“Perception is strong and sight weak. In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things.” -Miyamoto Musashi

Finally, another update!

One of the things my fellow MLS students and I talk about outside of class is maintaining the relevance of libraries. Actually that’s wrong way to put it, because we wouldn’t be in this program if we didn’t think libraries were relevant ipso facto. But it’s a two-part issue. On one hand, there’s the need to stay relevant in the digital age by providing services and information to users in a digtal environment — which the profession as a whole is doing, I’m pleased to say. On the other hand, there’s also a need to shape people’s perception of libraries, to let them know that libraries are changing and evolving to meet the needs of their users.

To put it another way: the stereotype is that libraries are warehouses for dead trees, and who needs that when everyone has the Internet in their pocket? In fact, libraries are about helping people find and evaluate information – a task which is arguably MORE important now that the Internet is so commonly used – and about doing so with the iGadget in your pocket…So how do we get that message across?

Last week, I went looking for some answers. The OCLC industry group was giving a presentation at the downtown Portland library on “Perceptions of Libraries,” the results of a national survey they commissioned on why people do (or don’t) use their local libraries, and what kind of services they expect. That report can be downloaded here as a PDF, in full or by section, but in this post I’m going to go over what some of the highlights were for me.

One of the things the report focused on was impacts of the Great Recession. Library use has increased 37 percent overall, and the number-one reason that respondents gave for increasing their visits was “to save money.” People are forced to cut back on spending, so they’re checking out books, movies and music instead of buying them. Meanwhile, what about the effects of technology? This was another focus for the report, and “the Internet in your pocket” isn’t much of an exaggeration – by 2012, shipments of smartphones will outpace shipments of PCs. The good news is that libraries are making the transition: at present, 44 percent of academic libraries, and 34 percent of public libraries, offer mobile services.

The problem is that we’re building it, but they aren’t coming. According to the survey, only 14 percent of online searchers wind up at their library’s website – even though 80 percent of those who do arrive there, find what they were looking for through the library’s website. What’s the number-one reason why people don’t use the library website? “I didn’t know they had one.”

(This is partly a generational thing – people under age 24 are more likely to use search engines than the library catalog, or to surf “Ask an Expert” sites like About.com instead of e-mailing the reference desk, because it’s faster and easier…but they are aware that online library services offer more accurate and reliable results! So it’s a conscious trade-off – you don’t need to ask a librarian, these days, to find out who won the Battle of Hastings…but I’ll return to this a little later.)

So people may not use libraries to help search the Internet – but they do rely on it to use the Internet. Nearly seven out of 10 libraries (to be precise, 63 percent) report that they are the only free source of Web/computer access for their community…and that most people who use the library to get online would not otherwise be able to do so. (This is known as the “digital divide,” and it’s also one of the reasons for the increase in smartphone use…)

On the other hand, the “library brand” is still strong when it comes to books, and those (books/music/movies/etc.) were cited as the library’s most important assets across all age groups, followed by community information (events/classes/job skills training/etc.); literacy training; and Internet access. So the challenge going forward is to find a way to pull users towards the library’s existing holdings and online services… Facebook?Online book clubs? Adding user-created tagging to the catalog? These ideas and more are already being tried out…

So, the take-away:

– “Books are our brand. E-books are still books.” (On a related note, there seemed to be a consensus among attendees that it may be time to start adding video games to the collection, along with music and movies…)

– ADVERTISE! Social media (see above) is cheap and effective, and it meets a need library users have (especially younger ones).

– Librarians need to market themselves as “Personal Information Trainers.” You can answer a lot of basic questions with a Google search…but when you get bogged down? Returning to the “fast & easy” vs. “accurate & reliable” issue, 83 percent of those surveyed thought that librarians added value to the search process. We need to run with that. People are going to want to search online anyway – the goal is to make them aware of the library’s online databases, ILL and other search tools, and to do so in the online environment.

– Be the third place. In a physical sense, libraries are already doing this (study space, classes, etc.) — but as the use of social media reaches saturation point, they need to become an “online third place” as well.

– Focus on the needs of the local community – particularly when it comes to meeting the needs of those who’ve been adversely affected by the recession. At the same time, the library needs to continue to provide connections to the non-local infosphere, aka the World Wide Web.

A challenge? Perhaps, but it could always be worse


I recently attended my first “professional conference” in the library field – the 5th annual Oregon Information Literacy Summit.

I attended mainly out of a desire to network – and because the event was inexpensive to register for and easy to get to by bus. Information literacy itself is a topic that I am fairly familiar with, thanks to Integrating Seminar (words that my high school compatriots will understand, if the rest of the Internet does not). So I’m not going to discuss what IL means — if you don’t know and want to, here is a link to a one-page PDF outline, printouts of which were passed around during the conference itself.

The purpose of the summit, as I soon found, was to develop and share strategies for teaching info literacy skills to students at community and four-year colleges. I was not previously aware of this, but the state of Oregon has apparently mandated that IL goals be integrated into academic outcomes as a condition of accreditation for community college transfer degrees (and for baccelaureates?)

The pilot program – or one of them – is at Oregon State, which since 2001 has focused on IL during freshman comp, aka “Writing 121,” which is a required class. However, it’s more of a segment of the class rather than being fully integrated, which may be because the OSU library staff team-teaches it with the comp teachers, rather than standing back and “training the trainers.” The ongoing hurdle, of course, is integrating IL across disciplines and throughout a student’s higher ed career, rather than considering it a subset of composition classes.

The above made up the first portion of the morning, and we split up into breakout groups on various topics. The summit home page (linked to at the beginning of this post) describes each one – mine was on the “one-shot,” or strategies for teaching IL within an academic discipline other than comp, and in a single class or workshop rather than over the course of a whole term. Our group leaders got the discussion rolling with some interview clips of faculty discussing the challenges and goals of this approach.

Our conclusions were:
— Get the faculty on board as advocates; ask them to define research proficiency within their discipline and map IL skills onto the language of that discipline (which means agreeing on defined outcomes for the class),
— Also, find out what student’s needs are! This may require some strategy so they don’t think the info will get back to their professors, but you may need that in order to get honest answers…
— Ideally, the college would have (or pursue) an embedded librarian program or similar form of outreach. Then, you don’t have to cram all of IL theory into one class and you can use the time to sell students on the value of library services and address their IL needs during the reference interview process.
— Create a “menu of services” that allows faculty to choose from among different seminars, focusing on different aspects of IL, to suit their needs as instructors
— Make sure faculty are in the room and co-teaching when you do the “one-shot,” don’t let it turn into substitute teacher day.

I won’t summarize the findings of all the other groups — which I thought were going to be posted on the conference website; but I don’t see them — except to note that one idea which came up in every group was the need to craft assignments that force students to excercise IL skils…regardless of the discipline. Speaking personally, a conscious and reflexive approach to IL was a major part of my education (i.e. learning “why,” not just “how”) so it was a bit surprising to hear that it isn’t all that common an approach for college professors … Some don’t know enough about IL to articulate it within their field of study, others (especially in the sciences) take an understanding of it for granted.

All in all, a very interesting time…and further confirmation that I made a good decision by enrolling in library school.