Search: How Libraries Do it Wrong

A couple of new articles forthcoming in College & Research Libraries just caught my eye. The first, by Brett Bodemer of Cal Poly in San Obispo, is about how we help undergraduates conceptualize the research process (and how we might do it better).

August 2, 2011

A couple of new articles forthcoming in College & Research Libraries just caught my eye. The first, by Brett Bodemer of Cal Poly in San Obispo, is about how we help undergraduates conceptualize the research process (and how we might do it better). The second, by Bernadette Lear of Penn State Harrisburg, looks at how new journals are represented in library holdings and how library processes tilt discovery toward publications of large for-profit publishers and against smaller society or university-sponsored open access publications. While I’m at it, let me throw in a third article which seems oddly related even though it’s about something quite mundane.

Bodemer argues that we should stop thinking of search as a relatively simple step that happens before reading and writing. These activities are recursive and connected processes: search involves reading (because you have to do at least some reading to make choices and refine terms), and writing should ideally drive a search, not be saved for the final act, when it’s too late to pursue a thought that bubbled up from the pages of your draft. This seems obvious, yet the influential ACRL standards for information literacy that so many librarians draw on implicitly separate searching from doing something with what you’ve found. Another point he makes is that we need to do much more than introduce students to tools but rather help them go from what they know to understanding of how to apply what they know to new and unfamiliar ideas and contexts. If we focus too much on how to get some sources to complete a paper, we imply that writing the paper is the purpose of their work. But transferring a digest of some articles into the professor’s briefcase is not the point, nor is learning how a particular library works. The ultimate purpose is to prepare students to develop a habit of finding evidence and reasoning from it, which involves being thoughtful about both the search process and sources encountered as our graduates go forth to think for themselves.

The second article in a sense analyzes what happens before search, looking at how publications find their way into the search engines libraries provide their patrons. Lear tracked down nearly 700 peer-reviewed English-language journals in education and psychology that began publishing between 2000 and 2009. She looked at which were published by mega-conglomerates and which were not; she also looked at which were indexed in major databases. It turns out the databases we use are more likely to include content from mega-corporations that from societies or universities, and the content of over 40% of the new journals was available in only a very few libraries, so even if a database identified a citation, it wouldn’t be accessible to most library users. Many open access journals would be available – just not discoverable through library tools. She cites interesting research on how our notions of impact actually don’t correlate well with the long-term value of research and she urges librarians to be more critical about their “chummy” relationship with the biggest and most profitable publishers. She feels we fail to recognize how much this influences the shape of knowledge. She writes:

We must acknowledge that libraries do not deliver indifferent packages of text. Instead, library materials help users develop a sense of “viable” research topics, “accepted” points of view, and “respected” authors/voices. While observing the presence and absence of certain titles, types of publications, and points of view in a body of literature, readers may make judgments about the nature, scope, and character of their fields of study.

Thinking about these two articles and what they mean for learning how to search, I am struck by the wedge being driven between academia and the rest of the world when it comes to how we know. For those few, those lucky few with an affiliation with a large research library, access to “high impact” literature is routine. For everyone else, it’s a question of how badly you want to know. Do you want to know so badly that you’ll pay $35.00 for every possibly relevant article? You couldn’t afford to indulge your curiosity very often at those rates.

As this valuable research is locked up behind paywalls, a secondary knowledge market, a free market, is springing up, and Lear cites several studies that suggest younger scholars are gravitating toward that freer market. If our instruction focuses too much on how our libraries work and how to coax articles out of proprietary databases, we are guaranteeing that most of our undergraduates will be practicing a kind of research they will no longer be able to do once they graduate. For whatever reason, libraries have thrown their lot in with the kind of information that can’t be shared (how counterintuitive is that?) and then, since we want to use those expensive tools, that’s what we tend to encourage students to do.

And this brings me to the third thing that I recently read, “How Academic Libraries Annoy Academics” by a scholar-slash-librarian in Canada. It recounts a frustrated attempt to get a book the author needed to consult while revising a manuscript. The catalog said it was on the shelf, so off he (or she) went, but it wasn’t on the shelf. After having to log onto a computer to check the call number (using a slow computer that took five minutes just to wake up and say hello) she (or he) double-checked the shelf. Nope. Not there. After reporting the problem through a “report a problem” button built into the catalog, the author returned to his (or her) office only to be met with a message saying that requests to have a book traced had to be reported in person in the library. Upon which news the frustrated author found a used copy for sale online.This is so horribly, hilariously familiar, it made me wince in sympathy.But it also made me think that these are exactly the small things, the seemingly trivial things, that can drive people to find ways around libraries.

Somehow, we need to make sure that we aren’t turning libraries into walled gardens of overpriced material only available to the few, that when we introduce undergraduates to search, we recognize that searching is not a matter of tool use but is a creative and critical part of the research process and so teach it in the context of learning language, finding connections, and looking for patterns - and that as we do all that, we don’t forget that interrupting people on their way to a source by inserting glitches and delays and thoughtless procedures makes it impossible to feel the thrill of the chase. If we can't give undergraduates a taste of that thrill, they will never develop the itch of curiosity that we hope they will take with them, an unshakable reminder of how to think for themselves productively.


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