Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Help! How much help should libraries be?

Libraries are here to help people. We help the public, we help university students, we help soldiers, we help lawyers, we help MPs, and we help people from diverse organisations. We provide a support service giving information and access to information. And so our raison d’ĂȘtre – our professional identity – somewhat depends on the definition of the term ‘help’.

Since I started my first full-time job in an academic library, I’ve been thinking about how much help we provide to the students. In the Army College library, it seemed expected for the library staff to provide a high level of direct help to the Junior Soldiers: the soldiers were in a job rather than in full-time education. University librarians expect something different from their users: students and researchers are in full-time education and should have (or should be developing) independent research skills. The university librarian therefore has more of a background support role. I, for example, work in a back office most of the time ensuring that day-to-day access to electronic resources is maintained: when I work on the enquiry desk, I’m usually pointing students towards resources or helping them use the library’s equipment. Generally our level of ‘help’ extends to providing the resources for the students to discover and use themselves which is a lower level of ‘help’ than was provided to the soldiers.

But it seems like the demands of students are increasing. It certainly seems as if students expect more of the library staff than I ever expected when in university. For example, it’s common practice in many universities for the libraries to give the reading materials directly to the students. Lecturers send the reading lists for their courses to the librarians who (depending on the copyright licence of the text) will usually scan the specified chapters or articles and upload them to the VLE for students to find and read. This makes sense for books where few print copies exist in the library: it allows a lot of students – usually one to two hundred – to access the reading materials required for their course and in the long term it reduces the demand put on librarians.

Questions arise when this idea is pushed a little further. Should this be done for every piece of essential reading? Should it only be done for essential reading or for recommended reading as well? Should it be done for articles / chapters available online? Should it be done at all? Can a certain level of help be detrimental to students and if so what level? Too much help can be detrimental in a couple of ways.

Firstly, providing undergraduates with all the reading material that they’ll need via the VLE robs them of the opportunity to research the subjects themselves. Part of a university education is learning how to research: learning how to find different sources in different media; learning how to assess sources; selecting the right material to provide the right evidence or make the right argument. When I was an undergraduate, we used to complain when there weren’t enough materials to go around but ultimately it meant that we had to search for different sources, we had to look elsewhere, and we had to think outside the proverbial box. If the library gives the students all the material directly, they never have the chance to research for themselves and therefore never learn how to do it. Arguably the level of delayed gratification from better research skills is higher than the level of instant gratification from the library directly providing materials.

Secondly, this practice can affect the originality of research. No-one expects soaring original insights from undergraduate coursework but with whole courses of students reading exactly and only the research material they’ve been provided by the librarians, there’s bound to be more homogeneity in essays. This homogeneity not only makes coursework duller for the lecturer to read (or more likely, for some postdoc to read) but makes the course less fulfilling for the students who end up not discovering contrary opinions and thinking about subjects for themselves.

One of the reasons why students expect more from their university is the rise in university tuition fees. Students paying more expect more for their money. By paying whooping tuition fees, undergraduates are keeping universities afloat and so universities need to keep these primary stakeholders happy. Academic libraries are part of their organisations and need to respect the wishes of the students, the faculty, and the administration. So if high-paying students want more help, isn’t the library beholden to provide that help? Even if the librarians don’t feel that the help is in the students’ long-term best interests?

The question comes down to: how do libraries best help people? Is it by addressing their short-term need for information or is it by addressing their long-term need for information literacy? And who gets to make this decision: the librarians; the students; the university management? And since ‘helping’ is part of a library’s raison d’ĂȘtre, the question of what level of help to provide leads to the question of what a library’s purpose is. Bob Usherwood wrote a great post for Voices for the Library about the purpose of public libraries and their corresponding level of help. Do we need to ask the same existential questions for academic libraries?


funktious said...

Excellent post. This is an issue I'm very interested in and I definitely agree that students these days seem to expect rather a lot from their librarians.

I touched on this issue in my post on the Student Experience (do you hear that phrase as often as I do?) and had an interesting ping back from a subject librarian who disagreed with me on the issue of reading lists and articles on the VLE, you might like to read her response.

My post:

Their post:

Sian (Funktious)

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Sian. Your post more or less sums up my attitude (and if I'd seen it before I wouldn't have had to write this!). I think that students get more from their education when we don't spoon-feed them or help them every step of the way.

With regards to reading lists, I think students get the opportunity to discover different material when they have to find reading materials for themselves rather than get given them by the library.

Helen said...

This is interesting and something I've been thinking about recently, but with regards to public libraries. We hold beginners IT sessions to help people sign up for email, apply for jobs, etc, and also deal with quick 15/20 minute IT enquiries. However, there are a number of people who simply want you to do everything for them. I had a lady before Christmas who needed help applying for a job online and I sat with her and helped her through it, signed her up for an email address, but in the end she got so frustrated and said 'can't you do it?' and just walked off very disgruntled. We cannot fill in application forms for people because then your employer would expect a certain level of ICT skills that you do not possess. We are there to help people bridge this gap, but not simply to do it for them ourselves. I was quite upset that I was unable to help this woman, but there is only so much we can do.

