By Meredith Farkas | December 13, 2010
I’m not sure if I’ve become more cynical or just more observant, but lately I feel like I’ve been seeing things through new eyes. We make so many assumptions in this profession, often based on the idea that we know what students need and want. Time and again, research has shown that we’re usually wrong. Some of the things we think are great might actually be great… just not for the average college student. Some things create a whole different set of problems. I’ve been thinking a lot about how so many of our efforts to make things simpler for our students only seem to make it more difficult for them to find the best resources for their papers. Are we making things better or just more complicated?
An example we’re dealing with now at our library involves WorldCat Local. Our library is going to be moving over to OCLC Web-Scale Management for our ILS (which I am really excited about!). Now that we’re going in with Web-Scale Management, we are going to be upgraded to the full version of WorldCat Local (which is called a discovery tool, but doesn’t hold a candle to something like Summon). Through agreements with vendors it is indexing and in some cases federating a variety of database content. But I have to wonder if doing this is going to make it easier or more difficult for students to find what they’re looking for. I’d say at least 75% of students doing research at Norwich have to cite scholarly works in their papers. When they search in WorldCat Local, they can’t limit their search to scholarly sources, so students have to look at each source and determine whether it is scholarly or not. How is this any easier for them than just going into Academic Search Premier, and limiting their search to scholarly journals? It’s searching more stuff at once, but it’s not giving students the tools they need to narrow down their search to quality sources. And as much as I’d like to believe that our information literacy sessions are churning out keen-eyed critical thinkers, too many students still can’t distinguish a blog post from a scholarly journal (as I discovered this semester when I assessed EN 101 students after their library session).
It gets even more complicated when you think about teaching all this. How do you explain this buffet of options to students when the majority of college students don’t want a buffet; they just want some relevant, authoritative options. I’ve experienced this when teaching students about Google Scholar. On its face, it seems like an easy sell. It has scholarly stuff and it’s the Google interface. ‘Nuff said. But then you find books from Google Books in there… most of which are not available in full-text… even though it may look like they are when you find a long preview. Oh yeah, and some of the books aren’t scholarly by a long shot. Uh oh, and did you just find a website with someone’s unpublished articles? And you found an article from the New York Times? And you found some random crappy website? Ok, so yes, there is an awful lot of awesome scholarly stuff in here, but unfortunately, just like with regular Google, you still have to wade through a lot of stuff (some scholarly, some not) to find what you’re looking for. And if we use WorldCat Local as a discovery service, I fear our students will have similarly frustrating experiences.
Project Information Literacy’s most recent report indicates that “students think library sources require less evaluation than information posted by anyone on the open-source Web.” When you have library search engines that are throwing everything from Time-Life books and USA Today articles to the Journal of Military History and Oxford University Press books at students, it’s scary to think that students are assuming the resources they are finding through the library are always of sufficient quality to use in their paper. Then again, I’ve even heard faculty say that to their students that anything from the library is of good quality. One of Project Information Literacy’s other reports suggests that students are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them and have difficulty making sense of the results they get. Does this seem like a group in need of more or in need of simplification and a sense of context?
Another thing I’m having a crisis of faith about is screencasting. I was one of the screencasting early adopters and promoted it in presentations and on my blog. But the more screencasts I created, and the more students I worked with, the more I realized the limitations of screencasting for providing assistance to students. I read an article about screencasting a few months ago (darned if I remember who wrote it), but it confirmed what I was beginning to suspect. The author(s) gave students an assignment for which online instruction would be helpful and then had some students use a screencast and some use an HTML tutorial. What s/he found was that while students found the screencast more engaging, they weren’t as easily able to use it to complete the assignment because they couldn’t easily switch back-and-forth between the database and the screencast. This begs the question, do most students want to watch a video of how to search a database or do they want to quickly pick out the piece(s) of information they need and move on? This, other articles and my own experience tells me that the majority of students are coming to online instruction with a specific information need and want to skip, skim and scan around until they find the answer. Satisfying an information need like that with a screencast is like students coming to the reference desk with a specific information need and us spending five minutes showing them various aspects of a database that they don’t care about. I can see screencasts being good for people who just want a basic orientation or as a required component of a class in place of face-to-face instruction (I can also see quick-and-dirty custom screencasts being useful for providing reference assistance to remote students), but the majority of people who could benefit from library instructional assistance probably have a very specific information need and would likely rather skip, skim, and scan their way to the answer.
And don’t get me started on ebooks or patron-driven acquisitions! I’ll save those for future posts. I’m not saying I have all the answers — or any of them for that matter — but I do think the answers for figuring out what our patrons need come from… wait for it… our patrons. We need to understand how they do research, how they use our current resources, why some of them don’t use the library, and what they want from the library that they’re not currently getting. So often, library surveys ask about their satisfaction with our current services, not what the ideal library would look like or how we can support their research needs. They may never even have thought about those things themselves. We need an in-depth understanding of our users, through focus groups, surveys, ethnographic studies and more. And while studies like those from Project Information Literacy are fantastic, they aren’t a substitute for studying your own unique population. Development of technologies in the library world is way too vendor and librarian-centric, when the focus should be on what it is our students really and truly need.