Sunday, October 26, 2008

Types of Computer (Library) Users


I'll preface this week's post by acknowledging that I'm about to make some generalizations. I do understand the evils of categorizing people, but I'm going to do it here anyways because I think it's helpful to my thinking about librarianship. However, I stress there are probably plenty of people who don't fit into any of the categories below.

Now to begin. I've been observing computer users from my spot at the reference desk. They seem to fall into one of these groups:

1) People who are afraid of the computer. 
     These are the people I end up helping the most. They claim ignorance about computers and prefer me to do their tasks for them. They seem convinced they will break something, or make an irreparable mistake, and they require gentle encouragement to use the computer independently.

2) People who are somewhat comfortable with the computer, but who only use it when absolutely necessary and perceive limitations around every corner.
     These are the people who approach me when they've encountered a roadblock of some kind. They have enough skills to accomplish basic tasks, and they have memorized patterns of actions in order to do what they need to. They do not typically experiment with new ways of performing tasks, nor are they curious about computers beyond what they must use them for.

3) People who have adopted computers and accompanying applications & technologies.
     Unless there's a major problem, I rarely interact with these people. They are confident in their computer abilities and are comfortable spending much of their time online. The library may or may not be part of their online activities. MANY people in this category are able to use the library successfully, but some use the library a little blindly (if at all), unaware of the relevance of certain tools but able to get by in their classes. 
     The people who use the library blindly are the hardest people to help, in part because they may be unaware of gaps in their understanding. I think some of them have a fairly limited idea of where information comes from and how it's organized. At this point I should admit that I'm familiar with this group because I used to be part of it, back in my pre-librarian days. I didn't think I needed help and got away with pretty slipshod research. I only realized how weak my research skills were when I became a librarian.

I've been puzzling over it, and I can't figure out how to reach this group. The most obvious way is through library instruction classes, because they they are unlikely to seek help -- they don't think they need it. 

I suppose this is why I've been so preoccupied with library instruction lately. There may only be one chance to reach a person in this group. This means that a single instruction session had better be GREAT...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ACRLog, Emerging Leaders, and ALA

(Hunter's Moon, on my way out the door one morning)

Just a short post today, with a few things to report:

1) I've been chosen by ACRLog as one of two bloggers to write about the "First Year Academic Librarian Experience." My first post was this week -- please read it! Thanks to those who have already commented -- I'll be responding during the coming week. 

2) Also this week, I found out I was selected to participate in the New Jersey Library Association's 2008-2009 Emerging Leaders Program. As I'm new to the state, I think it'll be a great orientation to New Jersey's libraries and librarians.

3) I took the plunge and rejoined ALA -- I've only ever had a student membership. I'm also now an official member of ACRL, RUSA, the New Members Round Table (NMRT), and the Library Instruction Round Table (LIRT). Whew! 

I'm expecting some action-packed months ahead! 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Joys of Browsing

This semester, a couple of classes have been assigned to come to the library every Friday and find a book -- any book -- from a certain section. (The section differs each week). The assignment is supposed to serve as a happy introduction to the library, as it requires students to go there repeatedly, which they may not be asked to do for any of their other classes, & which they may not have ever done in the past. 

For weeks I've been trying to figure out why I've had such a negative reaction to this assignment. It's not just the task I get stuck with -- of repeatedly explaining to students how the library's print collection is organized when they want to know where the 'social sciences' section is, expecting the layout to be the same as Barnes and Noble's. That's as easy as pointing them to the LOC Classification System poster hanging on the wall nearby. Nor is it the youths who ask the question with a smirk, as if they're only asking me because they don't care enough to figure it out themselves. And when it gets right down to it, I don't even care if the students leave without falling in love with the library. Not everybody thinks libraries are great: I get it. NOR is it because our print collection is perhaps not as impressive as what we have available through our subscription databases and e-book collections, and represents only a part of what we own. 

I think what bugs me is that it seems the students are supposed to learn the joys of browsing, but they have to browse for an assignment. I find browsing is its own reward, and it's best done when I'm bored or have plenty of time to spare. So it must be the gourmet in me that is affronted: Students are assigned to do something that should be a pleasurable experience, but by making it an assignment they just try and get it done as quickly as possible. I watch them determine what floor their LOC call number is on, grab the first book they see in that section, and rush back to check it out at the front desk. Frequently this happens on a Monday morning, the day the assignment is due.  

At least I've figured out why I'm indignant about the whole thing. It seems silly now, and a bit sad ... I am confident that the students are deriving some benefit from the assignment, if only because they have to briefly think about how books are organized in a college library. And from now on I'll try to imagine a few of them sitting up in the stacks, rapt in the Qs or the Ks or the Ls, or whatever it is this week.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gasoline and Reference

Darker in the mornings, slightly more red in the trees...

Sometimes, being at the library reference desk is like pulling into a gas station in New Jersey when you're from out of state. For anyone who does not know this, there's a rule in New Jersey where an attendant MUST pump your gas for you. When you are new to this custom and have always pumped your own gas, like me, it can be somewhat awkward. What is the etiquette? Do I tip if he's particularly nice to me? (I say 'he' because I've never seen a female service station attendant.) Can I get out of the car while he's pumping the gas? Is it bad manners to use a credit card? 

No matter how prepared you think you are for reference interactions, you never really know how they'll go until you're right there assisting whoever needs help on some particular day. And the need for help can run from 'how do I print from my flash drive?' to 'how do I find a peer-reviewed article?' or 'my professor wants me to write a paper about X. How can I find information about X?' Now throw in all the variables of attitude and attention span and enthusiasm on both sides of the desk. 

Chapter 10 of last year's fascinating Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, written by anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster, discusses how few modern service transactions are interpersonal. Increasingly I respect libraries who still staff reference desks, instead of having librarians sit exclusively in their offices and create DIY services all day. In part I feel this way from witnessing students who can't quite believe that someone is sitting there just waiting to help them. In my experience so far they are initially incredulous and shy, and then overjoyed that SOMEONE, an actual person, is really looking out for them and can help them through whatever tangle they're in. It's like being stuck on one of those endless automated telephone answering systems ('press 1 if you are concerned about A, press 2 if you want to do B') and finally getting a real person who can explain things to you and have a back and forth discussion about whatever unique situation you have.  

Maybe in fact this is a managerial headache, because the reference librarian ends up picking up the slack for all of the other departments who can't be bothered to maintain a service desk. But to me, the ability to think on your feet and be the person to solve problems beyond the narrow domain of academic research is part of the modern library's responsibility to move beyond its physical walls, and I'm glad to do it. And just like stopping for gas in New Jersey, the more you do it the less awkward it will feel.