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Libraries— the times they are a-changing

By chriscal

Section: Features

February 5, 2010

Meet the press: A Brandeis student studies in the library on the first floor of Goldfarb
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Imagine you’re doing research for a paper. Let’s say that you, like many of your Brandeis counterparts, are in a rush and don’t have time to fool around, zigzagging between the myriad of bookshelves, searching for that book in a haystack. Or, let’s say you’re a little research-shy and aren’t exactly sure where you should start the process.

You’d think that a busy college student such as yourself would take the easy way out, asking the circulation desk or reference librarians for help. You’d think that, rather than feel the need to be independent, you’d openly welcome the services around you offering help with research, directions and technical support. Yes, you would be apt to think all these things, but you’d be wrong.

According to Library and Technology Services (LTS) Director for Integrated Services Josh Wilson, of the nearly 1,800 people who walked through the Brandeis main library each day during the fall ’09 semester, only three percent asked for help of some sort—including basic and in depth research questions, Louis catalog questions and mere directional inquiries. Of that same group of people, only 20 percent checked out a book or equipment of some sort. The lack of student inquiries seems a bit puzzling, and is a topic Wilson and the rest of LTS are seeking to explain.

“If 90 percent of students walk through the doors and never ask for the kinds of help that libraries have offered over time, that says that something’s different,” he said. “And we need to understand it better and do something about it, really adapt ourselves to try to fit where students are.”

In spite of a revolution in the information landscape that’s posed some challenges for library employees—the digitization of research sources and the booming technology industry have forced librarians to change the way they think about and perform their jobs—it turns out that students don’t seem to be the least bit fazed. On the contrary, they embrace this revolution and the always-connected and self-sufficient lifestyle that comes along with it.

“Clearly students view themselves as being self-sufficient because the vast majority of them don’t ask for help,” Wilson said.

It used to be that reference librarians were constantly bombarded with questions on finding in-house library books or on researching outside sources. Nowadays, it seems we not only like to self-diagnose medically, but with our research as well, with on-the-go search engines such as Google making it all too easy for us to do our own work without relying on library staff members. Sure, they’re there to help in case we need them, but Brandeis students tend to use them only sparingly.

Such changes are hardly rendering Brandeis’ librarians obsolete; on the contrary, LTS workers are riding along with the digital wave, striving to be on the cusp of the latest technological advances. According to LTS Associate Director for Research and Instruction Karrie Peterson, library employees are trying to keep up with a varied group of library users—ranging from those who possess traditional library skills to those who are technology-savvy—and are seeking to catch up with the rapidly changing information landscape, all the while trying to figure out how to best serve a new generation of library users.

“Our [goal] is really to tailor services for this wide-ranging group when in fact its composition is always on the move,” she said.

As online resources such as journals and e-books threaten to overtake the traditional reading experience, and increasingly updated new technologies continue to help students perform their daily work, where does that leave traditional college library employees? And why, with all the resources available to them in the library, do most Brandeis students not even bother to consult professional help from our library’s employees? Students and LTS staff members sound off.

Self-sufficient students

What better way to find out what students are thinking than going right to the source? Ten students in the library were polled at random for this article and out of the 10, only one said they frequently had difficulty finding their way around the library. The others gave varied explanations for why they tended not to ask for help while in the library. Some said they don’t ask for help finding books because they rarely take out books; others said they didn’t need help because they felt the layout of the building was self-explanatory enough. Several students also said they didn’t need help with research because they had been previously exposed to such instruction before college.

Most of the students had only asked for help one or two times during their time at Brandeis and the majority of them had been satisfied with the help they did receive. Most of the students frequented the library on a regular basis, staying there to do homework or to study the majority of the time. A few of them said they’d taken out books before.

This wave of independence might just relate to the way today’s college students grew up and the technology provided to them, Wilson said. After all, many of the new technologies over the past several years have allowed us to be independent and consequently, students expect the same experience in the library.

“They want things to work in a help-free environment; they don’t want to need help,” Wilson said.

As such, students don’t tend to consult librarians for help finding their way around the library often, even though the layout is a bit complicated. One area where students can find assistance with directions is the Info Point. Likening the Info Point to a concierge at the front of the building, Wilson portrayed this spot as the central location where students can find the answers to a variety of questions, ranging from how to find a book, to which reference librarians can help them with a specific question, to what other services in the library will help them best. Surprisingly, students rarely ask for help of the directional sort, though.

Alana Tillman ’10 said she frequents the library a couple of times a week to do her homework, explaining that she gets too distracted in her room. Tillman said she caught on fairly quickly to the layout of the building and has only asked for help a few times with research questions or technical support at the help desk.

Yael Katzwer ’12, on the other hand, finds the layout of the building to be intimidating at times. “It’s just, it’s so big. I feel like I can’t find anything. I know technically where I have to be, and I’m holding the map, and I still can’t get there,” she said. “So I end up wandering around for a really long time till either I find someone who can help me or I find it on my own, which takes forever.”

Wilson admitted to the library’s confusing layout, but said that LTS is working on making the interface more conducive to students asking questions.

Libraries then and now

Ask any librarian and they’ll tell you that libraries have changed completely over the last 20 years. If you’ve ever discussed libraries with your parents, you’ve most likely heard the stories detailing how easy you have it and how they used to have to—wait, take a minute to catch your breath—scroll through boxes and boxes of card catalogs just to find a book. In this scenario, librarians seemed so relevant. Nothing was digital and everything was done by hand. In this not-so-distant past, human service was en vogue and digital assistance was a far-off thought.

