March 22, 2017

Too Complex May Soon Be Just Too Outdated | From the Bell Tower

If today’s college students find even email too outdated for their digital tastes, how can we expect them to deal with the typical library e-resource?

In a world in which the quality of an experience is strongly tied to its simplicity, academic librarians have long dealt with the frustration of having to expose users to systems that are overly complex in design. Sometimes I wonder if we might all be better off returning to simpler times of mediated searching, when librarians did all the work, and community members were gratified to receive a printout of citations in exchange for allowing us to do the heavy lifting. In some ways, we reveled in the complexity, because it exposed our expertise. We were masters of a skill set we used to provide a valued service to researchers and students. But desirable as it may sound, no academic librarian would truly prefer mediated searching’s exclusivity over today’s environment of broad end-user access to information of all types. This is the golden age of access—at least for those inside the paywall.

More confusing than complex

Whether it’s a short video demonstrating that it actually takes much more time than imaginable to find out if the library subscribes to Time magazine or Barbara Fister sharing her frustration over the challenges our students confront in doing even the most basic of research tasks, we have adequate evidence to support the claim that our search and retrieval systems are too complex.

While it’s fantastic that we now have the capacity to offer vast amounts of full-text content, which performs wonders for delivering instant gratification (would today’s students, if they only had a citation, even make the effort to track down and photocopy an article in a bound journal volume?), I’ve witnessed too many students puzzled by link resolver messages that leave them confused. Even if they do get past the resolver, their reward is to then have to figure out where they need to click to get the full-text article to appear; there’s no common design among the systems. I think we can acknowledge that in depth research can be complex and time consuming, if you want to do it well. That seems reasonable, as there is only so much simplification system designers can offer and still produce a quality product. What we need to eliminate is systems and designs that are confusing.

Would it Matter?

There was quite a debate on our campuses over an article that suggested that the typical college student no longer had the patience, desire, or interest to use email. Too slow. Too last century. Too much effort. In “Technology and the College Generation,” faculty expressed their frustration over students who routinely failed to read important email messages about course assignments or upcoming exams, considering the medium too antiquated. These students prefer text messaging. According to the article, some faculty understand and try to meet the students’ preference. Was this a real trend, or just a sensationalized account of a small segment of students? What I heard was that, despite it being somewhat of a pain to get students to pay attention to their email, the majority do in fact use it regularly, even if they prefer texting. Exaggeration or otherwise, there might be a message here.

If Email’s a Challenge…

Even the students who do use email indicated their lack of comfort with the technology or protocols. They expressed uncertainty about composing subject lines (am I the only one who routinely gets emails from students with no subject line at all?) and effective messages. It is possible that email seems like long-form writing to a student who mostly texts. And compared to texting, it could certainly come off as a somewhat archaic technology. All that aside, it made me think about the complexity issue that students encounter with the library’s search and retrieval systems. It does not bode well for us to expect students to embrace library technologies if email presents them with a challenge. If they believe email is outdated, I can only imagine what they think of some of the computer-based search systems we offer. Are we engaged in a losing battle?

Moving towards simplicity

All is not that hopeless—I think. I have to believe that it is our technology that might ultimately help us to bring the type of simplicity that could help students better cope with college-level research. It surprised but encouraged me to read comments to Fister’s essay that praised the library’s discovery engine as a good search tool that made research less cumbersome. Perhaps we are moving in the right direction, even if some quality is currently is being sacrificed in the name of progress. When it comes to search technology, I think we are still early in the game. Artificial intelligence systems hold significant potential to move us from search engines to answer engines. Today’s version of that technology, Siri or Google Now, will be primitive by comparison to what we may see in a few years. In the race to simplicity, we will need to be thoughtful about the ways in which we demonstrate the added value academic librarians bring to the research enterprise.

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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  1. Nathan Pease says:

    I am uneasy about critiqueing information services in relation to a student’s ability to use email.

    1- If a student willfully disregards a professor’s choice of communication, that is a reflection of the student’s motivation and character. It is not an intrisic, “digital” behavior.

    2- Email is used by many grandparents, people who were born before the “digital era”. If students can not learn the basic rudiments of email use, even while the most digitally challenged citizens can, this is a reflection of the student’s motivation and character. It is not an insurmountable problem.

    3- What about other students who are writing complex source code for manipulating robotics? Are we to ignore their willingness to engage and to learn when we create information systems?
    I admit that working with information systems in graduate school posed a challenge, but I believed that as a student, it was my responsibility to meet that challenge. And when I did, I became adept at using those systems.

    Meeting that challenge had nothing to do with the information systems. It had everything to do with character, motivation, and the understanding that students are expected to work.

    Unfortunately, I believe that your comments above reflect an unfortunate trend in educational thinking, a trend that suggests that institutions and educational tools are broken when students fail. I believe that student performance is generally the result of the students performing. Asking students to do/learn less means that we will have students who do/learn less.

  2. acadlibrarian says:

    I also have some concerns regarding this approach – is it our primary role as educators to engage students or to (help) prepare them for life after school? If our primary job is to engage them – well maybe it’s ok to enable their lack of attention-span or whatever the problem is with email. On the other hand if we have some responsibility to prepare them for life after they leave our campuses I’m not sure we’d be doing them any favors.

    What employer would support a new hire in this manner? If we don’t even gently prod our students out of their comfort zones aren’t we failing them just a bit? I was just having coffee with an old university friend who’s the unofficial mentor for new hires at a big engineering firm. She feels really wretched complaining about these bright, energetic folks – but she tells me that the majority don’t seem to be able to cope with adult work responsibilities – managing email, setting priorities, working in groups, composing coherent memos/presentations, using basic office software programs competently etc.

