Monday, April 27, 2009

Librarians Everywhere

swamp pink, on the Blackwood campus

I'm noticing lately that my perceptions of student needs and abilities are probably very skewed, in that the bulk of the students with whom I interact at the reference desk seem to be those who are completely clueless, horribly stuck, or attention-seeking.

I've been wondering about the students I don't see -- the average users whose opinions I wish I knew, but with whom I seldom interact because they are quietly working online. As a fairly web-savvy Millennial, I do not have trouble connecting with my peers and professional colleagues online, but I know I am not regularly connecting to our local library users online.

(On a related note, I've also been wondering how much time average students actually spend on computers, and whether they use computers the same way that I do, for example. I work sitting in front of a personal computer pretty much all day long, with a fast internet connection, as many programs as I need, and a reliable printer, but our average users may face various technological hurdles. We assume a lot about them. In fact, maybe they are most often online for social activity and perceive any other time spent online as a chore.)

The more I think about it, the more I worry that in order to be connected with our average local library users, the more places online we need to be, in order to stay visible and present in their worlds. Beyond haunting all of the normal online places -- instant messaging through the library website, accessible via email, facebook etc. -- we also need to have a presence in public discussion fora, twitter, and anything new that comes along. Believe me, I know this ubiquity is difficult to even grasp, and many of us already feel stretched thin, budgetarily or otherwise. But the only way we will continue to be relevant to the average user and not just the squeaky wheels at the reference desk is by being online, representing ourselves professionally there, and reminding people (hopefully some of our local users) that there are librarians who exist to help people navigate the vast sea of information confronting everyone.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Journalism & Librarianship: Parallels in the Professions

magnolias in bloom

In last week's New York Times Education Life section, there was an article about journalism schools: Apparently the schools are thriving, bursting with students eager to study and practice journalism despite all of the changes to the profession. Arizona State Professor Tim McGuire was quoted saying of his students "They know the model is broken ... They think, 'We’ll just have to fix it.'"

This struck a chord with me as an academic librarian. Library and information schools are similarly swamped with enthusiastic students who believe in libraries and what they stand for. I think for much of the history of librarianship, librarians have seen themselves as the gatekeepers to information. But just as new journalists do not imagine themselves married to print reporting, new librarians do not see themselves as gatekeepers guarding a (printed) collection. From the perspective of someone entering the profession fairly recently, it seems to me that younger librarians view the changed landscape with optimism rather than trepidation.

In the words of Peter Bromberg, whom I listened to yesterday as he practiced a presentation in front of our NJLA Emerging Leaders group, "We are in the information filtering business." This is the new model, the new role, that librarians are acknowledging: Information consumers are now confronted with a "tyranny of choice" (Bromberg's words again). Librarians are skilled at finding pertinent, reliable information quickly and precisely. They interpret what information in a query is important and why, and can solve the puzzle of tracking something down. They are trained to do this, think about how to do it incessantly, and practice every day.

This is the value librarians now bring to the world, and we are side by side with journalists who are also navigating a new information landscape. The enduring commitment to these professions is a positive reflection of our society. It shows that we value truth (journalism) and accessibility (librarianship). It's just unfortunate that both professions are undervalued -- the economics of journalism are a mess, and librarians are often overlooked.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Faculty or Administrative Status for Librarians

More Bradford pears in bloom

One aspect of professional life as an academic librarian that has confused me for a while is whether a librarian should be classified as faculty or administration. Frankly, librarians are neither: As much instruction as we provide, we are not in the classrooms as much as professors, and although the library is a support service, we are not really comparable to the registration office or the bursar. Our profession requires at least one master's degree, which implies specialty in a field, but no teaching experience. We have to be knowledgeable about learning resources and curriculum, but have not traditionally been in charge of recruitment or retention. Faculty librarians are typically expected to perform research that contributes to their field; administrators are not necessarily. Administrators work when the semester is not in session; faculty often have more flexibility. You could make the case that we serve everyone and are at least incidentally involved in all aspects of a college, but in reality we are far more visible in some places than others, and it seems to vary whether our primary focus is on the students or the institution.

Librarians should really have our own category, but this only seems to matter when a contentious issue divides the faculty and the administration, with librarians stuck in the middle trying to choose which side to be on. And that never happens, right?

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reading and (versus?) Getting information

Bradford pear blossoms

The relationship between reading and acquiring information has puzzled me for a long time. A bond between reading and overall achievement is often assumed, but reading for pleasure and reading for information are very different activities – particularly where the library is involved. Would it be correct to say that academic libraries generally support reading for information, and public libraries support reading for pleasure?

It seems some people are motivated to read mainly because reading teaches them how to do something -- that is, reading is the means to accomplish tasks (granted these tasks can be fairly abstract). But other people read for pleasure in addition to learning.

The first type of reading (goal-oriented) can be work, and I wonder if this is part of why tools such as google and YouTube were so suddenly accepted into the mainstream: They enable people to read less. Even those who enjoy reading can read more of what they want to and less of what they don't.

What does this mean for higher education? The library? Should the library be increasingly encouraging students to become part of the group of people who enjoy reading -- or should we be focusing on assisting with information needs, in the most convenient and accessible ways possible?

I think the answer is probably a combination of both, but the latter will be weighed more heavily. In fact, this is why librarians are so obsessed with searching: Many students don't want to do any more reading than they absolutely must. They do not want to linger, they do not want to browse, they expect to search and be taken to relevant results precisely on the topic they are researching. And when this mentality enables them to do their assignments successfully (more or less), what is the point in trying to force them to enjoy reading?

Reading can be just another tool to get from point A to B, and if reading is a tool, it's susceptible to being replaced when a better tool (images, audio, etc.) comes along. What if reading is becoming obsolete? Would that necessarily be a bad thing?

(More questions than answers here, I know, but this is all I've got this week.)