Friday, February 25, 2011

Article Note: If all libraries became teaching libraries

Citation for the article: 

Palmer, Catherine,  "This I Believe. . . All Libraries Should Be Teaching Libraries." portal: Libraries and the Academy 11.1 (January 2011): 575-582.

Read via Project Muse. 

The title grabbed me right away, and I have to say it is a neat idea. Much like Palmer said, if Elmhurst College (the place the article discusses) had an opening, and they needed an instruction librarian, I would love to apply. Because I love the idea of making our libraries teaching libraries. You would think in academic libraries (the setting I work in), this would be a given, but at times the idea of a teaching library is only given lip service. This may be because academic libraries do reflect their institutions, say a teaching college (where teaching undergraduates is the core of the work) versus a big research campus (where research is the core, and undergraduates are sort of an afterthought, often taught by TA's so the professors can do the "real" work). Given my experience in academia, I can say I have seen both ends. At any rate, I found some of the ideas in the article intriguing, and I think for some libraries, those ideas could at least serve as conversation starters.

Palmer says that it may not be obvious initially why making teaching a central mission of a library is significant. She discusses sample statistics comparing reference transactions versus library instruction sessions, and she finds that the number of patrons reached by library instruction is very low. This is a conversation I have had with our instruction librarian here a few times who struggles with getting into more classrooms to help integrate information literacy into the curriculum. In some cases, the best she can do is promote her services and have the professors send their students. So she often ends up doing a lot of individual research consultations, teaching students one on one. Nothing wrong with that; back in my days as instruction librarian I did a lot of one-on-one teaching as well (best part of my job back then, and it is something I wish I could do more these days). But the point is that we would be able to reach more students proactively if we could offer more library instruction and get integrated into more classes.

However, what came to mind right away when Palmer made that observation was that we indeed do need to be teaching libraries. My argument is simple: just look around at the large amounts of misinformation, ignorance, and just plain lack of critical thinking in society these days. If there is a time when we need libraries where teaching is the central mission, this is it. I would add that to any argument on why we need to keep our libraries open. It goes with that whole safeguarding of democracy thing.

Palmer goes on to discuss something I have considered before, though I probably have not expressed it as eloquently as she has: considering instruction as a marketing tool of the library. She writes:

"We need to embrace instruction, whether provided in-person or online, as the most effective marketing tool we have at our disposal. The best way to ensure that the patrons (the majority of whom are undergraduates) who come into our buildings in the thousands, based on gate counts, have some idea of what libraries can offer-- besides a safe, clean, quiet place to study-- is to have an engaged, enthusiastic, knowledgeable librarian teach them" (576). 

This is applicable to encounters at the reference desk, instruction sessions in a classroom, and even online interactions.

A few other notes from the article:

  • "We cannot possibly address each individual student's information need during a class session in the way that we can during a reference transaction. We can ensure that students have a baseline knowledge of the resources and services available to them, however; and, perhaps most important, we can give them a vocabulary that will help them ask better questions when they do need individual help" (577). Given things like the limitations of a one-shot session, emphasis on getting students to know our services, and more important for us, for them to know that a librarian is always there to help, is a big part of any instruction session. For me, it is not uncommon to use a bit of humor and tell my students, "you may forget half of what I taught you here today, but you do have my contact information. Feel free to use it." 
  • Why the research model for universities and teaching students as if they are all going to be grad students and researchers (replication) is not exactly the best idea. Having said that, I am not saying we end research, or just go vocational all the way at the expense of things like humanities (like some people do). But higher education does need to understand that not all students are going to be clones of their professors. Palmer writes, "the fact is that most undergraduates go into the workforce, not on to graduate school. If we expect our society outside the academy to understand what it is that its tax dollars allow research institutions to do and to make informed decisions on how to support those institutions, then it is undergraduates who are most in need of understanding how universities 'make knowledge'" (578). This also made me think back to a piece Rory Litwin of Library Juice wrote a while back on "Get Out the Books, Not the Vote." I am also thinking this goes back to how we market the library, or how we make an impression of the library for our undergrads. After all, they will graduate someday and be making the big decisions. Planting the seed of good experiences, teaching them solid lessons in critical thinking, how information works, is accessed, and used, will pay off in the long run. 
  • "Without our collections, we would have little to teach; but without teaching others how to find, evaluate, think about, and use those collections, there would be little need for the collections we have and little support for allocating scarce resources to acquire more" (578). I am thinking that a teaching mission can go to the idea of how does the library add value to its campus. 
Palmer goes on to discuss what a "teaching library" would look like and what kind of things would need to happen for it to become a reality. Some things would not change, or they would change very little; things like good collection development would certainly continue. But other crucial changes would take place. For one, and this is something I find intriguing in terms of library marketing and outreach as well as instruction, is that we would have to develop new stories and narratives about what we do; we would also have to look at ourselves differently. Palmer provides a list of other important changes that is worth a look. We must keep in mind that the transformation may not be an easy one. Just because you relabel some things, it does not follow that the changes will be embraced or adopted. Buy-in and serious commitment are needed.

