I don’t normally post rants, especially rants about libraries that could easily offend colleagues or future employers, but I’m about to make one big exception. You have been warned!
My daughter has just started studying as a part-time off-campus mature-age student at a university I shall discreetly not name and sent me a photo of her notes from the compulsory library instruction class she had to do. There were apparently a number of sections to the class, some of which were very helpful (plagiarism, referencing, google scholar) but the classes began with detailed instructions on how to use the library search tools. Her notes included extensive points, details and a Venn diagram explaining Boolean searching, phrase searching, truncation and substitution, nesting and mathematical operators.
Despite years of using library systems (including the obligatory unpaid shelving all loved ones of librarians have to do) she found this class incredibly challenging. Her marks were 100% for topics such as plagiarism, referencing, putting items in Dewey order (see earlier note re unpaid labour), setting Google Scholar preferences and the like. She barely passed the first section though, which was all about how to search the library catalogue.
I checked the website for the library concerned and was surprised to see they had only one search tool on their page, a discovery system in which almost none of these search strategies will work. Which meant that trying them out while learning about them was, shall we say, a bit tricky??
My daughter now thinks, perhaps rightly, that the library search tools are complicated, old fashioned and very hard to use. She will most certainly be avoiding using them and I would think this would mean she will avoid using the library and will stick with Google Scholar which she feels comfortable using without training. Let me just reiterate here: week one of a degree which will take six years part time to do and the compulsory library instruction class, which threw the hardest and least useful content up first, completely alienated the student. She sees the library and it’s search tools as a last resort now and it will be incredibly difficult to change her mind.
Dear fellow librarians, people who are returning to education as adults are easily scared away by overly complicated messages. Think about the content, timing and delivery of your messages from your customers and potential customers perspective, not from your own perspective. If you make them feel stupid or scare them off the first time they hear about you they are unlikely to ever come back because they have plenty of other ways to get just enough information that is just good enough for their purposes. Except for the very small number who are planning to take library courses they just do not need to know what a nested Boolean search is, most especially they do not need to know it in week one of their three or four year degree.
This is 2012 not 1980. We can design our communications to be friendly and welcoming so they suit our users just like Facebook and Amazon do. If we can make our search tools easy to use without instruction students will have a go and then hopefully get help if they get stuck. We can let go of the outdated notion that everyone who enrols at university needs to develop searching skills based on arcane library-only metadata standards. They will never need to use Dialog on a dial up modem so constructing complicated nested queries is pointless! If we try to give them just enough instruction at just the time they need it there is a far greater chance they will retain that knowledge and use it again.
I know that class material takes ages to construct and it is really hard to get the time and resources to update or fix instructional material it once it is up and running tolerably well (oh boy do I know!). But I do think we need to give a bit more thought to our student’s experience of our services. Too many services like this and we will have no more customers. With a little tweaking this class would not have alienated students but instead could have given them the impression that the librarians were friendly helpful people who could answer questions and give advice about searching and accessing information, which in my experience they universally are. I wish the same could be said for their online presence.