Deepening the Conversation

thinking about questions of authority, technology, learning, and 2.0 in academic libraries

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What Students Want, revisited

I just looked over my blog post from November on giving students what they want, and am laughing at my vehemence, a little bit. I was all sorts of wrought up, and somehow managed to miss some important points in my rush to post. Can we blame it on being a new blogger, and allow a small redux? (and yes, I’ll think bout what this says about blogging as a form of scholarship…)

There’s a sentence in the last paragraph that I don’t really stand behind:

Which is all to say that I will never be persuaded by the argument that “it’s what the students want” when it comes to research and research tools in the domain of the library.

What I should have said is that the sentiment alone will never be compelling to me, as regards library information resource changes. And it certainly doesn’t carry much weight if a tiny number of students were carefully led to the statement.

But: if students (in any number, really) want more outlets, longer hours, more comfortable seating, a vending machine for USB drives and pens, I’m right there — they know what they need in terms of study space and study tools, and I’m happy to seriously investigate the feasibility of filling those needs. However, if my training and experience as a librarian doesn’t carry more weight than student wants in terms of complex information resources, then I’m not sure where I stand as a professional.

One thing I do stand for as a professional, though, is a willingness to take students seriously. And I was being too reactive about a meeting I had just come from to address the part of the equation. If the students say they want something (like, say, the ability to search all our resources at one time, or a customizable library portal) I am willing to look at that desire, with the eyes of a librarian, and try to see if it’s either possible or desirable. Is it pedagogically appropriate for a college library? Will it help users do effective research? Will it be at least as effective as out current methods? What will it cost? Does it solve any problems we’re already looking to solve?

I do think that gutting the effective parts of effective search tools to give students what they want so they won’t have to think or learn is a form of pandering. And I don’t think that’s going to change.


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Give ’em what they want? Why on earth??

One of the issues that makes my head go ‘splody is the issue of how academic libraries should respond to student desires. Which is an entirely different question than how academic librarians should respond to the changing nature of technology, and is also different than understanding “these kids today” and providing services in ways that they can make sense of. And it is most certainly not the same conversation as fixing broken vendor tools and inserting more interactivity and interoperability into library software. Which are all good and useful conversations. But are not the same as the one where librarians say “but students want X”, and Rudy’s head explodes.

What I see as the issue is that students are kids. They’re 18, maybe 21. They want fast quick easy sloppy immediate, and they have absolutely no regard for the nature of scholarship or the complexities of organized information, or for how conducting research on, say, how the perception of Dreamtime in Aboriginal thinking helped or hindered their survival in the face of colonial interlopers in the 19th century might need to be done differently than finding out if Britn@y got custody or if the car they want got good consumer reviews.

That’s where educators — professors, librarians, university professionals of all stripes — come in.

We’re adults. We’re librarians. We have advanced degrees. Some of us have done advanced research. We have domains of expertise, in librarianship, in information organization, in user behavior, in information literacy, in other specialties. We (or I, but we all should) pay attention to how students use the tools we want them to use, and we pay attention to how they use the tools they want to use. And we understand why the ones we (may hate but) have built over decades are the right tools — of those available — for academic research. Specifically as librarians, we understand the complexities of organized information and the tools that have been constructed over time to assist in complex research queries — both the positives and the negatives.

So why on earth do librarians stand up and say “the students want it” and expect that to be a persuasive argument??? The students may also want beer to flow in the water fountains, and to buy their papers on the internet, and to not have to work very hard, and get the degree certification that allows them to get a job after school. And while some of those may be laudable goals, this is COLLEGE. And in college students will learn to be college-educated people, able to tell the difference between good information and bad information (not to mention how to stitch information together into knowledge!), why drinking until 3am before a 9am class is a bad idea, and that Google really doesn’t work for their course research.

Which is all to say that I will never be persuaded by the argument that “it’s what the students want” when it comes to research and research tools in the domain of the library. Not only do they not have degrees in the organization and access of information, but they are in the process of learning the very nature of such things. How can our profession be so eager to allow neophytes in the world of complex research and thinking to determine the structure of getting them to the information they do not yet know how to think about??