I’m leading an article discussion group this afternoon around James Weinheimer’s article Revolution in our Minds: Seeing the World Anew posted to his blog (http://blog.jweinheimer.net/2012/02/revolution-in-our-minds-seeing-world.html) on 2 February 2012.

The article brought up a LOT of follow up discussion, which I think is really good.  And I think he presented his thesis well to begin with — that we are entering a period of “revolution” in the library world, meaning that we are on the cusp of big change in libraries.  Such a big change that none of us really know what the library world will look like when we come out the other side of this “revolution.”  Think Thomas Kuhn and “paradigm shift.”

In summary, library catalogues of the past really had to be centered around the bibliographic item.  More recently, we find patrons preferring other sources (Google, etc.) to the library catalogue.  WHY???  The question that Weinheimer returns to again and again in his article is:

“What do library users really want?”

He also talks a lot about FRBR, RDA, linked data, and how useful or not those things might be, but I think ultimately he’s coming back around to the issue of how to continue to make libraries relevant in whatever world is currently emerging — and whatever world will be in the future.  Even though we are desperately trying to move forward, it would seem that we are clinging to what we’ve done in the past — or as he says trying to make a better horse and buggy.

But focusing back on what do library users really want, the question I’d like to discuss with my colleagues this afternoon is

“What do university students want from their academic library?”

We certainly know they want the computer commons in the library.  There are line ups for the computers in the library when there are practically vacant computer labs elsewhere on campus.

But aside from the physical space, which does seem to be important to the students, what do they really want in terms of research help.  And on the flip side

“What research skills do librarians want students to learn?”

I think the students are probably happy that I am now happily ensconced in the cataloguing world far away from the reference desk.  During the years I was on the reference desk, I was always torn between just “giving them the answer” and “teaching them to find the answer for themselves.”

For some things it was easy to combine both: “Let me show you how to search the catalogue to find where the book is in the library.  See the call number?  That indicates where it is in the stacks.”  The student got what he wanted, it only took 2 minutes, and I was fairly certain he’d know how to find a book based on call number in the future.

For other things, it’s not so easy to combine both: “Let me show you how to find references to support the paper you’re writing.  First, we’ll look for books in the catalogue, then perhaps go to the reference section, then find some journal articles…”  A lot of students glaze over when they hear there’s going to be more than one step. More than one place they’ll have to enter their search terms!?  Are you crazy?!  And there I was, trying to coax them along, trying to convince them it was fun.  Because if I think it’s fun, surely they must as well?…  A recipe for frustration on both sides!

So where is the balance?  We’re moving over to Serials Solutions one stop, one box, get everything you want with one search.  It’s apparently what the students want.  And I guess it’s a step forward — I’m certainly not arguing against it…

But then, it feels a little bit like giving them a hammer when what they really need is a screwdriver.  Are we really doing them a favor by giving them the hammer just because that’s what they want?  Are undergraduates really in a position to know what they need in terms of research help?  And isn’t it our job to teach them?

I agree with James Weinheimer that we’re on the cusp of a revolution and things are going to look very different in the library world 20 years from now.  I agree that we need to be focusing more on what our users WANT in order to remain relevant — rather than demanding that they adjust to fit what we have to give them.  But particularly in terms of academic libraries and university students, I worry that research skills (what librarians think students NEED) are being pushed to the side simply so students can find “some stuff” to put in their reference lists.

He actually sums up the whole issue, I think, in his penultimate follow up post to the article on February 23. After a description of the “zillions” of courses, videos, discussions, etc. available online, he states:

These are vital materials, and the public clearly wants them.  This has little to do immediately with bibliographic metadata but with selection policies.  However, if those materials get selected, then cataloging gets swamped.  And then how does reference deal with it?

What is the solution to this? As I said before: I don’t know.  Nobody does.  But it is clear that the old methods won’t work any more.  Certainly, massaging our current metadata and putting it into Linked Data may help somewhat but is clearly only a part of any solution.  Perhaps a small part.  The entire library must cooperate to come up with a solution.  And I hope, this will include the meaningful input of our patrons, who can tell us what they really want.

The whole discussion throughout his article and the follow up posts leaves me feeling a bit ill at ease.  If we don’t know the solution, what do we do next?  And I guess I ultimately have to come around and agree with the solution that he provides, which is to try something… anything.  If whatever you try doesn’t work, then stop doing it and try something else.

Going back to his original article, he states that in the scenario in which we find ourselves, “genuine failures must be defined as:

  1. not trying anything at all
  2. not communicating to other the results of your trial and error attempts, or of course
  3. refusing to admit that you are on the wrong road after it has become clear that it is not going where you want.”

Certainly, at my library we are trying new things and discussing them, and we have admitted that we’ve taken some wrong paths (and stopped moving down those paths), so really we’re doing alright.

I just wish I could see where we’ll be 20 years from now.