Overdue at the Library: Good Guides on How to Use It

June 29, 2010

More than 19,500 librarians of all stripes descended on the nation's capital over the weekend for the annual meeting of the American Library Association. They tolerated unseasonably fierce heat. They heard literary luminaries including Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz talk about the value of libraries and books. And they explored almost every aspect of what they do: cataloging and collection building, assessing e-books and encouraging elementary reading skills, preserving materials and serving patrons.

There was even a session on "Not So Extreme Makeovers," in which a personal stylist from Nordstrom and several big-city librarians promised to address "the negative stereotype of how library employees look and dress."

What university librarians would really like to make over is their own understanding of how students and researchers use library resources. From the academic-library perspective, one of the more interesting sessions was the annual Reference Research Forum, which presents "notable research projects in reference service areas such as user behavior, electronic service, and reference effectiveness."

This year's forum focused on three studies driven by academic libraries. First up was Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries, or Erial. Led by Andrew Asher, a research anthropologist, the project sought to establish how undergraduates at five Illinois institutions actually use their campus libraries. The goal, according to Mr. Asher, was to "increase our understanding of the undergraduate research process" and then adjust library service to better accommodate it.

The study involved conducting "open-ended ethnographic interviews" with 41 librarians, 75 teaching faculty members, and 161 students at DePaul University, Illinois Wesleyan University, Northeastern Illinois University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Springfield. Some students were asked to keep research diaries and to draw "cognitive maps" on which they marked the places they visited over the course of an academic day.

According to Mr. Asher, the researchers found that small gaps in knowledge—e.g., how to tell from a catalog number where to look for an item in the library—created larger difficulties. He showed slides of a student trying to find a particular video in the stacks; it took her six steps (including asking library workers who didn't know the answer), 10 minutes, and three trips up and down the stairs to find the right spot. "Very few students will persist that long," Mr. Asher said.

"A minor gap in the student's information-literacy knowledge led to a major problem in finding the material," he added. "We saw this over and over again."

Information Gaps, Not Generation Gaps

In such cases, the solution can be as simple as installing better directional signs and making sure that student workers and library staff members who man service points are trained to answer basic questions like "Where is this?"

Sue Stroyan, one of the librarians at Illinois Wesleyan who participated in the study, said that it showed that many students have "limited knowledge of the process of academic research and the tools of scholarship." They misread citations and had trouble using the Library of Congress classification system to find items. And once they found something that worked, they tended to use it over and over again, even if it was not the best tool for the project they had in hand.

To help tackle those problems, Ms. Stroyan said, there is talk of setting up a "Web-scale searching tool" in the fall and doing more to emphasize information-literacy basics in library-instruction sessions. Faculty members tend to favor assignment-based library instruction, she said, but first students need to learn how to conduct a search, how to evaluate sources, and what constitutes ethical and legal use of material they find.

Steven J. Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University, also presented findings on a study he and colleagues did of LibGuides, which are subject- or course-specific guides designed to help students find relevant library resources. The research focused on one specific course in public speaking. The research was not entirely conclusive, but the larger goal, Mr. Bell said, was trying to figure out how to help students change their research behavior in useful ways.

The last presentation came from a team of librarians at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, who surveyed a thousand librarians at an array of institutions to figure out whether some of the working assumptions about generational behavior in librarians hold true. For instance, are Generation Y librarians, raised with technology, more likely to agree with the idea that print collections are obsolete and should be dismantled? No, as it turns out.

Presenting the findings were Jill Markgraf and Eric Jennings of the Eau Claire campus, who said that, over all, the findings demonstrated that generational differences among librarians are not as drastic as people have thought and that Gen Y librarians tend to support "traditional library services and roles," such as staffing the reference desk.

The researchers also listed the qualities their respondents felt were most important for academic librarians to possess: interpersonal communication skills, adaptability/flexibility, knowledge of online sources, teaching skills, knowledge of print reference materials, and curiosity.