Moving Beyond Beginner’s Level

Creating Passionate Users is a popular blog, and I came across one or two other bloggers that mentioned this post that appeared there last week. The gist of the post is feature overload in electronic devices that causes their owners to simply stick with the basic default settings (sound familiar?). It made me think about our feature-laden aggregator databases. How many academic libraries stick with the default basic search screen? Basic mode hides many good features from the searcher. The author says:

If users are stuck in permanent beginner mode, and can’t really do anything interesting or cool with a thing they’re not likely to become passionate. They grow bored or frustrated and the “tool” turns into shelfware.

That part of the post really reasonated with me because I think we tend to convince ourselves that shielding our user community from some of the complexities of our library databases somehow benefits them. But that is apparently a good strategy for encouraging apathy and a lack of intellectual curiousity. These same library resources do offer features that could support the author’s other advice which is to “help passionate users learn to do something cool.” Okay, library databases are generally the opposite of cool, but in what ways can they open students’ eyes and get then interested, activated, and on the road to developing some passion.

Like what, for example. Well, I’ve always had good success getting undergrads to sit up and pay attention when I show them those databases that incorporate tools for creating formatted citations. They tend to think that is pretty cool because deep down no one really likes writing citations. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


What else don’t academic searchers like? Well they tend to love Lexis/Nexis but they don’t care much for getting loads and loads of real short and unsubstantial articles (you know the ones I mean). So they find it pretty cool when I show them how to use the “length>wordcount” command (as in length>500) to limit retrieval to those articles that exceed the required number of words. It’s easy to remember, takes no great skill, you don’t have to use the word “boolean”, and it’s easy to do because of the FOCUS feature, which they also find to be a revelation. Sure, it would be great if these things were more intuitive. Yes, there should be a prompt that says “would you like to remove all the articles with less than (insert number) words?” But the reality is that we’re not there yet. Learning something like “length>” is partially about exposure to more features, but it’s also about understanding what makes some information better than other information – and how to get it more quickly and efficiently. [click on thumbnail to go to enlarged image]


There are probably dozens of other ways in which we can move our users beyond the beginner’s level. But to take the first step in that direction we need to put some faith into user education. Those who claim library users don’t want to learn how to search, who advocate eliminating user education, and who will tell you it all needs to be simple are the same ones who want to keep the users on automatic mode where they’ll remain bored and void of passion. As the author of the post said, “it’s not that we couldn’t learn how to use anything but the automatic mode…the problem was that we didn’t know why or when to use anything else.” That strikes me as a good mission for library instructors, which is to move beyond the how and instead focus more on the why and when of our resources’ cool features. All we’ve got to lose are bored and passionless users.

Try Avoiding The “A” Word

With growing attention being paid to higher education accountability at the national level as evidenced by the recent final report of the U.S Commission on Higher Education, our institutions are increasingly focused on building a variety of assessment methods into the curriculum. Of course, accomplishing effective assessment across the institution is easier said than done. There are no sure-fire or easy ways to get the job done, and it often is met with resistance at different levels across the institution. Academic librarians are aware of the need for assessment, and as a profession we have made some significant contributions to the assessment movement at our institutions.

But even with the many articles, programs and standards related to the assessment of library services, it is something we still find difficult to grasp. In an effort to help institutions in my neck of the woods improve their understanding of and ability to conduct assessment, a regional higher education association conducted a full-day assessment workshop which I had the good fortune to attend. A theme repeated throughout the workshop was that part of the assessment challenge is the word itself. Either people don’t get it or they are adverse to being a part of the process. The experts’ advice was to avoid using the “A” word at all. Instead, frame discussions about assessment in terms of the simple question “What do you want students to be able to do?” The answers to that question can then form learning outcomes for individuals courses, the institution as a whole or for skill attainment areas such as information literacy. Other basic questions that can contribute to both the identification of outcomes and ways to measure them include:

