Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Back To The (Librarian) Future: New Report…Same Old Story

Back To The (Librarian) Future: New Report…Same Old Story

by | Sep 28, 2023 | 6 comments


by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries

In July 2022 I published a two-part blog post titled Our Wicked Discovery Problem. Part one, titled “Inconvenient and Boring” examined why academic library discovery systems are often the choice of last resort for many students and researchers. Part two, titled “Embed and Personalize” explored ways in which library services and resources could be better integrated into the assignment and research workflows of library customers, rather than requiring them to fit their approach into our workflow.

Photo by Sebastiano Piazzi on Unsplash

Both parts were inspired by a then recently released report available from Lean Library titled Librarian Futures: Charting Librarian-Patron Behaviors and Relationships in the Networked Digital Age. The report made clear the need for librarians to do better.  It suggested where we have opportunities to ileverage our amazing resources, digital and human, in ways that enhance the discovery of information people need to find and use.

At the start of each new semester we offer a tabling event in the main lobby of our building to welcome new and returning students, answer their questions about the library and tell them about all the great resources they can access. During my shift at the table, I encountered one of our molecular biology doctoral students. This student came to the library for an event in our community space, but stopped to check out our swag before the program.

We struck up a conversation. I got around to asking about their experience with our science research resources. “Oh, you mean like the databases,” they responded. Apparently, this student no longer needs resources such as Web of Science, ScienceDirect and related sources. They told me they do all their research with the ChatGPT Scholar-AI plugin, for which they gladly pay a monthly premium.

Free academic library access to a voluminous catalog of paywalled plus open scientific research versus paying for access to a tool that retrieves primarily open access journal articles from a limited number of publishers? Why? Librarians would rightly ask why a doctoral student would choose AI with limited content access over the vast and free-to-students content the library offers.

No doubt a premium version of ChatGPT is good for other things beyond article research. From this student’s perspective it’s easier to just ask the plug-in to find research via a topic prompt than it is to figure out which library database to use, then figure out how to use it to get the desired results and then interpret a possibly confusing array of retrieval and download options.

To answer the “why” question, academic librarians must acquire and master these new AI tools, and then determine how we can integrate our resources with the AI user’s research workflow. That’s what we’ve successfully done in the past with tools like Google Scholar and learning management systems. That is how we’ll continue to establish a leadership role at our institutions as research and data specialists capable of advising and guiding others to the best tools, whatever they may be. But there is much work to do to overcome the user-library disconnect.

This PhD student anecdote struck me as a relevant lead-in to a newer 2023 survey report from the Librarian Futures project, the organization behind the survey that inspired the blogs posts referenced above. It’s the start of a new academic year, but looking back at my posts from last summer, things appear much the same. This new survey, titled “The Knowledge Gap Between Librarians and Students” further expands on what I previously referred to as a “clarion call” for academic librarians.

That’s because the new findings again reinforce the disconnect between our services and resources and our students’ information seeking and retrieval workflow. By disconnect I mean that the academic library is rarely a first or even second stop on their discovery path nor are our discovery tools and resources visibly embedded somewhere along that path. Perhaps worse, as in the case of the doctoral student, the library as a resource dropped off their radar screen a while ago.

The new report digs deeper into the disconnect by asking students to specify which discovery resources they use for their assignments. Google and other search engines are the dominant source for 63% of respondents compared to only 35% for the library website. To be fair, if “library website” is a choice, a student who frequents specific library databases might not think of those as the “library website”.  There may be terminology issues. In addition to that 35%, another 27% of respondents indicate they go “to the library building”. That sounds somewhat encouraging, but when asked where the go first, only 10% start at the library website, and even fewer start at the building.

 Despite our efforts to contribute to student success, when asked to identify who helped them in identifying good research topics, preparing effective resource searches, thinking critically about their research topic and other ways in which we should rank highly, librarians consistently fall below “my teachers”, “my peers” and even ”myself”. The most popular category for librarians was “getting access to resources” but even then only 25% of respondents indicated getting help from a librarian. On the positive side, part-time students do report librarians aid across multiple categories more than full-time students do, but the report is ambiguous on why that is the case.

There’s much more here to digest. What about information literacy training? Only 12% of respondents report having participated in a session. Training for study skills (34%) and writing (32%) are the most popular types of extracurricular academic support that students seek. With respect to where students really need help with research assignments, most students report that finding relevant resources and related tasks is either very or relatively easy. Only 23% of respondents reported it was somewhat or very difficult. Many more respondents struggle with “getting help when I need it” and “keeping focused on the task”. How can academic librarians help in these areas of need? It’s likely the challenge here is student lack of awareness about the multiple pathways to help offered by academic libraries.