The master teacher idea also intrigued me. However, I wondered how Palmer's idea of librarians who are master teachers teaching others would work in a smaller setting where every librarian has multiple tasks; Palmer suggests having a designated instructional services department for this work (by the way, working in such department would be a dream job for me. Heading one might actually make me reconsider my negative view of wanting to manage anything). Also I wonder what about if you have only one or two librarians committed to the teaching mission, but the rest of the librarians do not really care, or just do not want to change, or worse, simply don't think anyone should be telling them how to teach. I think this is where administrative support and commitment is going to be crucial; if the library administration does not provide direction and vision on this to get others on board, it likely may flounder. Having asked that, I still think the idea of a "mini immersion" experience created locally has a lot of value, and it should be replicated. In fact, as I understood things when I went to ACRL Immersion on the teaching track, teaching others what I have learned was part of the model and mission (by the way, that idea of teaching others is a core tenet of the National Writing Project, another program I was honored to have attended).

A few more notes from the article:

  • "But, by acting programmatically, the libraries could slowly inculcate the expectation that all students, regardless of their major, would graduate with a sense of how knowledge in their chosen discipline is created, shared, evaluated, and archived for use by future scholars" (581). 
  • "Finally, it would help to develop an institutional memory for instruction and allow the library to develop new leadership for this important function" (581). 
  • "It is no longer enough for librarians to simply respond when asked for information; they must continuously promote library resources and services in a manner that engages and addresses the needs of the appropriate audience and reinforces the role of the library and librarians in the intellectual life of the campus" (582). 

Friday, February 18, 2011

Article Note: On subject encyclopedias in an age of Wikipedia

Citation for the article:

East, John W., "'The Rolls Royce of the Library Reference Collection" The Subject Encyclopedia in the Age of Wikipedia." Reference and User Services Quarterly 50.2 (2010): 162-169.

Read online.

This small article basically gives a small overview of the subject encyclopedia's place in the academic library and how it is losing that place to tools like Wikipedia. The author, John W. East, also looks at online subject encyclopedias and considers how libraries are (or not) promoting and facilitating their use. The article begins with a brief historical overview of the subject encyclopedia. He suggests that by the 1970s, the subject encyclopedia was well-established in libraries for reference work (163). East goes on to say that the heyday of the subject encyclopedia was around 1986; this is the year when American Reference Books Annual (know as ARBA by most librarians; odds are good many libraries still have ARBA volumes) published the first edition of Guide to Subject Encyclopedias and Dictionaries.

I found it interesting when the author points out how some back in 1986 or so predicted that computers would not replace encyclopedias anytime soon. We have a come a long way, and the computers have done quite a bit of replacing (for good or ill, that is for another debate another day). The point is that subject encyclopedias were slow to move into electronic formats. Then the web came, and pretty much everything changed from how students seek out information to our roles as librarians and educators. Students began to see Wikipedia as an easy and convenient source of information while libraries began to cut back on their reference collections; whether due to economics, lack of use due to more online resources, due to Wikipedia displacing the reference collection, so on  is another debate. The point is it is happening. Many libraries are shifting from print to online versions for their subject encyclopedias, if they still purchase subject reference works at all. That is the approach we are pursuing at my library where online is favored whenever possible (and while I have some strong opinions about this, they are not here and now). East does observe that "the attitude that 'if it's not online, it doesn't exist' is becoming more prevalent with every passing year" (165). I will note that in many cases, it is also an attitude that is becoming more common among librarians as well. That is something I disagree with, but over time, I may find myself in the minority position. But let's not digress.

Some notes from the article:

  • A good number of subject encyclopedias are available in electronic format via a few vendors (SAGE, Gale, etc.). "It is encouraging that so many of the titles are available online, but their dispersal across multiple platforms puts them at a disadvantage when compared with the 'one-stop-shop' that is Wikipedia" (165). This is a big issue overall. Different reference works are on different platforms, and each platform has its own idiosyncrasies and restrictions that patrons often do not understand (assuming they even bother to access one of these electronic reference works). Then there is the licensing, the authentication issues to get to the reference work in question, etc. All this make using a particular electronic encyclopedia a challenge for students. Thus it is even more of a challenge for us librarian to promote use of these works when they are not exactly user friendly. I don't foresee this problem going away anytime soon since it is not necessarily in the interest of the vendors to get their products to play nice with each other.
  • "Clearly many of our online subject encyclopedias are not earning their keep" (165). I am sure a lot of this has to do with what I just mentioned above. They can't earn their keep if the students cannot get to them. East expands on this when he writes, "it is now a cliche of librarianship that our clients are more interested in convenience than quality and that our high-quality resources will only be used if our clients can identify and access them easily" (166). 
  • On promoting the online resources: "When liaison librarians have access to sites that students in a particular course will use frequently-- such as electronic course reserves or course management systems like Blackboard-- they have the opportunity to insert links to relevant electronic encyclopedias. If the links are prominently situated, students might notice and use them" (167). We had to fight a bit of a battle to get access to Blackboard in the first place. Then another to get a library presence in it where we wanted a library tab on the interface that would be prominent for students to see while the BB administrators wanted to toss a link to the library under "other campus organizations." So you may find yourself fighting a bit just to get into the CMS in the first place. However, once you manage to get in, you may be able to accomplish some things. 
  • Other ways of promotion mentioned in the article are listing individual electronic reference sources in your library catalog, on your subject guides, and on lists of books and databases. I do put some of the online reference works relevant to my subject areas in my LibGuides. I probably could do a bit better about promoting some specific e-book encyclopedias in class, but I will admit that some of the obstacles already mentioned are a big turn off. In other words, I have a hard time recommending something to students that I know will be difficult for them to use. This may be a partial answer to the question the author raises: "If we think that our students still understand and value the encyclopedia as an information resource (and this is a question that probably merits further research), then why are we not promoting our encyclopedias more prominently on our websites?" (168).  I think students do understand, or can learn to understand, the value of a good subject encyclopedia as an information resource. And I do promote print encyclopedias that may be relevant to a specific need when we have them. However, for electronic, as I said above, if it is a difficult source to use, I have a hard time promoting it to students. 

    Friday, February 11, 2011

    Article Note: On reference service preferences

    Citation for the article:

    Granfield, Diane, and Mark Robertson, "Preference for Reference: New Options and Choices for Academic Library Users." Reference & User Services Quarterly 48.1 (Fall 2008): 44-53.

    Read online.

    This article looks at library users' help-seeking preferences. Do they prefer to go to the reference desk? Do they prefer using virtual reference? It is looking at that type of question. The study reported is based on an in-person survey and an online survey. Four focus groups were conducted after the surveys. Note that the authors found it easier to do the online survey, which was implemented with a pop-up after VR sessions, than to do the in-person surveys after reference transactions. As I was reading the article, I thought that it would be a good idea for us to conduct a similar survey here. However, with issues like survey fatigue (campus administration here surveys students on just about anything to the point of oversaturation) and logistics (time, staff, the usual), I do not see it happening for now. Yet I think we could learn a few useful things, so I may just have to table the idea for the moment.

    The article opens with the usual picture of the 1990s as a time of transition for reference services, the rise of the Web and digital content, and the new digital natives generation. The authors go on to state that virtual reference (VR) is one of the significant recent developments. However, in spite of VR's popularity, questions about its cost effectiveness persist as well as other questions. I have looked at some of those questions before. In fact, I have expressed some questions and concerns in regards to the consortial VR service that we participate in, and those concerns, such as staffing models and librarian engagement, still persist. The project is an administrative darling, so we may be stuck with a service that is not really serving our own students locally and overall has low usage for a while. Thus this article interested me as it addressed service preferences, plus it could be useful for some evidence down the road.

    This item from the literature review caught my eye. It is from a small survey (340 users) done by Ruppel and Fagan that the authors cite:

    "An astounding 29 percent thought staff did not look helpful at the physical reference desk and 17 percent did not want to go to the library building to do their research. In spite of these negative perceptions,  the physical reference desk had a clear advantage for most users because of the 'personal touch'" (qtd. in 46). 

    Other notes I found interesting:

    • This may also have to do with how accessible and/or user-friendly we make our library websites. This is on other self-help options that users might employ for their research needs that the authors included in their survey. "Among the response options, consulting information on the library website was included as wll as searching Google or another Internet search engine. These options were included because it was felt that our users may increasingly seek answers to what would reference questions by employing self-help strategies and consulting sources on the Internet (whether they are sites we have constructed ourselves or popular external sites" (48). 
    • The survey confirmed that graduate students prefer to work outside the library. Thus they rate VR higher (50). What I wonder is how many of these grad students are distance learners versus on campus. For instance, here, our nursing doctorate program is all online, so the students would use phone and VR to get a hold of librarians for reference help in addition to what they get via the website, which includes our Research Guides (powered by LibGuides) and use of tools like Elluminate; the campus recently paid for Elluminate and is actively promoting it. Our nursing liaison librarian makes use of it. I suppose this would fall under a form of VR since it can be interactive. 
    • On VR staffing, for us, we do staff our VR away from the reference desk for the most part. However, at the reference desk we also tend to the reference e-mail and naturally the phone. I wonder if scenarios like this, which I am sure are not unique for us, have an effect on the unfavorable rating that e-mail and phone service got in the survey (50). 
    • The article's conclusion seems a bit of a draw: "The reference desk continues to be the most popular method of getting help in the library, but our findings confirm that VR satisfies a niche for some users, quite likely those who prefer to work outside the library" (51). This seems kind of a statement of the obvious: if you like to work out of the library and use VR, you will rate that higher than the reference desk. However, overall, the reference desk is still the preferred method of getting help in the library.