But nowadays, it seems that nearly everything we need and do is available online, and so our library needs have changed right along with the resources libraries continue to provide us. Most of this probably won’t seem too new for college students who’ve grown up with at least a passing familiarity with and expectation for digitally-enhanced libraries. But for traditional library employees, the changing library landscape amounts to changes in the way they do their job and the skills they must develop to do it well.

Karrie Peterson oversees the library’s instruction program, including in-class University Writing Seminar instruction and managing subject liaisons—librarians who specialize in various areas. Peterson has spent the last nearly 12 years working as a college librarian and has witnessed the library landscape change rapidly and dramatically.

“The whole world of information is totally changing and libraries are changing too and how students are accessing their information is changing,” she said.

Understanding those changes, Josh Wilson said, is one goal of LTS employees: “We’ve worked extensively on trying to build a culture of assessment here in LTS, trying to get us thinking about gathering evidence on what we do and analyzing, really trying to look for insights.”

Wilson manages Integrated Services, the sector of the Brandeis main library that oversees the Help Desk, Media Services and Library Public Services (including the circulation desk, loans and returns, the info point and the info common). Keeping up with the constantly changing needs of library users can often be similar to chasing after a moving target, Wilson said, and keeps LTS workers on their toes.

“We’re trying to be as flexible and nimble and adaptable as we can. So we’re trying to get our staff members able to do multiple, different kinds of things,” he said.

Resources: To use or not to use?

LTS offers many services to students to help make their library experience easier. There’s the circulation desk, the Info Point, the LTS Help Desk, library liaisons for research assistance and the Getz media lab, to name just a few.

Some services, such as the LTS Help Desk, are used much more frequently than others. Wilson said that the help desk—which provides technical support for computers and also offers help with LATTE and networking problems—typically experiences their customer service boom between the mid-morning hours and the early evening.

Jeremy Asch ’12, who works at the LTS Help Desk, cited students’ most common problem as difficulty connecting to the wireless network. Although he’s in a service position, Asch said he has rarely asked for help of the directional sort during his time at Brandeis, citing only one instance where he needed assistance finding a book for a research paper last year.

Asch isn’t alone in this respect. Only one of the students interviewed for this article said they used the help services provided to them more than a few times during their time at Brandeis. Figuring out why students don’t seem to ask the questions people assume they will ask is a main learning goal for Wilson and other LTS employees.

“They never ask those questions, not even the basic ones. One of the things we need to do is understand why that is and what that means,” he said.

Who can really say why students don’t frequently ask for help finding books? Maybe they want to make their own mistakes and get lost on their own without the help of library employees. Or maybe it’s because navigating your way through the Dewey Decimal System is just a bit more self-explanatory than repairing your fried hard drive. But what about research assistance? Why don’t students take advantage of research resources more often?

Any student who has had to write a research paper can relate to the frustration with pinpointing the perfect source. But even with all the research-based resources available to them, rather than ask for help, many students go it alone. Case in point: LTS has a service whereby students can chat 24 hours a day with a librarian, yet according to Wilson, these services are only used, on average, one to two times a day.

Explaning why they tend to go it alone when it comes to research, most of the students polled for this article cited a sense of comfort with the research realm.

Hollis Viray ’10, for example, said she uses the library almost daily, visiting in between her classes to study since she lives off campus. Viray said she has occasionally asked for help while researching a particular topic, but not very often. She said she didn’t think the research instruction she received her first year during a first-year seminar—LTS staff give research tutorials in UWS classes—wasn’t that helpful because “they were kind of talking about how to search for articles in the catalog and I feel like most people already know how to do that.”

Sean Norton ’12 says he uses the library almost daily, mostly to study. Norton rarely asks for help when in the library and like Viray, also felt that UWS research instruction didn’t necessarily teach him a new set of skills. He did say, however, that it did point out a few of the resources Brandeis’ library has available.

Considering why students don’t ask for research help all too often, Peterson said, students “tend to be a little bit overconfident” in their ability to perform research properly.

“They’re not alone. I mean, most people are overconfident about their skills…I would say there’s a lot of satisfying going on…because how do you know what you don’t know?” she said. “If you’ve gotten a B+ on your paper, maybe you’re not aware of the research skills that you could learn if you consulted with a librarian.”

In other words, many students might possess enough research skills to get them through a particular assignment or class, but they might find themselves lost in a different situation. This is why Peterson and her team strive to instill both short and long-term research skills in students, with the short-term goal of getting students familiar enough with research so that they can get through a specific assignment. LTS’ online research guides—which offer both general research help and course-specific research assistance—also provide short-term help.

For the long-term, Peterson said her department is working with various academic departments to identify specific research skills necessary to be successful in that subject area’s career field. Peterson likened these skills to a dynamic, moving target: “The professional skills that people need to come away with [are similar to] a moving target so we’re trying to be in discussion with [various departments to pinpoint the set of] skills that they need when they leave here and how will we provide them.”

Developing lifelong research skills will assist students such as Shoshana Rosenbaum ’10, who might feel comfortable in one subject area but not in others. Rosenbaum said she usually doesn’t ask for help from library staff members while doing research because her professor usually offers any necessary assistance. But she also said that one’s research expertise depends very much on what topic you’re used to researching.

“It depends, I think, on your subject area,” she said. “I would have no idea how to use the legal section, for example.”

Like many other things in life, it’s all just a matter of variables.

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