I found this Librarian Futures report, while raising many questions for librarians, offers fewer suggestions for what we can do to bridge or eliminate the reported disconnects. It generally supports the earlier report’s points about the need to reach students and researchers within their established workflows. As the current report puts it there is a choice to be made:

The majority of students are likely to see the library as a building and a collection, placing them at odds with the librarians’ perception of themselves….Do [librarians] try to change student behavior, try and convince students to begin their search within the library itself, try and encourage them to visit the library and talk directly with librarians? Or do we accept that student habits are hard to change but embrace technology that allows libraries to reach them within their established workflows?

We may have more encouraging news in another report, “Driving Toward a Degree 2023: Closing Outcome Gaps Through Student Supports.” According to Figure 2 in this report, 54% percent of student respondents say they are aware of the library and research assistance available at their institution. Also on a positive note, Figure 20 indicates that the campus library gets a significant number of student referrals from the advising and student success departments at their institutions. Even if students are less aware of our services than we’d like, building good relationships with other academic support units, particularly advising, should result in more students being referred to librarians for research assistance.

To my way of thinking there may be even more fundamental questions about whether this generation of students, both traditional age and otherwise, lack a basic understanding of what librarians offer them. Do they know who we are, why we exist and what we can do for them? We may think they do – or should? I’m sure some do. I’m also experiencing first-hand those who don’t. You may be as well.

I started with an anecdote, so I’ll finish with one. A student recently came to our service desk for assistance retrieving books. Our staff member provided the student with the necessary call numbers to retrieve the books. The student’s response…”Do I look like someone who knows what these are for?” What other assumptions about libraries and librarians, along with basic library skills, do we expect contemporary students to know that they don’t? If we knew, then what would we do to fill that knowledge gap? We do indeed have our work cut out for us.


  1. Mara Egherman

    Thought provoking essay! I wonder if students know, when faculty or librarians embed library resources into Canvas or Blackboard using LTI integration (hopefully not a single pdf that the library cannot then track for usage), that those articles, etc, are coming from the library? For EBSCO, those instructions are here: https://connect.ebsco.com/s/article/How-to-setup-LTI-in-EDS-EBSCOhost?language=en_US Maybe we could “brand” that link better to show it comes from the library?

    • Temple University

      Thank you Mara for sharing your comment. I guess it depends. If the library resources are showing up in an LMS, they could be there because of an embedded LibGuide, the faculty adding the links, on an e-reserve or library reading list (like Leganto or Talis Aspire). It may be clear that it’s coming from the library – or there may be no way of knowing. Thanks for sharing the instructions for how it can be accomplished with EBSCO content. Better branding would certainly be an essential piece of an overall better campaign to integrate the library into the user’s research workflow.

  2. Shashi Mudunuri

    As the CEO of ScholarAI, the ChatGPT plugin mentioned above, I can say that organizations like mine that are building new tools for researchers are eager to collaborate with librarians. The way we can do so is not obvious to us. Many teams like ours struggle to decipher the bureaucracy and formal processes that must be navigated in order to find a healthy partnership with libraries. But please know there is willingness and interest, and if we can find a way to work together, our shared constituents will be better for it.

    • steven bell

      Thank you for your comment Shashi. I appreciate knowing that you would want to see more collaboration between ScholarAI and academic librarians. The primary message here is to figure out ways to embed the library into the research workflow of students, faculty and researchers. Perhaps the most direct way to do that is to enable a method to allow librarians to connect users from ScholarAI back to the article content they have access through the library. You can see how that’s possible in google scholar if you need an example…or get connected with Third Iron so that we can use the LibKey Nomad extension with ScholarAI – that is another great way to create a linkage between your search and the library content.

  3. Ben Kolbe

    With the caveat that I haven’t used AI as a research tool, and haven’t been in the field very long to begin with, my major concern is: do these tools preclude serendipity from the research process?

    An underappreciated part of any research process is finding those tangential or less on-the-nose resources that help define the boundaries of any topic, or cross-links with somewhat related topics and applications. My worry would be that students using these tools are farming out so much of the labor of sorting and prioritizing resources that they rob themselves of the kind of sources that a truly well-rounded research process needs to be successful. Am I barking up the wrong tree here or should we be seriously concerned about researchers hampering themselves by relying solely on AI for their search processes?

    • steven bell

      Thanks Ben for reading the post and sharing your thoughts in a comment. My take is that librarians have expressed concerns over the years about the lessening or possible elimination of serendipitous discovery as search systems gain efficiency and present finely tailored results. And it’s possible that AI-driven search will return results so precise that discovering a tangent on your topic is even less likely. I don’t think we’re there yet. Our greater concern with AI-guided search, for now, is simply the accuracy of the citations. And as I indicate in the post, you need to understand what universe of content is being searched. Is it just freely available content? Is it paywalled content? If only a limited number of resources are being searched, that’s certainly going to limit the possibilities for serendipitous discovery. Where we might actually improve the chances for it, is with systems that can suggest related topics and content as in “you might also be interested in these related topics”. It will be interesting to see how things develop.


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