurs in our libraries. We tend to put new services or resources out there for our user communities, and then we wait to see if anyone uses it. In those situations where new efforts flop we lack the methods to better understand why and what corrections to make. And even if these new resources or services are used, without a design approach there is no formative evaluation in place to identify where improvements can be made. I see the use of anthropological techniques as fitting into a design process in that it is a more thoughtful approach to the planning and implementation of services. But I also see connections between the use of “library anthropology” and “non-library professionals” in that most smaller university and college libraries, those with greater resource constraints and the inability to add folks like anthropologists to their staffs, will be more challenged to improve their libraries using these innovative techniques.

Trends in the Humanities: Periodical Studies

We’ve focused a lot on technology and administration so far in this blog, but ACRL is full of reference and subject librarians who also need to keep up on general trends in scholarship in the academic disciplines in order to perform liaison work, answer reference questions, and build rich, up-to-date collections.

The March issue of the Publications of the Modern Language Association includes an article about the emergence of a new field directly relevant to academic libraries: periodical studies. (Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies” 517-532.)

The idea behind periodical studies is that a scholar examines the complete contents of a periodical as a whole instead of viewing periodicals as containers for individual articles. A researcher in this field would look at what articles, essays, stories, letters, advertisments etc. were published in a periodical and why, and how the periodical and its readers shaped and were shaped by the broader culture of the time.

One force driving this new field is large-scale digitization projects. Digitization projects of runs of periodicals include both those that are freely available such as the Spectator Project and the Modernist Journals Project; and those by huge corporations such as Thomson Gale’s archive of the London Times, and ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers and British Periodicals.

The authors of the article point out some of the challenges of searching these digital archives (not enough metadata, errors in the full-text make for problematic full-text searches) and bring attention to “the hole in the archive” problem: the complete omission of advertisements, which for scholars in cultural studies are often more interesting than the articles. The authors offer these guidelines for digital archiving:

– Start with the original issues.
– Present images of all pages from cover to cover.
– Generate metadata for advertisements along with other features.
– Include the verbal parts of advertising as text for searching to the extent that typography allows.
– On the visible pages, highlight hits in searches.

So Google Wants To Make A Movie With Librarians

I will really be curious to see if any academic librarians show up in Google’s movie. Google is accepting submissions from librarians who have a great Google story, and will then feature selected librarians in a short movie that will be premiered at the ALA conference.

I certainly use Google to find websites when I can’t remember the URL or an article I think I’ve seen somewhere but can’t remember where (and I use other engines for the same things), and I use it regularly to get definitions or to see how certain phrases are used – and I’m a big fan of Google Desktop. But I can’t honestly recall any occasion in recent memory where I used Google to help a student with a serious (or even not so serious) research question. Maybe it’s because most of the research I do is business related and the questions I field are much better answered with library databases or specialized web sites than Google. And when I do library instruction I often try to provide tips for improving Google searches – as well as encouraging students to search more than one engine. So I’m not pro-library/anti-Google by any means. Just the same, this Google movie offer rubs me the wrong way. Do they think librarians are so desperate for attention that we’ll fall all over ourselves to appear in a movie that promotes a search engine rather than library resources? Obviously they do.

So I’m really wondering if academic librarians will try to get into the movie. Maybe there are some academic librarians out there who have more opportunities than I do to get creative with Google. If you want to go for it, don’t let my bad vibes about the Google movie get in your way. Again, I’ve got nothing against Google, but my hope is that librarians everywhere will just completely ignore this movie offer. I think my gut feeling on this one is about having some personal dignity and pride in our craft, and not feeling the need to sell out to a search engine. I mean not one single submission. Google, when it comes to innovation you are near the top of the heap, but I think this is one idea that we can do without.

Pubishers Speak Up

The New York Times (via CNET) reports on how some publishers have responded to the introduction of the Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006. The gist of it?

Scholarly publishing has never been a big business. But it could take a financial hit if a proposed federal law is enacted, opening taxpayer-financed research to the public, according to some critics in academic institutions.

Never been a big business?! Don’t tell Elsevier shareholders.

There are two arguments in this article made against the bill from representatives of scholarly societies, for whom publishing isn’t a big business but is the activity that helps pay their bills and provide membership perks; they have good, honest reasons to be concerned that they will lose the income they have used for their societies. Though in this article, the arguement is framed a little differently: subscriptions may drop off and that will make it harder to sell ads because they can’t claim as many readers will see the ads. (Advertising? Is that where the money comes from? Who knew?) The other is a little more contentious.

Scientific data is easily misinterpreted, said Joann Boughman, executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics, publisher of The American Journal of Human Genetics. “Consumers themselves are saying, ‘We have the right to know these things as quickly as we can.’ That is not incorrect. However, wherever there is a benefit, there is a risk associated with it.”

So, make libraries pay for the subscriptions and make them available to a limited audience so the gullible public won’t read and misinterpret results. Because that would be bad for them. Right.

I always thought the argument that ordinary folks will benefit by being able to read research results a little dubious; it’s not that they will benefit by reading them, because for the most part they won’t, but that they will benefit because scientists will have greater access to them. And that public good is why we fund their research in the first place.

Congratulations To New ACRL President-Elect Julie Todaro

By now most ACRL members have come across some news of the ACRL presidential election results. Just yesterday ACRL made the announcement official with this press release. Congratulations to Julie Todaro on being elected as Vice-President/President-Elect of ACRL. I’m sure we will all be looking forward to her term as ACRL president.

It was a well-run election by both Todaro and Cynthia Steinhoff, and the nomination committee is to be applauded for giving us two outstanding individuals to choose from – and more significantly – an opportunity to have a community college library director at the helm of ACRL, something that I believe has not been the case in recent memory.

The complete ACRL election results are available online.