The trendiest meeting place on many college campuses these days features a coffee bar, wireless Internet zones, free entertainment and special programs, modern lounge areas and meeting rooms.
And free access to books. Lots of books.
This educational social hub is the campus library, which is beginning to look more like an Internet café than the academic library you remember from your college days.
Far from fading away in the Age of Google, which has begun digitizing millions of books from university and other libraries, and despite the almost universal availability of vast online resources, circulation and visits at college and research libraries are on the rise. Campus librarians now answer more than 72 million reference questions each year -- almost twice the attendance at college football games.
In other words, this is not the beginning of the end for campus libraries, but the dawn of an exciting new age.
Strategies for today -- and tomorrow
A quick look at two familiar Web sites will demonstrate that academic libraries now play a vital role in how students and faculty find and gather information via the Web as well as in the stacks. Both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland offer a full range of online library services, from catalogs (formerly known as "card catalogs") to research help to DRUM -- the Digital Repository at Maryland, which provides a permanent online address for computer files and eliminates the need to attach them to e-mail messages. The Julia Rogers Library at Goucher College subscribes to services that provide students with access to over 22,000 online titles, while Baltimore City Community College's library gives students technology support and online access to research materials.
The volume of information available on the Web has led some students to believe that if a resource can't be found online, it doesn't exist. This mistaken idea, coupled with concerns about the reliability of information on the Web and the potential for plagiarism from online sources, has led faculty and librarians to team up to teach information literacy skills.
Nationwide, higher education institutions have developed information literacy instruction to help students understand how to find and evaluate information online and in print -- more bang for their tuition buck! Many colleges and universities even provide "personal trainers," so students can work with librarians one on one, or with a group project team to brush up on the best databases for a particular class or assignment.
Technology training helps students succeed in class, but also prepares them for future careers. Information literacy is critical to a competitive work force, and information-literate people know how to find accurate, useful information that will help them through family, medical or job crises.
Partners in education
College and research librarians are partners with professors in educating students, offering new perspectives, developing curriculums and facilitating research projects, and they lead the library world in digitization efforts and online reference.
Our nation's college and research libraries are constantly finding new ways to better serve students, faculty and staff, online and in person. More than 90 percent of college students now visit the online library from home.
Yet use of the nation's physical academic libraries and their collections grew from more than 880 million library visits in 2002 to more than a billion in 2004, according to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics -- an increase of more than 14 percent. Circulation of library materials in the same period was up by 6 percent, to more than 200 million items.
In short, if the classroom is the first stop in the learning experience, the library is the next, and great libraries continue to be a key to a great education.
Pamela Snelson is the president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association, and college librarian at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. The ACRL is holding its National Conference in Baltimore March 29-April 1.
My corner of the Internet has been abuzz over a muckraking article that recently appeared in The Guardian on the subject of Facebook. Tom Hodgkinson, the highly principled slacker behind The Idler and author of How to Be Free, makes some familiar complaints: online friends are a pale imitation of face-to-face relationships, Facebook encourages high-schoolish obsession with popularity, it prompts its members to reveal too much about themselves, and it uses that information for commercial gain. But the article goes further. Facebook is not just an American-owned company with global ambitions. According to Hodgkinson, it’s highly influenced by a “neocon activist” board member and funded by a venture capital firm that has ties to the CIA. Their ultimate aim: “an arid global virtual republic, where your own self and your relationships with your friends are converted into commodities on sale to giant global brands.”
Ironically, The Guardian helpfully provides a “share” link so you can send the article to all of your Facebook friends.
One of the most interesting responses to this article bubbled up on A-Librarians, a forum for anarchist and radical librarians. (Yes, I am, in case you’re wondering. And “anarchist librarian” is not an oxymoron. Look it up.) While other lists were debating whether the article’s claims were credible, or whether Facebook is valuable regardless, the members of this list were getting down to philosophical basics. Why does the concept of property so thoroughly infuse our understanding of rights? Are our conceptions of privacy dependent on owning one’s individual “self”? If we own our identity, is our public persona a form of intellectual property, as a trademark is?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, which relate not only to Facebook, but the debates over Google’s project to digitize great university library collections, and the fights over access to journal articles written by professors whose institutions can’t afford to gain access to them. But as a librarian who is in favor of sharing ideas freely, these debates made me rethink the fundamental relationship between the individual’s desire to share their thoughts and experiences with others and the commercial entities that provide the distribution channel for that act of sharing. It seems to me the crux of the problem is that the profit motive influences both sides of the equation – differently.
