Archive for September, 2015

September 24, 2015

The “Why” of the Library

On Monday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece on transparency in teaching. On the same day, a coworker told me a story about a student in her information literacy course. A little context – my coworker’s story came up during a conversation about students who, when given an assignment to find a specific article in a specific database, go out to Google and find the same article on the web.The student said he could “save the university a lot of money” by cancelling all the library subscriptions because he (a graduating senior) had never used a library resource, instead finding all of his resources with Google. Now, that story could prompt a lot of different blog posts. Why did his professors not insist on scholarly sources? Or maybe they did and he managed to get everything from open access sources, and how does that affect the library? But the thing that struck me was my coworker’s response to the student. It was a response of frustration. She told him, essentially, that SACS (our accrediting body) would not approve of us not providing these resources. Her intent was to make him realize the importance of library resources (if a regional organization charged with ensuring the high standards of education thinks the library is important, you should too), but more likely she failed to convince him.

This is not to belittle my coworker. Her reaction was pretty standard for librarians. We tend to be on the defensive with students, faculty, and administrators alike. But her story, and the conversation that prompted it, got me thinking – how could we do a better job of explaining to students (and faculty and administrators) what exactly our value is? (I know, I know, overdone topic, but hear me out.)  So my thought was, they should be told the reasons behind the assignment before they do it. Lo and behold, the Chronicle article says exactly what I was thinking.

Now I am new at my job. I’m in my first semester here, first time in a tenure track faculty position. And they are going easy on me by not requiring me to teach this semester. Which means I have loads of time to think about the kinds of assignments I will use, not to mention the luxury of learning from my coworkers’ trials and tribulations. So I want to use this time to really pinpoint why we want our students to use “library resources.” How could be we explaining this is a way that is truly convincing?

Outside of academia, how likely are our students to use proprietary resources? My guess is, not likely. And if they are unlikely ever to come across a proprietary database again after graduation, does it matter if they know how to locate a database’s thesaurus, or if they found an article using Business Search Premier or Google?

As librarians, we talk a lot about authority, accuracy, stability, and the vastness of the free Internet. Let’s look at each of those things separately. Yes, there is authoritative information in library databases. But there are also questionable journals in these databases. Conversely, there is plenty of good, scholarly content available for free on the web, especially in this age of open access. The same could be said for accuracy. In the past two years we have seen numerous retractions in major, well-respected journals. As for stability, journals come and go from the major aggregators due to copyright issues and contract negotiations. I would argue that a respectable open access journal on the web is no more likely to go away than a proprietary journal in an aggregator. Finally, is the vastness of the Internet really a problem anymore? Google’s search algorithm has gotten remarkably sophisticated. With just a little training on the finer points of advanced Google searching, it is possible to find plenty of quality resources without ever using a library. And ultimately, aren’t we supposed to be teaching students how to vet what they find, regardless of where it comes from? Shouldn’t the desired outcome be that a student can identify “bad” information and “good” information when they find it, and know how best to search for it? And mightn’t it be better, in terms of real life skills, to teach them these skills using Google and not proprietary databases?

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to suggest that the student is right and that the university library should cancel all their subscriptions to save money. I’m merely suggesting that the issue is worth thinking about and that we must think about it if we want to come into the conversation on the offensive rather than the defensive. In order to make our assignments more meaningful, students should understand why we’re assigning them. And that means we have to be prepared to explain.