Also, Kindles have recently been an issue with many people who don't even have email addresses or know how to click a mouse receiving them as gifts and then expecting us to act as Amazon Support to set them up. We encourage them to sign up for our IT sessions, but many just want us to do it for them. It's hard, because it's in our nature to help people but we also need to equip them with the skills to do these things for themselves.

I suppose it is different in a public library because we are not providing a totally educational service to the public, but information literacy is still a big aim of ours and also helping to bridge the digital divide. By spoon feeding the public and doing these IT tasks for them, we are not doing them any favours in the long run. That is my opinion anyhow. I'm now going to read Bob's article on VftL!(superlong comment = done!)

Emma Coonan said...

I think the Funktious-CPDbyGeorge discussion really highlights the importance of establishing clear learning outcomes for each stage of the students' learning. Some undergraduate courses demand a massive amount of subject familiarity before any critical engagement can take place. In this instance, what's required of students is to assimilate the content stipulated by course directors, and their time and energy should be spent on this rather than in developing information-seeking strategies that are irrelevant for this part of their learning development. Straightforward content learning could take up as much as the first two years of a three-year degree, in some cases.

However, there is a point in every student's career where directed study must give way to more independent research - where high-level information literacy abilities and behaviours such as critical selectivity and synthesis are crucial. This is the point at which selection by experts has to give way to independent critical evaluation on the part of the student.

The problem appears to be that the difference between these two kinds of learning is not generally recognised or appropriately supported. The transition from one to the other arrives at different points in different subject disciplines, so you can't make a hard-and-fast rule about when to change from supporting directed learning to scaffolding the students' move towards independent research. But we can - and should! - be clear about which kind of learning is desired (and which type will be assessed), and align our support appropriately to the learning outcomes of the academic curriculum.

Jo Alcock said...

Interesting post. It's something I often think about, and I blogged a while ago and got some really interesting comments from other people too:

It's interesting to think about the different approaches in different sectors - I've only really experienced working in public and academic libraries but imagine it is very different for the corporate/legal world (and military).

KathS said...

In the corporate world your clients tend to be people with a high level of ability who don't necessarily have research skills. In a good model, they recognise that the library / information service has special auxiliary skills that will save them time and the organisation money. In a bad one either they use it as a skivvying service or don't use it at all because they don't know what they don't know (or are put off using it because they are charged for it on an internal market).

Sarah Stamford said...

Thank you for the post. While agreeing with the comments so far, I'd ask whether anyone else thinks the librarian's role as providers of pre-digested material not only mitigates against students learning necessary skills but also undervalues what information is and how it can be accessed and retrieved, and thus the role of librarians. I'm almost tempted to suggest we should be *less* helpful and think more strategically.

lmrlib said...

I blogged about the related topic "Is KM stopping lawyers thinking for themselves?" last year
ps this blog is no longer about library stuff so don't follow it!

Helen Ceridwen said...

This is an issue I really struggle with. I sometimes feel as if I'm turning into a "grumpy"! I am frustrated by all the things both you and funktious mention, concerned by all the "they are paying customers now" comments and the implication that lack of skills is somehow my fault. Recently I had a spate of students failing to find a play which was on a reading list, despite the library having a whole shelf of "The complete works of ... " the author in question. I probably let the students down in that I expect too much(but that's pretty basic, surely?) I would like to know more about what goes on in secondary schools today, as my own child is too young to have got to this point and my school experience seems to belong to another era (we had a library, with a classification scheme, a catalogue, some periodicals, and a librarian!) If the economic argument is pushed to its limit (they are paying, so give them everything on a plate and get good NSS scores) we might just as well shut up shop and hand over the degree on receipt of the fee.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. This seems to be an issue that affects all library workers not just those in academic libraries.

The problem is that there's a thin line between satisfying the user and and spoon-feeding them. And there's no hard and fast rules about what our responsibility as info-lit educators is exactly. What Sarah says is important: this strikes at the heart of what 'information' is and therefore what libraries (and other info providers) are for.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. I quite like the analogy of gym membership when it comes to the, 'are we being to helpful' problem. They may be paying but they need to do the work outs to get the benefits!

JWo79 said...

I don't work in an academic Library but my organisation does take students on placement during their undergraduate degree course so I can offer a slightly different perspective.

It may be the sector I'm in (social work) but in my experience the students want far more than their basic course reading lists give them. They really appreciate the service that my Library provides because it's specialist and (naturally) has a depth of resources that a University library, catering to students doing hundreds of different courses, couldn't afford to offer.

Beyond that though, I've heard from placement students that say that they had a bad experience in their University library. One student in particular springs to mind. She asked her university library if they could point her in the direction of some different resources on a subject and was blankly told to stick to the course lists provided. She was starting to think about her dissertation and lit review so was looking to get an idea of the breadth of resources available. She was very reluctant to use the Uni library after that... (before anyone asks it was a 'good' university)

The University library person may well have been right or may even have been working within a remit but from an end-user point of view it comes across as incredibly unhelpful and off-putting.