Corporations like Google and Facebook are worth a lot of money, which is a bit odd. They don’t create their content, and what’s there, they give away for free. They mediate the space where we go to express ourselves, and where find out what others think. Sure, we have to put up with a bit of advertising, but that’s just a minor irritant for something that’s free.
But there is a cost.
These corporations provide us with a space to play, engage with others, and make connections. We get to build our own identities in a public way. In return, we give them (perhaps without realizing it) a panopticon view of our lives, a chance to gather data on what we think, do, read, say, enjoy, and with whom we associate -- our "communities of interest" in the parlance of the FBI, or "friends" in Facebook’s lexicon. It’s exceedingly valuable information because it can be sold to companies who want to follow trends and focus their advertising dollars on just those individuals most likely to respond. The more people involved, the more valuable the data.
Facebook embarrassed itself last fall by overestimating our enthusiasm for this exhibitionist social contract. They launched Beacon, a service that would send information about one’s online purchases to a Facebook member’s friends unless an obscure “opt out” box was checked quickly before it disappeared from sight. Their assumption was that everyone would enjoy sharing their shopping lists as much as their playlists -- your friend Mike just bought Hanes underwear and thinks you might want to buy some, too! -- but that idea hit an invisible barrier of resistance. Whoa, that’s going too far! We got cold feet when the commercial consequences of our sharing was made visible. The outcry, ironically mobilized through Facebook itself, forced them to back off.
But on the whole, the public is content to go along. Just give me a place to express myself to the world, and you can do ... whatever it is you do.
People trust these playful-seeming corporations to not do evil far more than they trust their government. In 2007, an ACLU poll found a majority of the public opposed warrantless wiretapping. Earlier, tens of thousands of people signed petitions opposing the government’s ability to track what they were checking out of libraries or buying at bookstores.
Libraries have always taken privacy seriously – not because it’s valuable in itself, but because it’s a necessary condition for the freedom to read whatever you want without risk of penalty. When the PATRIOT Act was passed, librarians checked to make sure their databases erased the connection between a book and its borrower as soon as the book was returned. That erasure, however, makes it harder to offer the kind of personalization, such as recommendations based on previous book choices, that the public increasingly expects from online systems. After all, it’s what they get from Amazon.
Suspicion of the government does not extend to corporations running the Web 2.0 playground. Those guys just seem so ... nice. And after all, if they give us the tools to tell people we read a good novel or like a particular band, why not let the company make a little money from it?
The complexities of private/public digital tradeoffs have been debated in many different contexts. Siva Vaidhyanathan has questioned why libraries, a public good, should partner with Google, a private corporation, to digitize their contents; aren’t we concerned that Google will control the most complete library in the world? Others defend the practice because – well, without Google’s deep pockets, it simply wouldn’t happen on so vast a scale. Besides, the books go right back on the library’s shelf once digitized. What’s the harm in sharing?
Let’s set aside the contentious copyright issue for the moment and concentrate on why Google is providing “free” resources. Unlike libraries, Google gets content for free, gives it away for free, and makes its money by being an enormous distribution channel for everything from physics research to 19th century scanned books to the latest YouTube video. By watching the traffic through those channels, they are able to provide highly-specific information on who’s interested in what. The more we use Google, the more information they accrue about what we’re using, and the more valuable that mountain of information becomes.
And, let’s face it: we have selfish motives, too. Social networking blurs self-expression and self-promotion. The idea of property and its exchange has so infiltrated our culture as a defining concept that many people do, in fact, think of their public persona as their brand. It’s important to “be out there.” Their lives grow more valuable as more people recognize and acknowledge their ideas, their tastes, and their interests.
