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Getting the Most out of Academic Libraries—and Librarians

Bartle Library, Binghamton University. Photo: bulibraries.

Chatting with a group of college and university librarians recently, I was struck by both their enthusiasm and their frustration: enthusiasm over the increasing power of technology to aid in scholarly research, and frustration that educating students and teachers is proving to be such a challenge.

The group unanimously perceived a lack of skills among its clientele: Students are routinely flummoxed as to how to search for or evaluate the sources they need in their work. But even as librarians are poised to teach information technology through classes, online tutorials, and one-on-one sessions, actually laying hold of student time and attention depends on faculty support—and that is not always easy to find.

The extent to which college students are unprepared to conduct research may be surprising to those who assume that young adults are automatically proficient at any computer-related task. “Many students don’t actually know how to interpret the citations that they find in print or online, and as a result, they don’t understand what to search for,” says Georgiana McReynolds, management and social-sciences librarian at MIT. “They search for book chapters in Google because they don’t recognize a book citation compared to an article citation. Or they don’t know which is the title of the article as opposed to the title of the journal. Or they can’t decipher all the numbers that define the volume, issue,  and date.”

Michelle Emanuel, professor and catalog librarian at the University of Mississippi Libraries, agrees: “If it’s not in the first 10 hits on Google, they really struggle.”  Assessment Librarian Lisa R. Horowitz of MIT Libraries adds that young people who are used to Google-type searching “don’t put together concepts and are much more likely to just use keywords. So, for example, students are likely to add words that are not necessary while not spelling out concepts fully enough.” What’s more, “they do not understand always what the Internet does and does not offer—what is proprietary versus free information.”

All the librarians I spoke to were enthusiastic about programs in place or in development at their institutions. Ms. Emanuel described a forthcoming library assignment for an upper-level art-history class: to deconstruct a bibliography and identify which sources are available in house and which need to be borrowed from elsewhere. According to Anita Perkins, reference coordinator at Dewey Library, MIT Libraries offer a raft of tutorials, beginning with basic research skills. “Libraries are definitely the best resource for citation-software training on those products that are actively supported at that institution,” she adds. Sarah G. Wenzel, a bibliographer at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, specializes in helping researchers locate and use non-English sources; she only wishes she had more requests for tutorials. “Sometimes the best or most recent research in a given field is not available in English,” she told me, “but there’s unfortunately a lot of resistance to investigating it.”

All the librarians agreed that programs and resources vary from one school to the next and even across disciplines, and that some librarians must struggle to get education programs off the ground. “Persistence pays off,” says Mary M. Carr, dean of instructional services at Spokane Community College. “At both community colleges where I have helped to guide the inclusion of information literacy in the curriculum, it has been a slow, steady process.” Ms. Carr adds that programs at her college have been expanding.

So with librarians ready and waiting to give all they have to give, why is connecting library services with those who need them so difficult?

Ms. Horowitz notes that professors aren’t always aware of the kinds of guides, classes and personal assistance the library offers. “We have even encountered occasions where, without alerting us first, a professor might give his or her class an assignment to get something from the libraries that we don’t even have, or that has a restriction on simultaneous users, thus creating a stressful experience for the students as well as the library staff.” All the librarians had experienced resistance to their offerings: Professors claim to cover such instruction themselves in class, or they object to devoting a class period of their semester to library skills that they believe students have already mastered. Generational differences are also evident at times: Older teachers can be more resistant to using electronic sources.

And then there’s Samuel Johnson’s territorial divide between those who know things and those who know how to find them, suggests Librarian Bob Kieft of Occidental College. As he sees it, the divide is nothing new, but developed in the late 19th century “as librarians began to assert for themselves a professional role beyond their traditional ‘keeper of books’ role.”

In Mr. Kieft’s view, the focus should be less on who has what knowledge, and more on how that knowledge can best assist or guide students in their work. “We need to partner with faculty so that the concerns for information literacy education and librarians’ knowledge of student work practices will inform the design of assignments and even courses.” In that way, he believes, the learning of research skills can be keyed to a particular subject area: “Students will not only learn the subject better, but they’ll learn the skills for thinking and writing about the subject.”

All the librarians I talked to were hopeful that their mission will ultimately be received and embraced. Ms. Carr says, “Over time, it is possible to show results. Students of all stripes do better when armed with information-literacy skills. The faculty see that the time spent means grades are better, and more students persist and succeed. So those faculty convince other faculty that the program is worth incorporating.” At Spokane Community College, she adds, information literacy is even used as a retention strategy by the enrollment committee.

As Mr. Kieft says, “The cut/paste world of research has added a level of anxiety to offering information-literacy instruction and has brought more attention to and willingness to spend class time on these kinds of skills.” With the increasing digitization of source materials in all disciplines, there is every incentive to teach young scholars how to find and use them. It may not be long before they have little choice.

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