Home 9 Uncategorized 9 Librarian Futures Part II:  Author and Researcher Commentary

Librarian Futures Part II:  Author and Researcher Commentary

by | Jun 30, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Matthew Weldon  (EdTech Success Consultant, Technology from Sage) and Samantha Sharman  (Student Researcher at University of Lincoln)  

Against the Grain V35#3

Introduction

We’re thrilled to have published our latest Librarian Futures Part II report, investigating the knowledge gap between staff and students.  We first flagged this knowledge gap in our 2021 report, Librarian Futures Part I, and observed that the knowledge gap is reciprocated both ways:  we found that students are unaware of the full amount of support available to them through the library, while librarians are broadly unaware of the emerging needs of students.

In our latest report, we examine this knowledge gap more closely, highlighting areas where students are in the greatest need of additional support and offering solutions.  We are able to do this thanks to the generous participation of almost 600 students from institutions across the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and Canada.

As we consider the future of the library, we must involve students at every level.  In 2022, Technology from Sage were fortunate to work with Samantha Sharman, a student from the University of Lincoln, who carried out research into student attitudes to reading lists which has helped inform our recent report.  We are grateful to include Samantha’s commentary here, to give a student perspective on the challenges raised by Librarian Futures Part II.

Findings and Reflections

We asked students to respond to questions across four broad themes:  discovery, literacy, scaffolding, and engagement.

Discovery

Google is the most popular starting point for students searching for resources, and the majority of students will use Google at some stage during their search.  This is likely not a surprise for librarians, although the following may be:  most students will not use either the library website or building at any stage of their search for resources.

Librarians looking to drive student usage of library resources might take one of two approaches.  The first is to fundamentally change the behaviour of students, moving them away from Google as a discovery tool and embedding the library website and collection in their workflow.  Early intervention, as students form academic habits upon arriving at university, might go some way towards achieving this.

However, student behaviour is difficult to change.  The second approach, therefore, is to meet students where they already are by placing the library within the pre-existing student workflow.  Our data suggests that students would be open to this approach.  In our present research, very few students reported feeling as though the library has no role in supporting their studies.  In Part I of our Librarian Futures series, we found that 89% of students were positive about the idea of embedding the library discovery process in their workflows.

Literacy

We found that there were significant intergroup differences in confidence with academic reading, digital skills, and course-related work.  Younger and middle-year students tended to identify as “very confident” fewer times than older and final years students did across categories. 

There were also significant differences between first-generation students and students who were not first-generation.  Non-first generation (non-FG) students identified as “very confident” in academic reading, digital skills, and doing course-related work significantly more than first-generation students did.

Much of this might not be a surprise – after all, is it not quite natural that younger students would be less confident than older ones, given that older students have had the time needed to develop skills and confidence?  However, this data might be informative for librarians considering at whom they should aim their outreach.  Understanding who needs the most support, and who stands to gain the most from librarian efforts, will allow for more tailored and effective interventions.

However, we also found that very few students identified librarians as people they would approach for help with academic reading.  Furthermore, students placed librarians in the minority when asked to identify who had helped them to grow in the following areas;

• Identifying a good research question or assignment topic

• Preparing an effective search for relevant resources

• Working in a digital environment

• Finding good information

• Getting access to resources

• Reading academic literature

• Understanding data charts and tables

• Referencing and citing academic works

• Thinking critically about the subject

• Writing at a university level.

Librarians could, and perhaps should, put their efforts into outreach – but, if students don’t see librarians as having much to offer in this regard, uptake is likely to be limited.  To aid librarian outreach to as many students as possible, we further asked students to report what “extracurricular” training they have undertaken and how they discovered it.

Scaffolding

Most students are aware that there are opportunities for “extracurricular” training available to them, though relatively few actually take advantage of this. A quarter of the students we surveyed did not engage with any additional training, and full-time students reported not participating in any such training significantly more than part-time students did.

This does not seem to be a problem in terms of students not realising “extracurricular” training is available.  Most students were aware that additional opportunities for learning exist.  Almost half of students discovered this training via email, and recommendations from students and staff were also particularly important for making students aware.  Librarians looking to reach students may find this especially useful for driving uptake.

It is useful to understand further the areas where students identified particular difficulties.  “Managing time” and “keeping focused on task” were areas of difficulty identified by our research.  Additionally, whilst a majority of students reported that “finding relevant resources” is easy, the majority was very slim — meaning just under half of students were either neutral on the issue or reported it was difficult.  Notably, across categories, students who identified as disabled reported significantly higher levels of difficulty.  Measures taken by librarians to reach students must acknowledge this to help ensure equity of outcome.

Engagement

Our data shows that most students are relatively engaged with their studies — with generally high confidence when doing course-related work, and generally high levels of student satisfaction.  When we asked students to place themselves on a spectrum between “procrastinator” and “planner,” or “distracted” and “focused,” we saw more variance.  Efforts to address these are likely to boost engagement and improve satisfaction further.

We asked students “for a typical assignment, how long will you continue searching for a relevant resource until you move on to something else?”  The responses were approximately evenly split between “less than 15 minutes,” “15-30 minutes,” and “30-60 minutes.”  Though librarians may seem the natural group to approach for help with searching for resources, as summarised above, very few students do.  Librarians ought to take steps to understand why students fail to identify them as helpers in this regard before taking action to address this.

Crucially, our research found that students who do not identify as disabled use the library significantly more than students who do identify as disabled.  Likewise, students who do not identify as disabled also see the library as a place to collaborate significantly more than students who identify as disabled.  Again, as mentioned above, to ensure that all students have an equitable experience with the academic library, librarians must work to understand why this is the case and make adjustments to their approach accordingly.

Additional Considerations

Our research highlights additional points of interest that do not appear above.  We found that a very small fraction of students we surveyed had taken part in training on information literacy.  Since this data was collected, there has been an explosion in the field of generative artificial intelligence, with the emergence of tools like ChatGPT.  Is it now more important than ever to reach students with training in information literacy?  And where might librarians fit in to this?

Mentioned briefly above, our findings also reflected consistent significant differences between first-generation and non-first-generation students across categories.  We think these results will be informative for librarians in deciding where to focus their support, as they seem to suggest that students from different backgrounds are having fundamentally different university experiences.

The Future

This series of reports is called Librarian Futures.  Though our most recent report, as well as its predecessor, highlights significant challenges facing libraries and librarians alike, we are optimistic about the future.  Librarians are knowledgeable, resilient, and adaptable.  By presenting our findings through these reports, we aim to equip librarians with as much insight and understanding as possible.  At Technology from Sage, a vendor of digital services for libraries, the academic library is our North Star.  We will continue to work with librarians to understand their needs, and the needs of their patrons, so that together we can meet that future head on.  

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