This isn’t just a youthful obsession. Facebook has recently opened its service to everyone, regardless of school or college affiliation. A novelist I know was just advised by her agent to set up a Facebook profile to increase her online presence and engage in “relationship marketing” with potential customers. In other words, she’s expected to act as her own sock puppet so she can sell more books. Make friends and influence people.
Here’s the interesting paradox: The only way to increase the intellectual property value of your identity is to give it away. That’s the only way it can be shared, linked to and recognized by others. Trading a little personal information for a public platform, whether for personal expression or self-promotion (or both), seems a fair exchange.
Does this sound eerily familiar? It should.
As scholars, our ideas gain value as we make them public, and we have been historically myopic about the consequences of trading the rights to our ideas for access to distribution channels. This unexamined practice put us all over a barrel when publishers required the academy to ransom those ideas back through prohibitively expensive journal subscriptions for libraries. The personal advancement attached to making our ideas public only added to the problem; more publications translated into higher prestige. There was just too much stuff for libraries to buy back, and not enough budget. The Open Access movement is on track to significantly change the “terms of service” when it comes to scholarly communication. Though the battle’s far from over, we’ve made real progress.
But we’ve barely begun to examine the unintended consequences of the Faustian bargain we strike when we share content through privately-owned digital domains of the public sphere.
Tom Hodgkinson says we have a choice: we can help Facebook’s right-wing investors make a lot of money, or we can simply opt out of “this takeover bid for the world.”
But hold on – it’s our world. And we didn’t approach the problems of scholarly communication by ceasing to publish. We started by educating the community about the consequences and renegotiating the terms of our relationship with publishers.
Scholarly work isn’t the only form of communication worth fighting for. The privately owned digital public sphere is a fertile if febrile commons where millions of people play out their identities and share ideas. The bargains we used to routinely accede to in order to get our research published were easy to ignore because we personally benefitted from them. In fact, we didn’t read the fine print, and we didn’t anticipate the consequences. Something very similar is going on in social networking.
Scholars and librarians champion the value of free and open exchange of ideas for the public good. It’s time to take those values beyond the academy. If we made an effort to help the public understand the tradeoffs we make to be part of the digital social sphere, maybe we’d all think more critically about how our public identities are formed and exploited – for what they are worth.
Barbara Fister is academic librarian and professor at Gustavus Adolphus College.
Academic librarians want their Web sites to attract faculty and students the way flowers invite insects for a visit. The urge to plunge into the cornucopia of electronic riches that lies waiting in the library’s highly organized portal should be irresistible. Exclusive research databases, costly electronic journals and digital books and treasures lay in wait for those who need and are willing to seek them out.
For faculty, at least two powerful motivators should drive their personal interest in expecting a great library Web site. One is their own need to easily find scholarly content that supports their research. The other is a desire to have students discover the resources that strengthen their research and result in high quality assignments.
It should be a scholar’s dream, but there’s trouble in paradise. In August 2008 the Ithaka Group released a report, “Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation of Higher Education,” on the relationship between faculty members and their libraries’ electronic resources. As librarians already knew well, Ithaka’s report showed that faculty perceived the library’s collective electronic resources, particularly in business, science and technology, as far more critical to scholarship than print collections are. But there is a significant disconnect when it comes to faculty use of the library’s website as a gateway, or portal, to access that wealth of electronic content.
According to the Ithaka report, academic librarians rated the function of the library as a gateway for locating scholarly information as “very important.” Asked to assess the performance of libraries as their portals to scholarly information, however, faculty in all disciplines rated them considerably differently. Compared to earlier years of this Ithaca study, faculty no longer perceived the library as an important portal to scholarly information. While the library Web site is not specifically mentioned in the report, for the 21st century library, the Web site is the de facto gateway to electronic research content. The report makes clear that faculty increasingly access what they need elsewhere or simply find alternate routes around the library Web site to get to their desired library e-resources.
Consider as well these other indicators of the declining value of the library Web site as information gateway:
A September 2008 a report from Simon Inger Consulting titled “How Readers Navigate to Scholarly Content” presented data about researchers’ preferred starting points. The two most frequently preferred starting points are specific specialist databases, which suggests scholars simply bookmark the library databases they use most often, and general Web search engines. Library Web sites are even less frequently used than publishers’ Web sites, non-library gateways to journals, and even e-mail-based journal alerts.