As I'm in a workplace library running a remote I probably do more 'spoon feeding' than most of you would find appropriate but my line is this: 'I'll help you find stuff, I'll track down obscure stuff, but I'm not writing your essay/literature review/dissertation for you!'

Lindsay Wallace said...

Thanks for the post - prompted me to write my first post of the year. (
While I very much take your point that we want to support students developing their own skills, I share Georgina's concerns referred to by Sian. Maybe the solution is to offer different levels of content links as the students progress - lots for first years and decreasing for second and third years. We also need to be explicit as to why we are doing this so that the students don't think they are just getting a poorer service in later years!


Laura Steel said...

Really interesting post. I personally feel a mixed approach would be best. For example, if there's an article all students simply 'must' read it could be included, in hard copy or via a link, to save time and pressure on resources - but perhaps students should track down items from the wider reading list themselves (with a bit of help from library staff if necessary).

It's an issue that's only going to get worse with the introduction of higher fees, I think, so it's important - but difficult - to get the balance right.

Where I work, I help to manage the VLE and we encounter similar issues with online course materials. Sometimes students ask where to find a particular document and if it's really unclear where it might be that's fair enough, but sometimes it's obvious they haven't been bothered to look for themselves and want us to tell them exactly where to find every little thing. The general consensus is that we will help where we can but try not to get dragged in to finding every single item for them.

Michael Rush said...

Nice post.

I've probably told you before that when I worked in the (academic) library while I was a grad student I had an undergraduate come and ask me where she could find the art history section. I told her, and asked if there was a particular book she was looking for. No, she said, just the whole section; she had an exam in the morning.

Which probably says something about the level of independent work some students are prepared to put in...

More relatedly, I completely agree that it's a very important question which approach best serves the students. It seems to me that the university is (somewhere between 'often' and 'always') in a better position to decide this than the students are, with library provision just as much as with course content and organisation. It is perhaps natural for students to feel that they should get to decide what they receive in return for their fees, but in their youthful naivete they confuse what they happen to want with what they would want if they were perfectly rational... (or some approximation to that that sounds less patronising).

The pressing task is to get students to realise that perhaps universities have given some thought to how best to educate them, and that not every case of them not seeing this is a terrible injustice that requires a march.

Of course, universities get it wrong sometimes, they need to be scrutinised, reflective work practices, continual development, etc. But in my own experience at least some problems have been caused by students just not knowing what's good for them, or what a university education entails and has always entailed. I particularly appreciate your casting of the library provision when you were an undergrad as a research opportunity rather than a miserly withholding of essential material.


Sarah Wolfenden said...


I'm really pleased to see people discussing this. I work in HE in FE and often feel that we are doing the same thing - it can often be a huge shock when, for example, students have studied two years of their degree with us and then go off to the uni to where they are completely overwhelmed by what they are expected to do (although maybe not for much longer!)This is an interesting article I read ages ago
- it makes me think we have to have a process for using gradually smaller spoons or else we are doing students, and ourselves, a huge disservice.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Sarah. That's an interesting point on the transition between HE and FE. From a library perspective, I suppose we have to ensure that the students know what is expected of them in terms of information literacy and research skills and that we know what level they're at during the transition.

But school/college libraries are very different environments to university libraries. How (and when) do we teach students about the differences?

Honorio said...

We want the students to be autonomous in their research, so we teach how to do research...
we also want the students to ask us for information, and we want to give them the information in order to know if it fits thei need.

We build VLE to help students get their needed papers when they want and where they want, from home or the Starbucks...
we also want the students to enter the Library place, to come in and share this shareable space and commodities we are promoting in order not to be closed.

Ned Potter said...

Simon, I really like this post (even though I hold a different view) and my reply-comment got so long I'm going to have to abandon it and do it as blog post! But just to answer your past point - we at York teach students about the differences by literally going into schools and telling them... I've just joined the Widening Participation group, the point of which is to run workshops with schools on how you use information at degree level, basically. It's become a huge load of work because it's really popular with the schools - we do loads of visits a year.

I'll add a link to my blog post when it's done if that's okay.

Simon Barron said...

Thanks Ned. I look forward to reading your post.

Ned Potter said...

Okay here we go... Spoon feed them, then give them the spoon, then chuck away the spoon

This is my response to this and the other articles - essentially that I like spood-feeding, as a stage rather than an overall philosophy, and believe it can exist alongside teaching them to fend for themselves. That's the exec. summary. :-)

PatDux said...

I did my first degree with the Open University (around 1996). Each month we received a pack of reading materials to study, in order to complete the latest assignment. I guess this was spoon-feeding, but the material was so good that it naturally led one to explore further afield. Like all the other commentators, I have mixed views about what level of support we should be offering. I am a part-time University librarian -so if I spend too much time with a student it has obvious knock-on effects for the rest of my work. Having said that, I always make myself available for hour long 1-2-1 sessions (requests average out at approx 2/3 per week). Email support is, of course, daily and continuous.

Paul Smith said...

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