Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Article Note: On Electronic Academic Libraries and Student Behavior

Citation for the article:

Van Scoyoc, Anna M. and Caroline Cason. "The Electronic Academic Library: Undergraduate Research Behavior in a Library Without Books." portal: Libraries and the Academy 6.1 (2006): 47-58.

I read the article via Project Muse.

This study looked at undergraduate research habits in an electronic library. Though the setting is called a library, it is actually an Information Commons with the form of a learning center. All of the resources are electronic, and the place is located in a separate building. It does include a desk staffed by reference librarians and computer consultants.

In the literature review, the authors point out that the study consistently shows that most students use the Internet first for research needs. The authors write that "the online resource of choice for undergraduates is the commercial search engine rather than research sources provided by librarians" (49). The authors also briefly describe the concept of information commons. They note that, unlike most information commons, the one in the study is not housed in a library. Data collection for the study was based on a survey.

The study found that, of the respondents, "the most commonly used resource was other Web resources, selected by 75.7 percent of students, followed closely by WebCT/class Web sites at 71.3 percent" (51). This confirms findings in the literature, and it also confirms my intuition as a teacher; that students still go for convenience first. The WebCT/class Web sites I explain in a more cynical way: they have to use those for their classes. Convenient or not, they are required tools, and more likely a necessary evil to many students if some of the complaints I hear now and then from students hold truth to them. Another finding is that there was not much of a difference between undergraduate classes when it comes to how likely they were to use library funded resources.

Some of the researchers' hypotheses seem important to me, so let make a note:

"The researchers hypothesized that there would be less use of non-proprietary Internet sites among upper-level undergraduates as compared with first-year and second-year students. The researchers also expected that exposure to library instruction over the course of their academic career would increase students' use of the library's resources over time" (53).

I make a note of this because I think a lot of librarians would make these assumptions. They seem natural and logical; they do to me initially. However, I have experience on my side to dissuade me of those ideas. One experience is the senior who now and then shows up at the reference desk saying, "I have never used the library, can you help me?" Leaving aside that I have to ask what kind of teachers he or she had that allowed this to happen, it goes to illustrate the convenience principle. The authors do remark on this towards the end of the article when they write that "if instructors do not specifically require the use of scholarly sources, there is no academic impetus for students to look beyond the World Wide Web" (55-56). This is very true. Often at the reference desk, when a student comes asking for help finding articles for a paper, they follow their request with "my teacher wants me to use something scholarly," or "Dr. So-and-so said I am not allowed to use the Web." Clearly, we need more nurturing of good research habits to gradually make students feel less like using a database is a horrible chore. It won't happen overnight, but I think this is an area where faculty and librarians can collaborate.

This also shows that library instruction, at a minimal level, may not be making that much of a difference. This last is a gut feeling of mine; it is something that likely needs further investigation. My common sense tells me that if a student only had a very basic one-shot BI session on their freshman year, and they never had any reinforcement, then odds are they forget any learning about the library and its resources. This may open other areas of inquiry such as use of library courses for credit or more integration between librarians and faculty. These are areas I have been reading about lately. My guess is there are some aspects worth investigating later.

Another assumption from the study:

"Furthermore, at the point at which students reach their third or fourth academic year and begin taking classes in their specializations, one might assume that the level of scholarship required in these classes would become more rigorous, which would in turn lead to a greater need to use more research-oriented sources, including the OPAC and library funded databases. Most students designated other Web sources, however, as their primary choice for information while doing research" (53).

I found that last sentence above interesting. I found the whole quote fascinating for what it may reveal about those specialized classes: maybe they are not as rigorous as we think. My guess, and it is a guess, is that there may not be as many research requirements in some of the higher level classes. It would be interesting to see if this is the case or not, especially given recent reports revealing that a vast number of college graduates are lacking in literacy skills. However, I am sure that a lot of this still boils down to convenience. At this point, I can hear some of the gurus saying that "if we make our OPACS and databases like Google, they will come." The answer, as it is so often in life, is that it is not as simple as that. Sure, there is much work to be done to make a better OPAC and library interface (it's kind of like the "build a better mousetrap" for the 21st century library), but Google is not the end-all and be-all. But we can discuss Google later. What is significant is what the authors say about technologies that integrate Web searching and library funded resources for seamless searching. The authors write that this "creates a greater need to educate students about properly identifying the sources of their information" (53-54). This is one of the key areas I work with in library instruction, and it is something I will come back to over time.

Back to the article, the authors also discuss WebCT. They discuss how faculty can basically create "hidden libraries" through direct links to articles and very focused online resources. The authors point out a risk in this approach, which I think is worth considering. The authors state, "additionally, if instructors create miniature libraries via WebCT or class Web sites, which directly link students to the 'best' databases, students are removed from mastering information literacy standards, especially by not allowing students to critically select, use, and evaluate information resources on their own" (56).

I think there is a point to consider here, and I am not saying we should not use tools like WebCT to create forms of libraries. Maybe the idea is to spoon-feed the students a little less so they can flex those intellectual muscles a little more. In a way, librarians do a form of this when they create pathfinders and guides, but I think we still allow students to seek and judge what they find. In using WebCT and custom Web sites, we need a balance, lest we deprive students of important critical thinking skills.

To conclude, this is an article that confirms some of my experiences. It is also thought-provoking, and I would recommend that other academic librarians read it.


Barbara said...

I'm ancient enough to remember a similar issue regarding print reserves (or "reserves" as they were then known - they came in one flavor only). We had some faculty who thought it was unlikely that undergraduates, turned loose in a library, would make good choices about what to read, so put everything they would need on reserve to make sure it was the right stuff. We thought that was a shame. I think we now have more faculty asking students to make at least some of their own choices now than in those days, overall. But that's purely at an instinctual level, and only at one small institution.

One thing I also thought, reading this article, is that though the "electronic library" there is separate from the library building, our students in our library use the computers much the same way. If you walk through the library, you'll see them using the Web, writimg papers, checking mail, looking up sports scores, reviewing course material in Moodle, etc. It's amazing how infrequently they're using databases or the OPAC.

On the other hand, looking at student work (on a limited basis) makes me think that one way or another students do grow more sophisticated about what kinds of sources they use in their writing, and how they use them. We look at papers as part of our assessment plan, and the upperclass students are far more sophisticated than first year students. Whether they're finding them using databases I can't say. Though based on interviews, I've found students use specialized databases but have a hard time remembering their names. "I used that, uh, you know. That one for religion. What's it called?"

Finally - amen to your comment on first year library instruction doesn't stick. It's only a very limited place to start; students' needs change - and heck, so does the library! Imagine how much the resources change in four years! The one-shot is not an innoculation that lasts for a lifetime.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Barbara: Thank you for stopping by. It is an interesting question on reserves. On the one hand, libraries do want to promote the service when applicable, on the other, there is the question of stunting student choice. And yes, on computer use, I am guessing, and I emphasize the guessing part for now, that may be getting more widespread. Our students here pretty much use the computers the same way, except for the word processing since at the moment we don't have productivity software on them (it was like that when I got here). They use the computer for just about anything but library research, which makes me question at times the passion of some advocates to just have more computers and social software. I am not against technology, but I think questions need to be asked, at least. At least, there is hope if the students are indeed learning over time.

Best, and keep on blogging.

P.S. Hmm, interesting image, innoculation. Does that mean we would issue booster shots? There is something to that.