An articled titled “Measuring the ‘Google Effect’ at JSTOR” by Bruce Heterick appeared in the June 2008 issue of Against the Grain, and it documented the increased access of JSTOR content via Google Scholar. JSTOR usage has increased dramatically since its inception in 1997. But more recently a new growth wave is propelled by referrals from non-traditional sites. Heterick writes “another order of magnitude change in scale is introduced when we begin to look at the number of links coming to JSTOR directly from Google and Google Scholar.” The number of links to JSTOR articles from Google-referring URLs increased by 159 percent from 2006 to 2007. It’s just one more reason to avoid the library Web site as a research starting point.
LibQual is a satisfaction survey administered by many academic libraries. Faculty will know it by its distinctive structure that requires respondents to identify not mere satisfaction level with the library but one’s minimum, desired and perceived levels of satisfaction with the library. What have academic librarians learned from LibQual? If there’s one thing the respondents dislike more than completing the LibQual survey, it’s the library’s Web site. There is only one question about the library’s Web site among the 20 or so asked on the survey instrument. I attended a meeting of librarians where we discussed LibQual and learned how to use it more effectively. We attendees discovered we all had something in common; none of our users cared for our Web sites.
It is debatable that faculty and students ever perceived the library as the starting point for their research, but these indicators offer convincing evidence that the library’s web portal, more than ever, can make no such claim to that title. We may be fortunate when they go there at all. The future of the library Web site as information portal is bleak. But that’s good news. Libraries have grown too dependent on their Web sites as gateways to electronic scholarly content, and have invested too much time trying to fix what is broken.
This needs to change. The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave.
The primary function of the contemporary academic library Web site is to connect a user to content, be it an article database, e-book or e-journal article, and to do it with minimal barriers and maximum speed and ease. Faculty and students tend to have their one or two favorites, for example, JSTOR for many faculty and Academic Search Premier for students. For those highly popular e-resources the portal may get the job done. A serious flaw needing correction is the failure of the academic library Web site to invite the user community to, in simple ways, discover the full range of resources available for their research. Bruce Springsteen laments having 57 channels and nothing to watch. Faculty and students can access from dozens to hundreds of databases with little or no idea what they are or how to find them.
So it is little surprise that faculty and students rarely use the library’s Web site to connect to content that satisfies their scholarly needs. Instead they invent their own backdoor routes to the content, but in doing so may miss related or new electronic resources made available by the library. You may argue that faculty and students forged their own paths to circumvent the library back in the print only days, but now the possibilities for and associated risks of missing important resources are astronomically greater.
Advocating a much needed transformation of the library portal leads to two questions. First, how can libraries more effectively create awareness about their content so users can discover it? Second, what should replace the library portal? The answers are intertwined, but the changes needed depend on faculty recognizing that it is a change they must help to facilitate.
Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand. I observed that academic librarians feared what the marketers wrought, and would resist efforts to let any advertising consultant or marketing vice-president take control of the library Web site. They might just make it more about marketing than connecting people to information.
I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests.
It’s not that academic library Web sites completely ignore marketing. It’s just done badly. News about the library’s programs, events or new resources are often crammed into a corner of the page, are limited to small bits of text or are relegated somewhere out of the F-zone, the area, according to usability experts, to which most web users’ eyes naturally gravitate. Those prime real estate areas are instead dedicated to lists of links to catalogs, database lists and things with names that mean little to anyone other than a librarian. More libraries are moving to a single search box powered by a federated search engine that retrieves information from multiple resources at once. In order to emulate search engines those boxes are relegated to some familiar space at the top of the page.
Rather than attempting to mimic search engines academic librarians should aim to differentiate their Web sites. They should devote the most eye-catching space to information that promotes the people who work at the library, the services they provide and the community activities that anchor the library’s place as the social, cultural and intellectual center of campus. That shifts the focus from content to service and from information to people. Academic libraries must promote their human side. The library portal experience should emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students. That means going beyond offering a commodity that, by and large, the user community can well access without the Web site. The next generation academic library Web site must leverage what academic librarians can do to help faculty and students improve their productivity and achieve success.
