Lately I’ve been thinking about how students, faculty, and librarians use academic libraries. It all started last month after the latest Ithaka Faculty Survey results were released. Many survey responses seem to indicate that faculty use of academic libraries is decreasing. Of course there was much discussion of the report all over the higher ed (the Chronicle and IHE) and library (ACRLog and Library Journal) bloglands.
I read these articles with interest but not surprise. In my past life when I was in graduate school for archaeology I was a heavy library user, but it was while working with my advisor that I learned about the major scholars in my field of specialty. I mined the bibliographies of the articles and books assigned for my courses, searched the library catalog for books, and browsed the stacks in the call number ranges for the subjects I researched. I belonged to the scholarly societies for archaeology and anthropology (and got their journals), and sometimes I browsed the table of contents in other relevant journals in the library’s current periodicals section. To be honest, I don’t think I ever consulted with a librarian at my university’s library the entire time I was in graduate school.
I suspect that my process from many years ago is not all that different from the ways faculty and graduate students do informational research today. It’s so much easier to use online indexes that I’m sure researchers search their specialized databases, but they do so with preexisting knowledge of their field, both the vocabulary of their subject matter and the major players in their discipline. However, as others have noted (e.g., William Badke’s comment on IHE), students approach information-based research for their coursework very differently. They don’t usually have deep knowledge of the disciplines and topics that they’re researching, and they don’t know the prominent scholars or publications. Many students, especially freshmen, are also unfamiliar with library databases and even physical libraries.
Since the faculty research process doesn’t necessarily include librarians, that’s likely one reason why faculty see the library more as an information storehouse and less as a location for academic consultation. But our students really do need help to learn to make sense of the information landscape and do research successfully. It can be difficult for experienced researchers–both faculty and librarians–to put ourselves back into the novice researcher mindset of our students. Information literacy instruction can help students learn to do information-based research for their courses and to begin to evolve into more advanced researchers.
Of course, there’s a huge variety of academic institutions, and variety in their libraries as well. I’m at a college library and coordinate our instruction and information literacy program, so working with students is always on my mind. But there’s also some good news out there as a counterpoint to the Ithaka study. Barbara Fister just published the results of her survey of academic administrators and found that they all value the library for a wide variety of reasons. And while many mentioned that academic libraries will continue to change and evolve in the future, none envisioned them disappearing.