Putting the Library in the Life of the User

Listen, then lead, to promote a unique and compelling role for academic libraries.

To identify how and why people get to information, it is necessary first to listen.

Although academic librarians collect a lot of data on services, spaces, and collections, they often do not analyze or observe these data in ways that help assess a library’s value to its users. Often this lack is attributed to limited staff time because of increased responsibilities, as well as staff and budgetary cuts.

But academic librarians do not have to engage in data-intensive, in-depth user studies to learn about those who use (or do not yet use) their services and resources (Connaway 2014). Instead, they must observe and listen, both to users and potential users as well as peers and prior research on how people behave in the current, multifaceted information environment.

Determining the Baseline

“The library in the life of the user” was coined by Zweizig in his 1973 dissertation (Zweizig 1973). This term opposed prior library research studies, which adopted the perspective of the “user in the life of the library.” Recently, Zweizig’s term has been revisited by Wiegand (2015) in his study of American public libraries, and by Dempsey (2015) to describe environmental trends and the work of OCLC Research. Since this concept of the library in the life of the user has appeared several times in more than four decades, how does it apply to academic librarians and what does it signify regarding academic library offerings?

Academic librarians must provide services and resources that integrate or enhance those used by the academic community in their everyday life and work. People will not inconvenience themselves to access information. Academic libraries cannot compete with discovery services such as Google, Wikipedia, or social media sites—nor should they try. Instead, academic librarians should complement these services by providing easy access to resources people find elsewhere.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

Let’s begin with prior research about how people engage with technology to learn, teach, succeed in college, and get their information. This research addresses gaps between demographic groups, critical thinking skills, and perceptions of the library.

Consider working hand-in-hand with faculty. Academic library administrators and provosts were interviewed for a research agenda project, which OCLC has undertaken in partnership with the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) (Connaway et al. 2017; Connaway et al. 2016). Findings from the project identify an opportunity for librarians to collaborate with faculty and administrators to educate an informed citizenry. Considering the November 2016 US presidential election, interviewees discussed the need to impart critical literacy skills to students so they can differentiate between facts and fiction, skills that will reverberate outside of the academy (Najmabadi 2017a). Critical literacy skills also have been identified as one of the top trends in higher education (Chronicle of Higher Education 2017; Najmabadi 2017b, 2017c). Academic librarians are experts in teaching information literacy and easily could lead this initiative on campuses, as exemplified by a collaboration between librarians, IT staff, instructional designers, and faculty at Purdue University to integrate information literacy into the curriculum within the context of the courses (Chronicle of Higher Education 2017). Bringing visibility to such collaborations provides librarians with the ability to articulate the library’s value by connecting the library with the university’s story (Dempsey 2016; Najmabadi 2017b).

You must be convenient. Our research indicates that convenience significantly impacts people’s choices of technology and resources. Since convenience depends on the context and situation of one’s information need, there exists no one answer as to what makes a certain technology or resource convenient (Connaway 2016a, 2016b; Connaway and Dickey 2010; Connaway, Dickey, and Radford 2011). The contextual- and situational-dependent properties of convenience make it difficult for academic librarians to plan services and resources. Such difficultly can be addressed by observing and listening, which will help librarians make informed decisions.

Convenience is defined by the “big guys.” Another key finding related to convenience is that many people primarily rely on search engines to find information, often satisfying their information needs with the first few links presented. This is exemplified by a high school student who said, “I always stick with the first thing that comes up on Google because I think that’s the most popular site which means that’s the most correct” (“Digital Visitors and Residents,” USS1, Female, Age 17, High School Student). This was reiterated by an arts and humanities faculty member: “You spend many hours with Saint Google. We entrust ourselves to Saint Google” (“Digital Visitors and Residents,” UOCFI16, Male, Age 53, Arts & Humanities). These statements indicate that academic librarians need to better integrate and promote available library resources and services, not only to students but also to faculty and administrators.

Your space is your brand differentiator. We also must remember that libraries have an asset that online-only search giants do not: physical space. How can students and faculty make better use of that key differentiator? The academic library can not only be used for study space but also for events, such as canine therapy and coloring sessions for managing stress during exam periods (Seeley G. Mudd Library 2017; University of Minnesota 2017). Announcements on social media can communicate these events. Affordances of social media, such as the ability to upload images or videos, can make collections come alive (DeSantis 2012). For this reason, librarians need to envision possibilities for social media beyond posting library hours or location, which can be accessed via a Google search, and instead consider new possibilities for this media, such as creating games for teaching and learning information literacy (Kraft and Williams 2016).