    I’m not saying that we have to be miserable about it – but demanding some attention to detail, encouraging sustained concentration on a single topic, teaching & supporting the use of standard office software and communication systems really isn’t a bad thing in the long run.

  3. alex zealand says:

    I see this as two separate issues. Our concern that students (and people of all ages who are not library professionals) find our eResources too convoluted to be worth using has been a valid one for at least 10 years.

    But learning to function in the adult world includes learning to use the dominant form of professional communication. Twenty years ago, this meant learning how to type a formal letter (whether on a computer or a word processor) with the correct spacing and letterhead. Today it means knowing how to format an email, and learning to read the emails sent by your professor, manager or boss. If students aren’t absorbing this info on their own, then it probably needs to be more deliberately incorporated into college curriculums.

  4. I’m going to be a contrarian on this. True, some databases are badly designed and could be simplified, but in the main, academic databases are complex because Google is lame. What do I mean? Simply that sophisticated academic databases have a wealth of metadata not available to Google. That metadata can bring a level of precision to searching that Google can only dream of.

    A colleague and I tried it out with a few hundred first year students: Given the premise of finding peer reviewed articles no older than five years on the topic of climate change in the arctic, my Google colleague found one in about 10 minutes, even though the freshmen were free to offer suggestions. I took the same topic to Academic Search Premier and used its metadata sophistication to locate peer reviewed articles (Google couldn’t identify the peer reviewed ones), narrow the topic and find multiple recent articles that were bang on topic.

    We err when we argue that our students won’t use our databases because they’re too hard, so we need to simplify them. We are educators, people. We educate. Why should we enable our students to settle for second best, when it takes little more effort to have them optimizing the far superior academic databases? Of course, we could wait until Google searches become intelligent…

  5. Thanks to each of you for thinking about the issues here and sharing some good thoughts about a challenge in higher education. Part of what I’m pondering here is beyond whether library databases are too complex or what our responsibility is as educators. I am sharing a concern as to whether the eventual progress of technology will simply render library databases as irrelevant to a future generation that will find them completely outdated or archaic. Yes, we are the educators. Yes, we have a responsibility to make sure the students are prepared for the workforce. Yes, we call the shots and we can make using library resources a part of the college experience. I just don’t know if it’s going to matter at some point.

    I agree with anyone who says that the complexities of library databases offer value to researchers at all levels – but let’s have them designed so as not to lead to confusion (see my example about journal linkers). I also believe that’s students are able to learn how to do the basics in most of these databases – and there’s good reason to learn how to do so. I am also wondering how advances in AI in search systems – what I refer to as the development of “answer engines” is going to impact on our current search environment – and will today’s aggregators be adding these technologies to their systems. I don’t have all the answers but it’s going to get interested.

  6. Penny Lochner says:

    My colleagues and I continue to struggle with how we respond to feedback and comments overheard from students. I think we need to remember to do what we do best as librarians – interpret the message. If students are claiming email is outdated, what is the context? It may be outdated for alerts to changes in schedules, but it certainly isn’t outdated for asking your instructor (or librarian) a question. My daughter is in middle school and she is adept at using many forms of social media. She is deliberate in choosing the communication tool that is appropriate for the message she wants to send. Are we as librarians equally adept? My daughter is also encouraged by her teachers to ask questions outside of class using email. In my daughter’s school, students still write down homework assignments on paper calendars, but each teacher also has committed to keeping their homework schedule on Google calendar. With Google calendar, students (and parents) have the ability to get alerts using whatever medium suits their need. Students can bring a device to school and get help setting up Google calendar. Does your learning management system have this messaging capability?
    I completely agree that we need to be mindful of the complexity we present on our websites and in the physical library. Is it necessary complexity or is there a better way? We recently interfiled our periodicals, books, and reference books. Students still need help finding simple call numbers, but it is easier to explain when our collections are divided by physical medium rather than arbitrary content type. (I say arbitrary because that is how the inexperienced user sees it.)
    We find that many students are willing to learn to navigate resources, if they understand why the complexity exists and how it is to their benefit. How do we get this message across in the disintermediated world? YouTube videos, perhaps? I think we have to create an open door that guides them to where they need to be and doesn’t intimidate. Whether designing gateways, services or websites, we need to apply our ability to understand and minimize the confusion of researchers new and old. The availability of a new technology might be a siren call or an opportunity.

  7. Emily Batista says:

    Some e-resources are extremely tedious to access, requiring multiple steps even when the citation is known, as it often the case when users are working from bibliographies. As the Head of Resource Sharing Services, I feel that we can both provide the mediated service to save the user time, AND let the user know that the resource is available directly through the library. Some vendors have elegantly designed interfaces that make it easy to navigate to a specific issue and article, or to do a search on the article title. Unfortunately, there are MANY that remain extremely use-unfriendly, and I don’t expect our patrons to flock to those particular sites in any hurry. We continue to receive a large number of requests through ILL for materials we own, but we now fill them from our collections, rather than cancel them as being locally available and expecting the user to figure out how to get the article. At the same time, the email message delivered to the patron also explains that the resource is available through the library, and that the person does not NEED to wait for library staff. I can’t tell how many patrons use that information to try to obtain the articles themselves in future, but I no longer consider that my primary mission is to train them to use every resource themselves. In our department, now it is all about delivering the requested information as quickly as possible.