Saturday, February 25, 2012

Information Literacy Plan: Instruction & the Collection

We recently began the process of creating a formal Information Literacy Plan for the library. This is a great idea, and very necessary. There are already a few issues that the Plan is raising, however.

First, when we examine our library instruction program, we appear to have uneven relationships with the various academic departments on campus. It is to the point where we spend the bulk of our time supporting one department in particular, with two librarians repeatedly teaching nearly-identical sessions. One idea to make library instruction more efficient and far-reaching is to put some of the teaching materials online. This would result in a convenient self-serve model for faculty, but it would also mean a lack of face time with librarians. It would be better than nothing, though, which is what currently exists in many cases. 

If we pursue a new endeavor like this, it's adds to the difficulties we have with assessment. For the in-person classes we presently teach, the librarians have the status of guest lecturers, there one day and gone the next. Assessment in the form of grading the students rightfully rests with the instructor, but it also means that the librarians have little classroom leverage. This makes it very difficult to measure the impact of library instruction, and our efforts could be portrayed as dispensable. How can we change this? Another assessment option would be to evaluate each other and to have students evaluate us. However, I'm not sure that this would measure actual student learning -- instead it would be measuring how peers and students feel about librarians.

Then there is the collection and how it overlaps with instruction. Let's ignore for a moment the question of whether, in this day and age, a library collection is a quaint anachronism that has largely been replaced by personal, cloud-based media libraries. Right now, library classes are an important introduction for students to the college library's collection. Librarians have the opportunity to demonstrate the relevance of the library and also show how it works. (The latter is not always intuitive, particularly with the online resources.)

There are various ways of measuring post-instruction use of library materials. With digital content in particular, it is possible track precisely how often things are accessed. For better or worse, usage justifies library expenditures. The problem arises in a hypothetical situation like this: Let's say there is an established, reputable source of information about music and musicians. Everyone in the field knows about this source and recognizes it as a standard. Librarians also know about it, and they direct students to use it. Music department instructors, however, do not require that students use it. If usage numbers do not appear to justify the expense (let's say for example it costs $2,000 and only 2 people use it during a semester), the library is in the position of having to fight to defend the purchase. Would it be fair to characterize the resource as unnecessary for the collection? I'm torn. Some accrediting organizations require that a library have the standard resources in the field, and they are not concerned about usage, but this is not the case for every academic discipline.

As much as the Plan is clarifying our goals, it also seems likely to prompt some changes!

Monday, February 13, 2012

When Innovation is not 100% Improvement

Before I am cast as a Luddite, let me first say that I do understand that there are bumps along the way with many new technologies. I also understand that shifts are often gradual, and that people commonly discuss tecchie things in the present tense when realistically they're still 10 years in the future.

Now that's out of the way, is it just at my house that the new eco-friendly light bulbs don't initially switch on as brightly as the old type, particularly when it's cold? We are making progress for the environment, but on the other hand we have a product that does not work as well as its predecessor. I hear similar rumblings about battery-powered cars right now -- and I'm in the category of people who might be willing to buy one. There are environmental gains, but there are sacrifices in user functionality. 

Along the same lines, are we truly improving our libraries as we try to keep up with each new trend in technology? Part of the strength of the library brand is the idea of semi-permanence and the emphasis on the long term. This is something that distinguishes libraries. I would even say that stability and consistency are core values  -- or they should be, because we're good at these things.

Unfortunately, a commitment to stability can be misunderstood as a resistance to change or experiment. I notice that in general there is a lot of hoopla surrounding ideas that become successful projects. There is much less celebration for ideas that are carefully scrutinized and then rejected. I worry that librarians appear ignorant of certain technology trends, when in fact they have scrutinized them and rejected them. Unfortunately, ignorance and enlightened conservatism can result in the same inactivity.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Textbooks on Reserve, again

This marks the fourth semester of offering textbooks on reserve at the library. (Click here to see all posts related to this topic.) The initial buzz surrounding the new service seems to have died down a bit, and the work now mostly revolves around about maintaining the collection and keeping it up to date. A few more issues have cropped up that I thought were interesting and worth mentioning here:

1) Keeping faculty members aware of what exactly we have is a constant challenge. I wish I knew how to automate this better, but currently I send summary notifications around the beginning of each semester informing instructors precisely what is on reserve for their particular classes. We also promote the service more generally at various meetings, but a targeted approach seems the most effective, with the added benefit that instructors are supplied with a contact (me) if there are any problems or issues.

2) Some faculty members have expressed reservations about assisting the library with the project due to concerns about not wanting to negatively impact a publisher's bottom line. This is very generous to the publishing business, but it is also a misunderstanding. I wish I had the data to back this up, but I strongly suspect this service does not replace the need for a student to purchase a textbook for class. Our circulation numbers bear this out: At the beginning of the semester, usage of the textbooks peaks, but then it tapers off. My theory is that for most students, textbooks are an unexpected expense, and the library's copies are a stop-gap while they get the money together to buy their own. Frankly, it's a hassle to rely on the library's copy of a textbook for an entire semester, limited to using it in the building for only a matter of hours per check-out. (I have seen studies that demonstrate how using libraries encourages, rather than discourages, media purchases. I wonder if that logic would apply to this situation. In any case, it seems absurd to portray the library as a villain attempting to put the book store out of business.)

3) In the context of the overall college ecosystem, the service is the most popular with students. The benefits to the library are that it draws students in where they potentially discover our other services and holdings, and it makes the library relevant to current classes. Both of these seem invaluable for a commuter school where retention is an issue. But it is the fact that the service assists students in a meaningful way that keeps me motivated. A lot of lip service is paid to supporting students, but this one is real. I hope we can keep it going.