Alchemical Thoughts

Article Note: On Read/Write Web and Online Research

Posted on: July 26, 2010

(Once again, another case of Blogger not saving the content after I type it. So, I am posting here, and linking it over there. If you wish to comment, you can comment on either blog, or so I hope).

Citation for the article:

Houghton-Jan, Sarah, Amanda Etches-Johnson, and Aaron Schmidt, "The Read/Write Web and the Future of Library Research." Journal of Library Administration 49.4 (2009): 365-382.

Read via Interlibrary Loan.

When I finished reading this article, I wrote on the top margin my impression: some good ideas, but this is a lot of "pie in the sky," including stuff that libraries do not have any control over such as vendors. At the end of the day, library online resources are not going to turn into some Google-like interface no matter how much we wish it to happen. Databases are provided by vendors who are the ones who create the interfaces and set the rules via the licensing for things like authentication to get into a subscription-based product. We can rail all we want about how inconvenient it is that the poor kids cannot just hop in to a database like they do on Google because they have to enter their student credentials to log-in. In the end, that is not going to change very much in large measure because EBSCO, Elsevier, etc. pretty much have a monopoly, and they know it. Libraries are not all going to massively stop providing databases for research out of some protest movement due to costs or convenience factors. It's the way of things. I don't like it, but I deal with it the best I can with the resources I do have. So making it sound like it is the library's fault that students feel so inconvenienced is not something I take to lightly since I do an awful lot of work to advertise the resources we do offer and to educate our students on how to find the best available information. Finding that information does take some work. Work is not always easy, and once in a while you do have to put in some elbow grease to make things work. And once in a while students may have to learn how to navigate a site to get good information if for no other reason than to get a good grade on a research paper (because they will likely fail otherwise if they just rely on Google to get their stuff done). In the end, yes, I am all for eliminating as many barriers as possible, but I think we should make clear not all of those barriers are our fault.

Some notes:

  • On the whole idea of authentication and the log-in barrier. When the authors suggest that students "simply go to a major search engine, enter search terms, and within one or two clicks you have what you want" (371), it makes me wonder. This statement works only on the assumption that you can do that and find material that is appropriate, relevant, accurate, reliable, and available to be used on a given assignment. As for e-books, yes, Project Gutenberg is wonderful for a lot of things, as long as you do not want anything current or that is still within copyright; otherwise, you have to pay for it. More often than not, I get students at the reference desk asking how to get X or Y article they found on Google but could not get because the site it was on wanted to charge them 25 bucks or more. Where did I end up taking them to? Yes, our online databases, where I emphasized they could get any serious scholarly research for free (well, their tuition pays for it, but you get the idea). That e-book from Amazon that they can only get a preview without buying it? Check our library catalog, and if not there, we have Interlibrary Loan. The lesson? Sometimes you have to do a bit more work to get the good stuff. Or you can settle for less. I don't think we should be pandering to those who settle for less.
  • Yes. Google is successful because it is so simple. It also yields millions of results on any given topic, most of them stuff that may not be relevant to a student, assuming they even evaluate it. Not to mention a lot of those links are trying to sell something. Just because the interface is so simple it does not mean it is the best possible thing. Would I like research interfaces like Google? Maybe. Do I think they will happen in our lifetimes given the complexity of research, given that "what we do and what we offer is a lot more complex than Google" (371)? Not likely given that complexity. And by the way, I don't think telling others that what we do is a bit more complex than the big G is a defensive answer; it's reality, and it is reflective of the fact that we add value to the research process. On Google, you are pretty much on your own. We actually teach you what to do with all that stuff Google spits out in one or two clicks.
  • "Never assume that a product is accessible just because it costs thousands of dollars" (373). Are we really making such an assumption? If anything, we spend a lot of time in library instruction and the reference desk showing our students how to navigate things precisely because we know the products are often not easy to access.
  • "Library research environments of the future need to be quite literally user centered" (375). No argument from me on that. It is why we do things like have our research guides on LibGuides, and it is why we do things like put Meebo chat boxes to be more accessible to the students. Are those things the cure-all? No, but they are a start.
  • The rest of the article is pretty much a wish list of things that library interfaces should have according to the authors: activity histories (EBSCO does some of this already), RSS, and citation tools. Those are pretty practical things. I am not so sure about why anyone would want things from social software like having your own picture, research space, and for it to be "fun" (in the Facebook sense of fun) given that students do make a distinction between fun things like Facebook and more practical resources. In the end, the authors do grant that "not every researcher will want to use the participatory bells and whistles of such a research environment, and that is okay" (379). That is nice to know that not everybody wants every single bell, whistle and gadget available or known.
  • The authors ask "if libraries will ever have access to anything like this" (380), and then they answer their own question, sort of. They point to the fact that "databases are largely closed and proprietary" (380) for one. And sure, librarians may have the talent to do all the programming work, but as of hiring said talent, in this economy, I would take that statement with a big grain of salt.

However, there is some hope. I did find a few good points amid the twopointopian wishful thinking. The authors argue that librarians need to be more tech-savvy. Again, no argument from me there since that is something I work on myself.

  •  "Start by modeling the behavior you would like to see in your staff. Tell them what you are doing to make yourself more tech-savvy. Tell them what you do and do not know, outlining what you want to learn more about. If you are willing to learn, they will too" (381). I like the leading by example part of those statements. The tell others part for me is a bit difficult. I am not one to go about sharing much of what I do to learn in my workplace, mostly because it may seem like I am bragging, which is something I dislike. I think that is just me. I blog. I do things to make myself savvy and keep up, and I try to share it in places like here. The blog is not hidden; anyone can get to it. I will admit though that more often than not I get more feedback on things I write about from strangers than I do from my own coworkers.
  • The authors argue that staff should "have some type of ongoing professional development plan" (381). The only thing I will add to that is that it should be a bit more than just the stuff you put on the annual performance review, which is mostly a formality anyways. Let's be honest, as long as you can tick off the items on the list of what you did the previous year, you are ok.
  • "The staff should also be given time to do this professional development; do not expect them to do this on their own time" (381). Furthermore, the authors state that "reading library and technology blogs on work time is work. Trying out new technology tools for possible use in the library is work. Treat it as such" (381). That is something I have mentioned once or twice. Maybe the fact that these authors with more prestige than me say it may get more attention. Keeping up is part of the job, and administrators need to realize that and support it.
  • "Create a simple blog where your staff can share new technology trends, tools, and resources that they have found with other staff" (381). We implement a private blog for reference services at my workplace, and that is one of the stated purposes: to share new things we find with other staff. What I have found, as the blog administrator, is that weaning people out of the e-mail forwarding habit is harder than it sounds. The blog should be able to also solve the problem of putting training information in one place as the authors suggest, but again, getting people to use it instead of hitting forward on an e-mail has not been easy.
  • "Increase your staff training budget" (381). I will admit that I laughed a little on that one. It is not happening here anytime soon. In fact, my training budget has been mostly slashed, or at the very least severely curtailed to the point where me having a significant professional development plan (as in more than cheap online webinars) is in jeopardy.

So overall, I had mixed feelings about this article. It has a lot of wishful thinking, but it also makes a good point or two. Read it and decide for yourself.

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