February 17, 2018

‘Tis the Season To Discuss Our Future, Part II | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

In part one I shared a future vision for academic libraries that, while worthwhile, left me less than enthusiastic for what’s yet to come. I would agree that our profession’s future must focus on what we bring to it as academic librarians. Our buildings and collections may diminish in value, but academic librarians could design a preferred future built on relationships that deliver meaning for our faculty and students.

As that article suggested, we must transform our roles in academic settings, but I’d prefer that our future be based on our role as educators rather than as data miners and managers. A new set of data from the 2008 MISO (Merged Information Services Organizations) may be another signal that building strong relationships may be more important than ever.

A selective survey
is a selective association of 35 academic institutions, mostly four-year liberal arts colleges, spearheaded by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. They have in common shared or merged library and information technology organizations. At a recent workshop I attended David Consiglio, statistics and research methods support specialist at Bryn Mawr, shared the latest data from an annual survey of faculty about their use of information technology.

According to its web site the MISO Survey is a web-based quantitative survey designed to measure how faculty, students, and staff view library and computing services in higher education. It asks questions about frequency of services uses, satisfaction with services, skills and learning, and more. As many as 50 different types of services are assessed. The goal is to benchmark services among the participating institutions; there are separate survey instruments for faculty and students.

Similar challenges for libraries and IT
Looking ahead, the good news is that faculty and students are generally satisfied with the services they received, and the academic library continues to achieve the highest level of satisfaction. But what does that really mean? The survey results suggest that it’s more about content than people. Basically, our constituents want what they want when they want it, and they are content if we provide it and make it easy to get. Ask your library colleagues their number one challenge and you’ll likely hear the word “awareness.” Academic libraries of all sizes have expanding collections of e-resources, yet faculty and students seem less knowledgeable than ever about their availability. Well, guess what? Our counterparts in IT have the same problem.

According to Consiglio, the data suggest that faculty have a somewhat poor knowledge of the library or IT services available to them. They report being moderately informed about available library services and less informed about IT services, but they seem to be content with this. Further, they didn’t want to learn about the services. Faculty only cared about the technology they needed and nothing beyond that. As far as library and IT staff go faculty only wanted to know whom they needed to contact when something they wanted wasn’t working or available. As Consiglio put it in an e-mail communication to me “It is not so much that they don’t care about the services, it is more that they don’t necessarily care that they don’t know about all the services available to them.” 

What faculty want (and don’t care about)
One of Consiglio’s presentation slides really caught my attention. It summarized into three columns what technology and services faculty consider important and what they use. On the rise are technologies such as wireless, course management systems, classroom technology, and access to online resources. There was no change regarding library services such as e-reserves, library databases, the online catalog, interlibrary loan, and library instruction.

Falling off were circulation of print materials, reference services, the library web site, and – here’s the one that really hurt – librarian liaison services. Consiglio said the trends point to faculty caring mostly about technology support for the classroom. He also noted distinct generational differences in the faculty. The youngest (< 40) ones, our next generation of faculty, has the lowest levels of satisfaction for all services, and most valued technology over human support services. As Consiglio put it “they want more technology, are harder to please, don’t want to talk to anyone and have higher expectations.” Now there’s a future to which we can happily look forward.

Ride the tide or fight the wave
Consiglio’s experience with these surveys goes back to 2005, so he knows the trends and offered some good insights into what academic libraries and IT should be doing to support faculty and students. It boiled down to this: give them what they want, make it easy to access and use, and then get out of the way. Consiglio said that trying to force things on faculty is a doomed strategy, so avoid reacting too strongly to their lack of interest in your efforts to create awareness or offer instruction. Instead we need to meet them where they are. According to Consiglio where they are is online using direct access, technology mediated services. Make sure they have your email address in case they realize they need something and think you will help them find or use it.

When you put it all together the picture is somewhat dismal. We have some tough choices ahead of us. What should we be doing? Should we just go with the flow and take a hands-off approach, or do we make a proactive effort to get out there and make ourselves and our services better known? What’s next for our web sites? Should they simply be links to the top resources faculty and students want and make no effort to create awareness?

No easy answers
The answers to these questions will undoubtedly shape our future as service organizations. In these two columns I have shared just two possibilities for where our future is heading. One suggests it lies with a rather different vision for academic librarians, yet it values the librarian above buildings and collections. The other points to trends that suggest an increased value for technology while the value of librarians diminish. We often hear about the importance of ignoring future trends and predictions in favor of creating our own vision of a preferred future, and perhaps that is the best advice in a world of competing yet bleak possibilities. However, we need to look beyond our own four walls and even our library profession as we shape that vision.

For my part, I will continue to pursue strategies that leverage relationships with the intent of creating meaning for the users of academic library services. In a recent interview entrepreneurial evangelist Guy Kawasaki shared his ten-point manifesto on how to make something of value for customers. His first “commandment” was all about “making meaning.” He said we should “focus on making [the] product or services mean something beyond the sum of its components.”

In a world of increasingly detached higher education technologies and electronic resources, in which no one seems to really know what’s there and how to use it, our great future challenge appears to be one of helping those we serve, in libraries or IT, to derive meaning from everything at their disposal. It is through our personal relationships with them, I think, that we will make a difference.

Many thanks to David Consiglio of Bryn Mawr College for sharing his presentation slides with me and for proofreading this column for accuracy.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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