But if libraries radically change the nature of their homepage, where will all the links to content go? How will the library make those expensive databases accessible to faculty and students? Academic libraries are already moving in new directions that may provide the answers, and it suggests the library portal no longer needs to compete to be the one-stop portal where faculty and their students begin their research. These pioneering libraries distribute the content across the institution’s network and beyond. They are putting the links where faculty and students can find them easily. It changes the library website paradigm from “you must visit our portal” to “we’ll be where you are.”
Course sites are ready made for links to library content. Academic librarians are making it easier than ever for faculty to integrate an array of research tools into course management software or even a faculty member’s personal website. At the Temple University Libraries the librarians create customized content packages that contain just the right databases that students need for their assignments. They can even add in custom Google search boxes and non-library links that may be of use to instructors and their students. If faculty desire links to specific articles, those can be added as well. The content package is sent to faculty as an e-mail attachment. Faculty then simply upload it to their course site. The content installs itself as a unique courseware page and even adds a library link to the course menu. It eliminates any faculty excuses for not integrating the library into their course.
Libraries are also offering new technologies that blow the doors off those traditional subject guides to which faculty and students long ago stopped paying attention. LibGuides is an example of an increasingly popular guide creator that allows librarians to create a highly customized research guide for any single course or assignment. Research conducted by academic librarians made it clear that students preferred customized course and assignment guides to broad subject guides. Why? It puts the links they need to complete research assignments right where they need them. Scavenger hunts through library portals to locate needed databases or e-journals can become a practice of the past. While LibGuides can exist outside of courses, faculty can certainly make it easier for students to discover them by adding links to the guides. They can even take it a step further and allow a librarian to integrate the guide into their course.
The faculty is the catalyst in this transformation of the library portal concept. What they must do to accomplish this task is open the door to greater collaboration with academic librarians. While there are ways librarians can force their presence into institutional courseware, primarily by getting the system administrators to add links to the library here and there in the software, the most effective and direct route is to work with a faculty member to integrate the library’s electronic resources into the course site or class Web site itself. Faculty members can also facilitate this process by becoming more familiar with the library’s electronic resources in their disciplines. Working with academic librarians faculty can achieve both goals: creating greater e-resource awareness and shifting discovery paths from the mysterious bowels of the library portal to the more transparent course site.
To help bring about the demise of the library portal site as we know it today, faculty need to increase their personal awareness of library e-resource content and endeavor to raise the awareness level among their students. OCLC’s research, compiled in a 2006 report titled “College Students’ Perceptions of Library and Information Resources,” confirms that students are heavily influenced by faculty recommendations for electronic information resources. Working collaboratively with their campus librarians faculty could become a more reliable conduit to reaching and enlightening students about the library’s wealth of e-resources. Librarians and faculty share a common goal in wanting to see students succeed academically as they develop the skills needed to mature into the next generation of scholars. Working together to transform the library portal would advance progress in attaining that goal.
In the print era the research library building’s design was intentional in seeking to invite in the scholar and then draw them into the stacks and those places where discovery and intellectual awareness could take hold and grow. In the early stages of research library Web site design, perhaps the same approach made sense, but it no longer works if it ever did. With faculty advocating e-resource awareness and distributing links to the library’s e-resources throughout the academic network, a dedicated portal to those same resources makes less sense. Add to that a body of evidence that clearly points to the growing irrelevance of the “be all things to all campus constituents” library homepage and Web site.
Put simply, the library portal as we know it today is unsustainable. It, along with a host of other indicators such as declines in reference questions and shifts from print to e-resources, signals that for academic libraries a “let’s just keep doing business as usual” mentality is a sure path to obsolescence. If academic librarians fail to grasp the urgency of needed changes to their portals it is quite possible we will read in a future article something along the lines of “Academic librarians thought they were in the information gateway business, but they were really in the learning and scholarly productivity business. They just didn’t recognize it.”