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University Librarians Can Help Students Succeed - If Only They Used Them

Oct 07, 2011

Most people probably have visions of librarians as stern figures who say 'Shhhhhh!' a lot and check out books at the counter. But librarians can help guide information seekers to various resources. . .if only someone would ask. When it comes to college students it seems many are not, choosing instead to go it alone. Education Insider examines a recent study in this area that looks at just how effective these students are in conducting research and utilizing all their libraries have to offer.

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By Harrison Howe

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Despite 'Significant Difficulties', Students Not Using Librarians' Expertise

Librarians can be sort of GPS systems to uncover the vast wealth of information contained on their library's shelves and in their computer databases. However, it seems that the majority of college students simply do not take the time to attain directions from these helpful individuals. A 2005 study by the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) showed that slightly more than half of college students polled did not seek help from a librarian when seeking electronic resources or other information.

More recently, a series of studies conducted on five college campuses in Illinois concluded that not only are college students rarely asking librarians for help but that in many cases they would benefit from doing so as many are simply not utilizing resources correctly. Researchers at Illinois Wesleyan University found that 'The majority of students - of all levels - exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process', as reported by USA Today in August 2011.

The studies, known as the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) project, also discovered that many students failed to pursue more complex database searches that could benefit the assignments they were working on. And the fact that librarians could easily help them with these searches seemed lost to many of them. When researchers observed students at Illinois Wesleyan University having a hard time finding information, they noted that none approached a librarian for help.

Who's to Blame?

Researchers involved with the ERIAL studies go on to say that students alone cannot be blamed for not knowing or realizing how much help librarians can offer, stating that an overestimation of students' research skills is as much or more at fault. Generally, it seems that many professors assign research projects without offering much guidance and without directing students to librarians in the first place. Thus, when students go off to the library and do not seek assistance, librarians tend to assume that students are conducting research thoroughly.

The truth is, they're not.

ERIAL project leaders found that, in observing students at Illinois Wesleyan, only about 20% of students 'conducted what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search.' For instance, while Google was the search engine of choice the majority of the time, many students simply did not navigate it well. Many also wound up using databases that librarians would in most cases not recommend. What's more, many went to the library without the assignment in hand. According to the OCLC study, at that time 15% of students reported never having used an online database.

Some could possibly point fingers to the Internet as a reason why students are unfamiliar with the role of librarians. A 2002 OCLC study found that, with the use of library websites and Internet resources growing, fewer students tended to visit the library in person. This led to librarians having less of an understanding of students' needs and requirements. In the 2005 study, the vast majority of college students asked indicated that search engines were faster, more convenient and easier to use than physical libraries or library websites.

It's gotten to the point that, by 2011, students seem hardly to use the word 'librarian' at all. When they do, they tend to think of them as someone who knows little more than where books or the bathrooms are. The idea that they can direct students to 'scholarly' and obscure resources and guide them to what might likely be a more complete assignment is totally alien to them.

Unless they are begun to be told otherwise, college students just might continue to remain ignorant about just what a librarian is and does. And that, ultimately, could wind up being the most wasted resource of all.

Are school librarians across the country in danger of falling victim to budget cuts?

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