If today’s college students find even email too outdated for their digital tastes, how can we expect them to deal with the typical library e-resource?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