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The gap.

May 3, 2010

One of the most striking things to happen to me in my dealings with university students over the course of the 09-10 year was also one of the most mundane. I had become interested in the user experience for a number of reasons.  One is that my job officially became exactly that (User Experience Librarian). Secondly, I began spending a fair amount of time on the Reference Desk specifically so that I could experience our users more, and really a librarian’s job is somehow always focused on the experience of our users.

One little event summed up a great deal for me this winter.   It is very common these days for students to approach the Reference Desk holding some type of portable device and say “I found this item … how do I get it?”  Sounds mundane … not even interesting, really.  As I thought more about it, however, I realized that this was actually very interesting. This is not about the wonders of mobile devices or the wonders of searching.  Nor is this about how students are doing research “wrong”.   What’s going on here is the very important identification of a very serious gap. What would seem to be happening is that students are navigating their own virtual environment and finding the information that they need … just like I do, actually.  They are quite capable of searching (and more importantly, finding) by navigating their familiar tools (often Google Scholar), or utilizing their own social networks (a very legitimate way of conducting research). They search, they accumulate citations, and then suddenly they hit a wall. Their virtual world gets them very close to the information they want, but leaves them one step away.  The stuff that they need is in another world called the library.

One would think that this would not be much of a problem.  Academia is about sharing ideas and “standing on the shoulders of giants”, in the words of Newton. But these students are staring across an abyss. Every time they click on a citation for an article, they are told that they can not access it and, apparently, the library has this thing but there doesn’t seem to be a link from their world to the library world.  Well, at least they suspect that there is a link, but when they enter into the library world none of the conventions of their previous world hold, and none of the things they know from all of their searching to this point makes any sense. It would seem that the keyholders to the library world are at the Reference Desk (what we call, rightly, the Research Help Desk).   Those people can tell you how that citation in your hand that is so tantalizingly close to being an actual article can be turned into a real, honest to goodness, document.

In a rather frightful introduction to this system, the person at this desk suggests that “you’d better sit down for this”.  Now, this is a pretty weird introduction to the next step in your research process, since all of the previous steps have been done with the click of a mouse, or a call to your friend. In the world that you are entering materials are divided into the stuff that you find in the library catalog, and the stuff that you find in “journal indexes”.  Needless to say, this initial division of materials is nothing like what you’ve done so far.  The stuff in the journal indexes are broken down into even more (seemingly endless) divisions, based entirely on (get this): “who owns the thing”.  Every owner has provided their own interface to the material and none of them are all that great.  As a person who probably never even realized that journals were “owned”, this will be very unfamiliar territory. All of the owners put walls around what they own, and will never (NEVER) link to the other things that other people own.  Once again, this is nothing at all like what you have encountered to this point in your search.

The library catalog, while relatively familiar looking, is also pretty bizarre.  While to this point all of your searching has been done by keywords, and relevancy has been magically determined by an algorithm behind the scenes that can gauge the importance of an item by its relation to other items, this tool is different.  Keyword searching exists, but the only links between materials are based on “subject headings” … these subject heading things follow an arcane system that you have never seen, is used nowhere else, and utilizes language that is entirely foreign (and don’t even try to guess).

With your citation in hand, the person behind the desk will now spend the next ten or fifteen minutes explaining how to make the jump from the system you have used, to the system that the library uses.

Now, our users are way smarter than we think (we like to consider them naive for not understanding our system).  Ah, but they understand it very well. A recent webinar I attended helped me to understand this.  Users were asked about the most important roles of the library … more than ever before (and the numbers are increasing steadily), the users suggested that we are not primarily a “gateway” as we often like to think, we are not primarily a repository as we often like to think, and we are not the providers of effective search.  What we are is a mechanism for purchasing materials.  They have come to our desks or used our services online and they have understood the message that we send.

It is all about ownership.

We are the people that negotiate with the owners of information, and ensure that their ownership is protected from abuse.  We ensure that people who should stay out, stay out, and administer the security, and pay the yearly fee. Our system of walls between vendors, e-books that can only be used by one person at a time, and off-campus logins, send the message that our primary concern is ownership.  I suppose this is a good message, but I’m a little disappointed that this is being identified as the number one mission of libraries.  We want to be a gateway to good things, we want to help people search for information, we want to teach them about literacy and how information is organized … we want to organize and provide access to information … we want to be involved in discovery.

The guy standing in front of me with the citation who then sits down at the desk to learn our system, is not likely to be convinced …

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