  • Do we meet or exceed accreditation standards?
  • Do we compare well to others?
  • Are we meeting goals?
  • Are we getting better?
  • Are we getting the most out of our investments?
  • Perhaps when we replace our assessment jargon with some simple questions we might actually make more progress in determining the extent to which the academic library contributes to students achieving institutional learning outcomes. Just coincidentally, later in the week, Pace University issued an assessment report that provides some interesting ideas for assessing student learning. While it’s an institutional blueprint for assessment it makes good reading for those who wish to learn more about higher education assessment challenges and approaches. The demand for greater accountability in higher education is likely to only grow in strength. It would benefit academic librarians to develop methods to both quantitatively and qualitatively demonstrate how their libraries contribute to students’ academic success. Oh, and a final benefit of attending an assessment workshop – finding out that your peers are just as challenged by it as you are.

    Copyright and the Classroom

    Looking for a thorough overview of the copyright issues facing educators? Check out the spanking-new report from the Berkman Center at Harvard Law, The Digital Learning Challenge. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, this study examines challenges encountered in four case studies. They summarize the main issues as

    Unclear or inadequate copyright law relating to crucial provisions such as fair use and educational use

    Extensive adoption of “digital rights management” technology to lock up content;

    Practical difficulties obtaining rights to use content when licenses are necessary;

    Undue caution by gatekeepers such as publishers or educational administrators.

    Interestingly, the touchy issue of e-reserves is left alone – so “highlycontroversial” it needs further study. Though the section devoted to libraries is skimpy, deferring to the Section 108 Study Group, the whole report is worth a read because of its excellent summary of issues facing educators.

    U of California Joins Google Library Project

    It’s been in the air ever since a campus newspaper broke the story – but now it’s official. Another library is partnering with Google to add library books to Google Book Search.

    Like the University of Michigan, UC intends to include in-copyright books. In the official press release, Brian Schottlaender, University Librarian at UC San Diego, makes a case for storing a copy digitally that has overtones of Doublefold-style alarm bells.

    “Tens of thousands of volumes entrusted to our care are printed on acid-rich paper and are crumbling into dust. In fact, all our holdings are chronically at risk, residing as they do in seismically unstable California.”

    “Anyone who doubts the potential impact that natural disaster can have, need look no further than the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on our sister libraries in Louisiana and Mississippi. Digital copies tucked away safely in a preservation archive would have saved those libraries — and indeed, the world — from irrecoverable loss.”

    But a more positive case is made for joining the project.

    “The academic enterprise is fundamentally about discovery,” said John Oakley, chair of UC’s systemwide Academic Senate and a UC Davis law professor. “We contribute to it immeasurably by unlocking the wealth of information maintained within our libraries and exposing it to the latest that search technologies have to offer.

    “In this new world, our faculty, staff and students will make connections between information and ideas that were hitherto inaccessible, driving the pace of scholarly innovation, and enhancing the use that is made of our great libraries.”

    Though UC already is participating in the Open Content Alliance, a collaboration that includes Yahoo and the Internet Archive, a story in the LA Times points out two reasons to join the Google project as well: it will scan in-copyright books and promises to move ahead much more quickly.

    And then there’s another possible motivator that Tom Peters alludes to in his excellent round-up in ALA TechSource: simply longing to be part of the exclusive G5.

    Summer Project Leads To Some Old Gems

    For academic librarians the summer means time to get to projects that go untouched during the academic semesters. One of my summer projects is an attempt to get the hundreds of article printouts I have collected over the years into my RefWorks space. My assistant is helping me in this endeavor, but it’s required me to pull the articles out of their file folders, assign them to a RefWorks folder, and attach some descriptors to each that I hope will enable me to retrieve them at some future point. The work has mostly gone quickly, but every now and then I come across an article that requires a second look and a new reading – which of course slows things down. Here a few good examples, and what I find these ones have in common is that they discuss issues or make suggestions that still hold up well. You might say that in some ways they were ahead of their times.

