By indirections find resources out

OCLC’s recent report College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources resonates a bit with the Al Gore slideshow movie I saw this weekend: it deploys lots of slick graphs and charts to frame information that can only be received with dismay.

The almost 400 students surveyed by OCLC think of commercial search engines as a perfect fit for their lifestyle and their needs, and they turn to them first whenever looking for information. The respondents respect the libraries, and feel that they can find quality information through them, but they almost never delve into library websites first to find information. Their instant ‘brand’ identification for libraries is ‘book.’

In short, libraries seem to exist as a point of last resort in the minds of many college students — a complicated, confusing, sometimes outdated facility to be approached for information only when Google fails. The pull-quotes in the OCLC report are inflected with grammatical errors, just to rub salt in the wounds. Rampant illiteracy or OCLC sabotage? You decide:

OCLC survey

OCLC survey

OCLC survey

Hidebound notions of what academic libraries are actually doing these days make it all the more important to find new ways to expose services. The LibX Firefox Extension, for example, embeds links to library resources in a variety of more user-friendly websites (their screenshots show little logos popping up in Amazon and Google searches, as well as New York Times book reviews). LibX is another one of these nifty localizing extensions that Firefox has inspired — and it works with COinS.

A less technical way of exposing those expensive electronic library services is to take particular note of how students actually learn about them, according to the OCLC study. Have a look with me at this chart, which breaks down the ways college students (and broader populations, for comparison’s sake) find out about electronic information sources *besides* through search engines:

OCLC survey

Librarians themselves are way down on the chart — and they rate even lower for the non-college crowd. So what’s at the top? ‘Friends’ and ‘Links’: more reasons to make it easy for students to create, store, and share links to library resources. But look at who’s coming in third–beating out other media, advertising, and my cousin who works for CNN: Teachers. Teachers, way above librarians. While librarians are increasingly framing themselves as teachers — the ‘instructional librarian’ is a familiar role and position by now — such data suggests we think of teachers as front-line librarians, or at least librarian-proxies.

Consider, too, this chart showing “Cross-referencing Sources to Validate Information”:

OCLC survey

Though it’s hard to see in this small version, the chart shows that college students (in green) and the general population (in orange) validate the information they find on sites most often by comparing other websites with similar information (80-82%). But in second place, at least for the college crowd, here comes our unexpected resource champ, the Teacher, with an impressive 78%. That source of information validation beats out checking library materials (64%) and checking with a librarian (36%).

Given their relatively exalted position on the information food chain, teachers need all the training and support they can get from librarians. We should throw out the assumption that just because someone wrote a dissertation, he knows all about how to use library resources and can pass on this wisdom to students. The ground is changing too fast, and the unsupported instructor will not have time to keep up. That’s not his job–it’s the librarian’s.

Case in point: a European history and philosophy librarian mentioned to me the other day that Blackwell Synergy is becoming a significant point of access to important journals in his areas. And perhaps you thought of this database (if you thought of it at all) as focused on science?

The point is, in a healthy educational environment, a teacher will be backed up with well-selected electronic resources that are ever one click away in the course management system, tended and manicured by librarians. This is indirect, ongoing training – for teachers as well as for their students – in the use of resources, delivered at the point where it’s most needed. Such targeted support could actually minimize class disruption (no need for librarians to come point out where resources are, if they’re already being well-delivered), while letting students hold on to the fantasy (which they evidently need in these perilous times) that the library is all about books.

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