Thursday, February 21, 2013

Onward, Through the Information Fog?

The Lake Land College Library,  like most academic libraries, has a nice selection of databases that provide access to a lot of information. From peer-reviewed academic journals to popular magazines to newspapers and newsletters, and from high-end subject encyclopedias to resume-writing guides and test-preparation books, we have it.  All told, probably 25,000 periodicals of one stripe or another and another 1250 online book titles. They are there, not quite 24/7/365 (there are always maintenance periods when one service or another is down), and they are accessible from just about anywhere our students, faculty, and staff are (as long as they have an internet connection).

When we offer library instruction, and when we talk to our patrons one-on-one, we do our best to make sure that they know that these resources exist. More to the point, they are there to make sure that our students have plenty of high-quality, legitimate academic sources available to support their research needs. And they are used - at least the statistics that we can access tell us how many full-text articles  are retrieved and how many searches are conducted each month.

Are we satisfied with that? NO. To that end, we will soon be featuring a new service on our website  (truth be told, it is there already, just a little hidden)  that can search across the contents of many - but not all - of our databases at once in much the same way as Google searches the open Internet. The new service, called Summon, is an attempt to make it even easier to access this information while giving our patrons an experience that is more like searching Google. Only instead of millions of results of questionable quality, users can search a far more quality-controlled set of resources. It should be ready for prime time quite soon now.

Yet this is not without its shortcomings. By offering services like Summon, do we do a disservice to our users by not trying to teach them how to use the individual services and databases that make up our electronic resources? We are an academic institution, and teaching - particularly the skills we librarians call information literacy - should be as much a part of a student's education here as their Comp, Speech, or Math classes. Some would argue that our professional responsibility is to avoid "shortcuts" and teach the searching and critical-thinking skills that can be applied across a variety of information sources throughout a person's lifetime. Others will say, not without justification, the oft-quoted adage that "librarians like to search - patrons like to find", and that anything we can do to make our resources more accessible to as many of our users as possible is a GOOD THING.

I don't believe that it needs to be a black and white dichotomy; there is room for both approaches. I believe that students should receive a foundation of knowledge that prepares them to be good searchers and to understand what they are seeing and how to evaluate its appropriateness and quality. I believe that should apply across ALL disciplines. And it is a plain fact that, as a patron's research needs become more specialized, they should understand how to use the major tools in their subject area. Someone writing a paper on bipolar disorder should be searching in Psych Articles, not Bloom's Literary Reference. And someone needing information on automobile repair would be best served by using Automobile Repair Reference Center, not the Oxford English Dictionary. At the same time, given that most students at the freshman and sophomore level are still writing on general topics for many of their classes, and our ultimate goal is to get them to be able to access and utilize the Library's resources, then it becomes more difficult to justify forcing students to jump through OUR particular set of hoops to obtain what they are looking for.  We have 40+ databases, with probably 15 different searching interfaces. Is it reasonable to demand that students learn every one of these to meet their basic information needs? How many is enough, and how many is too much?

So onward we go, moving forward in a new direction. Is it the right direction? Time will tell. The only certainty in the world is that nothing is certain. Just keep swimming...

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