September 18, 2014

Studying the Studies | From the Bell Tower

Having access to national studies helps academic librarians stay informed about their community members. Finding the time to read and analyze them—and make sense of possibly conflicting information—is a new “keeping up” challenge.

One thing that higher education seems to always have in abundance is studies. Hardly a week passes that fails to yield some new report telling us about astounding new levels of student debt, how employers find our graduates poorly prepared for the workplace, or some association’s important new research that changes everything. Here’s a good example: nearly half of all college graduates are in jobs where their degrees are useless. This study has a multitude of findings that might make for an interesting column.

For a column that explores the intersection of higher education and academic librarianship, a nonstop supply of these studies is a good thing. The capacity to tap into a steady stream of new higher education reports offers mild reassurance that there will always be something about which to write—even if it’s sometimes a bit of a stretch to connect it to academic libraries. Studies about student and faculty research behaviors, though fewer and farther between, can do the job done as well. It’s often the differences between all these studies, not merely what they tell us, that is worthy of exploration.

Getting It Started

While there have always been studies of one type or another about academic libraries, government and association statistical reports for example, one report in particular stands as a landmark in revealing insights into the world of those who use academic libraries. When it was released in 2006, OCLC’s College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources ushered in a new type of in depth study that provided a fascinating look into our students and how they think of and use the academic library. It was perhaps the first study to confirm what we suspected—that students go to search engines first. This study gave us much to think about, and the data was valued as a call for change and innovation. It also pointed to the need for more in depth research into our students’ research behavior. More studies did follow, and they added to our knowledge of students and faculty.

Big Four

There are four studies in particular that fuel our interest in the latest reports about library users. There are others you may be familiar with, but these four, I believe, are most worthy of our ongoing analysis and reflection. They are the Project Information Literacy reports, the Ithaka S &R faculty survey series, the ECAR Annual Study of Students and IT, and Library Journal’s Academic Patron Profiles. I tend to think of each series, Project Information Literacy’s set of multiple reports for example, as a package that one digests over time and in a cumulative fashion. The LJ Academic Patron Profiles, which is the first of its kind, is the exception. Taken together, these studies yield significant amounts of valuable insights about our community members and how they make use of our resources, others campus services they use, and how they perceive us and our services. Ignoring them is something you just want to avoid.

Data You Can Use

The great thing about these four reports is that the abundant data they provide can help to make a point on just about anything related to the way students and faculty use academic libraries. A representative from a non-library organization came to my campus to give a presentation to staff on a study they had done about the challenges facing academic libraries and the changes we’d have to make to remain relevant. The presentation was mostly a compilation of data from other studies, connected with doom and gloom quotes from librarian prognosticator articles. So we eventually get to the “and this study showed that students start their searches with Google 98 percent of the time.” I suspected the chart, not cited, came from the OCLC study mentioned above. A quick search found the latest ECAR Annual Study of Students and IT which contains a chart (Fig. 7) that indicates the library website is among the most frequently used resources by college students (just after courseware). That enabled me to make the point that even if students may go to Google frequently, they use the library website for research nearly as frequently.

Make Your Point

Each report provides a somewhat unique set of data, and it is therefore possible to arrive at somewhat different conclusions about similar aspects of library usage or community member behavior. Take faculty perceptions of library services. One disconcerting finding from the Ithaka US Faculty Survey 2012 is that faculty still regard the library’s most important function as “buyer.” It’s nice to be appreciated, but on the whole we’d prefer respect and acknowledgement for our educational and other contributions to higher education. Perhaps owing a wider range of questions, the LJ survey provides a more optimistic picture, with faculty favorably indicating how they use the services of librarians. That said, LJ’s survey also delves into faculty usage of resources, and it is possible librarians could arrive at other conclusions about faculty use of libraries. Whatever point a librarian might seek to make about usage, perceptions, or library value, it can probably be done with one of these studies.

It’s What You Make of It

To make any or all of these studies completely useless, all academic librarians need to do is ignore them. Unless we take the time to read these studies and get familiar with the data, findings, and recommendations, there is not much point to them. So it’s essential that we give them our attention. Reading them is a good start, but they really become valuable when we put what we learn from the reports to practical use. The Project Information Literacy reports lend themselves to all types of possibilities for creating resources to help faculty better grasp student research behaviors. A visit to the Project Information Literacy site will lead to a page that already contains examples of how academic librarians are using the reports in their practice. Given the constant flow of reports about higher education and libraries, it is understandable to become overwhelmed and to simply start ignoring this week’s latest you-must-read-it study. That’s when we engage in the risk of failing ourselves, our colleagues, and our community members through complacency. No one can constantly track and read each and every report, but we can be alert to the ones that most deserve our time. What about the rest? Don’t worry. Whatever the next “must read” study is, you’ll hear about it. The truly important studies always emit a strong signal sure to capture your attention.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Good stuff Steven, as always.
    It prompted me to make an overdue post on The M Word. And I just referred back to this, since I couldn’t do it any better. So… thanks for saving me so much time!