Having established a baseline for what is expected of us, and in reviewing what the current research tells us, the question becomes: what next?

Librarians Can’t Just React, They Must Lead

Among all students, there exists a gap in critical thinking skills that the library is in a unique position to assume a leadership role in addressing. A recent study of middle school through college students by the Stanford History Education Group (2016) determined that “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak” (4). While this conclusion is alarming, it is not surprising based on the current environment, in which fake news and alternative facts make daily headlines (Banks 2016; Domonoske 2016; Maheshwari 2016; McCoy 2016; McGraw-Hill Education 2016; 2017; Reader 2016; Woolf 2016).

As evidenced by the recent literature, there exists an opportunity within libraries to impart critical media literacy skills to students that could ameliorate this current issue. The current information environment also presents an opportunity for academic librarian and faculty collaboration for curriculum development, and for librarians to promote library programs and services to faculty who only perceive the library as a collection repository (Gardner 2017; Jacobson 2017; McGraw-Hill Education 2016; 2017; Najmabadi 2017b; 2017c; Padgett 2017).

That there is a need for this kind of leadership is clear to anyone who works with today’s students. But are librarians seen as part of the natural “answer” to this need? Results of a survey published by McGraw-Hill identify discrepancies between how librarians and faculty perceive the academic library (McGraw-Hill 2016; 2017). Among librarian respondents, 43 percent believe that access to information constitutes the most important role of the library, as compared to 88 percent of faculty respondents. Although librarian respondents were very satisfied with their off-campus delivery services, some faculty respondents expressed concern with not having print books on the shelves. Twenty-seven percent of the librarians envisioned space as fostering collaboration, whereas 15 percent of faculty shared this sentiment. Librarians (27 percent) and faculty (25 percent) responded similarly when rating the value of the library’s services and programs.

The survey results also indicate that the librarians themselves “are 7 percent less likely than faculty to respond that their employers (academic administrators) fully support the library” (McGraw-Hill Education 2016). Since librarians are less likely than faculty to believe that the academic administration supports the library, librarians must communicate the library’s contributions to the institution’s mission and strategy.

How can we bridge these gaps? One of the first steps is to get students in and actually using the physical and/or virtual library. As Stemmer and Mahan (2016) observed of underclassmen: “Those who start using the library’s information resources quickly have beneficial impacts on their outcomes” (372). The authors also stated that “After students have transitioned to upper-division work, aspects of the library’s programmatic activities (space, service, and resources) begin to significantly associate with student outcomes” (372).

Getting students into the library is also how you establish listening opportunities, which brings us full circle.

Challenges and Opportunities

The challenge is, first and foremost, to remember to listen. Unless we understand students’ lives, we will not be able to fit within their natural information flows. Opportunities become clearer when we begin by simply walking on campus, sitting in on classes, and strolling through the library, student centers, and other campus locations. These actions allow librarians to observe, listen, and note how students and faculty are communicating, studying, learning, teaching, and interacting in everyday life situations. Conclusions drawn from these observations can help librarians plan space configurations and uses, as well as provide resources and services for teaching and learning.

Analyzing virtual reference transcripts and face-to-face reference encounters for question type, contextual features such as dates and times the questions are asked, and any other information disclosed will help librarians plan an ideal provision of service. This information can also provide insight into how librarians relate to and interact with students and faculty, which may identify staff training needs (Connaway and Radford 2011; Radford and Connaway 2010; 2013; Radford et al. 2011; Radford et al. 2013; 2016; Shah, Radford, and Connaway 2015). Depending on the data collected and analyzed, librarians also can facilitate better resource utilization by providing proactive chat, such as when individuals are on the library web page for more than 10 seconds without linking to any information or during a failed search (Zhang and Mayer 2014).

All the activities mentioned provide opportunities for librarians to integrate the library into the life of the user. However, it is not enough to solely engage in these opportunities. Rather, there also is the need to inform students, faculty, and administrators of how the academic library contributes to the institutional mission and goals. Communicating this connection to the academic community is critical for integrating the library into the life of the university. And it may, in fact, be critical in creating a generation of fully literate, informed citizens.


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