    Ken Kempcke. The Art of War for Librarians: Academic Culture, Curriculum Reform, and Wisdom from Sun Tzu. Portal: Libraries and the Academy V2 N4 (2002) 529-551.
    Kempcke raises a number of good questions about why our efforts in collaborating with faculty haven’t resulted in better integration of information literacy into the curriculum, and more equal status with faculty. He writes:

    Collaborative efforts are important. But let’s not be so busy patting ourselves on the back for something that should be part of our everday job that we lose sight of our larger goals…We must make IL skills unquestionably as important as writing, speaking, math and science skills.

    This is just one of many good observations and suggestions. I didn’t recall reading this one when it first appeared but I have no doubt it influenced some of my own thinking about blended librarianship as a strategy for better integrating the academic librarian into the teaching and learning process.

    Steven Stoan. The Library as an Instrument for Teaching and Learning. Presented at the Council of Independent College’s 2002 Workshop on the Transformation of the College Library.
    Stoan, Director of the Drury University Library, is a College Libraries Section colleague and seeing this paper again reminded me of how impressed I was by the writing and ideas the first time I came across it. It dwells on a number of themes related to collaboration and improving the quality of student research. He writes:

    Librarians must also be brought along, since such changes would involve significant new roles for them and alter their work environment and job expectations considerably. The college administration might have to take a hard look at staffing patterns as librarians assume new responsibilities. In short, the new collaborative model would move the library away from the traditional reactive, bibliographic instruction model that fit in with the traditional lecture approach to education. It would require that library instruction be integrated with certain coursework in a more seamless way in which the instructors and librarians would share responsibility for creating the learning environments that would accomplish desired information literacy outcomes.

    Since this was written many more academic libraries are making the transformative changes suggested by Stoan, but going back and reading it again is a good reminder of why we are making these changes and why we must continue to do so.

    James Rettig. “Technology, Cluelessness, Anthropology, and the Memex: The Future of Academic Reference Service.” Reference Services Review V31 N1 (2003) 17-21.
    It’s almost impossible to read something by Jim Rettig and not be impressed by the breadth of his knowledge and expertise in the field of reference service. Now I see why I held on to this one in particular as it offers some early expressions of the simplicity vs. complexity conundrum with which academic librarians must cope. Rettig notes the changing values of the “Net Generation”, their desire for immediacy, and their cluelessness about information’s complexity. He writes:

    Students are naive or clueless about the complexity of information even as they trust information they retrieve or that is pushed to them in ways consonant with their values of immediacy and itneractivity…Nevertheless, many students recognize quality information when they see it; they just do not know how to search for and retrieve it. All of this can work to our advantage and theirs.

    But where this article really shines is in it’s suggestion that “we need to become expert anthropologists of our user communities.” This certainly predates the work being done at the University of Rochester, which now includes an anthropologist on their library team so they can do exactly what Rettig suggested – “learn their information-handling habits”. I can’t quite say how this paper has impacted on the future of reference librarianship, but it is a good reminder that in whatever ways it changes it must remain user-centered.

    Gary Hamel and Liisa Valikangas. “The Quest for Resilience.” Harvard Business Review September 2003 pp. 1-13.
    If you don’t care much for applying business concepts to library leadership then just skip this one. But if you want some insight into coping with ongoing technology change and how academic libraries might avoid being marginalized this one is worth a read. Hamel and Valikangas write:

    Strategic resilience is not about responding to a onetime crisis. It’s not about rebounding from a setback. It’s about continuously anticipating and adjusting to deep, secular trends that can permanently impair the earning power of a core business. It’s about having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious…It must begin with an aspiration: zero trauma…The goal is an organization that is constantly making its future rather than defending its past.

    I don’t know about you but this strikes me as being eminently applicable to the position that academic libraries find themselves in at this very moment.

    These sorts of articles lack the nuggets of practical, how-to advice found in the standard “here’s how we did it good at my library” type article. But what they do incredibly well is get us thinking about our position in the higher education enterprise, and how we can remain relevant to our user community. Even in the summer as we rush to complete projects for the beginning of the fall semester it is important to be inspired and to think about where our libraries are headed – and how the library team will get there. What’s lurking in your file cabinet?