Library Issues
Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Steve Marquardt, South Dakota State University; William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Maureen Pastine, Temple University
 
Vol. 22, No. 2 November 2001


Campus Libraries: Time to Market an Undervalued Asset?

by Richard M. Dougherty and Mignon Adams

Colleges and universities have invested millions of dollars in their libraries. They have spent decades, if not centuries, collecting materials and building facilities. Recently they have spent even more money remodeling and rewiring their libraries to keep them technologically current. Over the years Presidents have given speeches calling the library “the heart of the university.” While we still believe this to be true, some officials are now, nonetheless, questioning the long-term viability of traditional libraries. The explosive growth of the web-inspired information environment has raised doubts in the minds of some administrators about the future of the library and its services. They wonder if the library is about to be replaced by these new technological services. They may not even realize, however, that the “traditional” library they think their campus has, is not what exists. Quietly, perhaps too quietly, the library has become a technologically innovative resource. The library has made it possible to use their resources anytime (24/7) on campus and in many cases from anywhere there is Internet access.

 

The Library is Still Needed

What administrators really want to know is: can they reduce their investments in the library? It is a very tempting idea to them when budgets are tight and they are looking for ways to cut overall costs. But, itís probably shortsighted too. The bottom line is that the library is still needed. The Internet is not going to put the library out of business; commercial ventures cannot provide a cost-effective replacement. Librarians view the Internet as simply a new way to deliver their resources to their users. The library and the librarians are still needed to organize the information and to teach students and faculty how best to access the information, and to help them understand which materials are best for a particular purpose. Too many students still look for what they need “on the Internet” not realizing that they should be searching an online database in their field. Do they even know what that means? If they do, guess who taught them? If they donít, who should teach them? “Librarians” is the probable answer to both questions.

Contributing to evolving goals and objectives. The new information technologies also raise issues for campus officials about how faculty present and deliver course material. A few faculty are already presenting courses totally online; other instructors are incorporating online segments into traditional courses. Such questions arise as: what roles will distance courses play in a traditional college degree? What range of commitments must a campus make to support these new delivery methods? How does the library support such course work? What about existing investments in plant and faculty? How does a campus balance the new with the old?

Similar questions occur when considering the campus library. In this new age, administrators and faculty need to take a careful look at the library and its services, and then think carefully about the ways in which its library can and should contribute to the evolving goals and objectives of the institution. If a library is likely to play a significant role in an institutionís future, it would be economically foolish for a campus not to leverage its long-time investments in its library.

So what actions should/can a campus take now in order to prepare for the future? Academic libraries have already transformed themselves, although they havenít always made sure that their users know it. Any self-respecting parent or prospective student seeking the right college to attend should be looking at the kind of library resources/services available. Indeed, several of the guides to selecting colleges suggest that a consideration should be the availability of online library resources.

Promoting the Library. Most academic institutions are acutely aware of the need to promote and market their programs and other assets, e.g., location, athletic programs, diversity programs, study-abroad programs. And while many academic administrators still talk about the importance of the library, rarely does a campus market its library as a reason for a student to select a school. This is a strange oversight, and possibly a missed opportunity because students who are selecting colleges want to know about how they will be able to access information resources. One logical response is that the campus library will serve as the studentís gateway to the world of online information. Commercial information providers may tout their convenience and comprehensiveness, but ironically, academic libraries often provide the same or better kinds of information, and often in a more cost-effective manner. Institutional marketing campaigns would be wise to stress the millions of articles and thousands of journals that their libraries put at the fingertips of students.

 

A Look at the Web and its Characteristics

Indispensability. There is no question that the Web is an indispensable tool; but it is just that, a tool, not a stand-alone resource. A recent Urban Libraries Council survey found that respondents were already using the Web rather than the library to locate information about consumer products, business, community services, government, and jobs and careers.1 Most undergraduates also turn first to the Web for information they need to fulfill classroom assignments. Computers located in their dorm rooms or home are simply too convenient to pass up.

 

Commercial information
providers may tout their convenience
and comprehensiveness, but ironically, 
academic libraries often provide the same 
or better kinds of information,
and often in a more
cost-effective
manner.”

How successful these students will be in completing an assignment will depend on how well they understand how informationóand knowledgeóis organized so they can maneuver their way around the Web efficiently and accurately. Without a doubt the Web has become an indispensable source of information for todayís students, but at the same time we must also keep in mind those other characteristics of the Web: the intermingling of good and bad information; the increasing disappearance of high-quality free content, the apparent ease, but real difficulty of navigating it, its almost numbing complexity, the increase of thinly-disguised sponsored information, and the threat to academic integrity from plagiarism eased by universal access and word processing.

Economics. In the beginning, the web appeared to promise unlimited information at no cost. The assumption was that advertising would cover costs, just as advertising allowed the major networks to offer TV programming at no cost to their viewers. It is already clear, however, that “banner advertising does not bring in enough revenue to cover the costs of a website. Therefore, information increasingly will come at a price. This might be as a direct charge to the user, such as many newspapers now require to view an article from their archives. Or the price may be thinly disguised sponsorship: for example, Quaker Oats sponsors a site on the health values of oatmeal.

Clearly the economics of the web-based information are changing and this shift will not only affect a userís wallet, it may also reduce the credibility of the information retrieved from many websites. More and more of the Web-inspired services come at a direct or indirect price. We can expect this trend to continue as dot.com companies search for viable ways to generate revenue from the Internet. Coming at it from another angle are the recent commercial forays into information services, e.g., XanEdu, Questia, which are being marketed directly to students. The thinking seems to be that students could bear these costs, just as they buy textbooks and lab supplies. It is doubtful, however, that students and parents, already paying dearly for a liberal arts education would welcome these additional costs. Free access to a library of information has been an essential part of higher education since the Middle Ages. What many administrators have forgotten is that their libraries already offer a wide range of online resources, many exactly the same as those marketed by commercial firms, and at a lower cost per student.

Unvetted Information. The most striking feature of the Web is its gigantic glut of unvetted information. At least with the books on the shelves, readers are assured that the material has gone through some sort of editorial review to get published. To retrieve reliable information on the Internet, a seeker must not only be skillful, he/she must also be smart enough to evaluate the quality of information retrieved, i.e., separate the chaff from the wheat. A search for “cloning on almost any search engine will quickly turn up the Human Cloning Foundation, a site with many links to selected research, representative essays and papers, special directions for students, and many “facts. The Foundation is actually a small group of gays whose purpose is to provide equal rights for male parenting by promoting cloning. Searches on “online degrees or “distance education quickly yield places like Canyon College in Idaho (fully accredited by the “Central States Consortium of Colleges and Universities, but not open to Idaho residents) and Concordia College and University in the British Virgin Islands (degrees in 20 days! $599 for an associates degree, $799 for a doctorate). It is this glut of unvetted information that has increased the need to help students become more information literate.

Growing Complexity. The Web is complex and becoming more so as each day passes. There are myriad search engines, all organized differently, none providing a comprehensive view of the information available. Most undergraduates report that they use Yahoo as their primary search engine. Yahoo is a well-designed search engine, but it also covers a much smaller percentage of the Web than most other search engines. Websites themselves seem to come and go like the shifting sands of the Sahara. Home pages are often poorly designed leaving users lost and frustrated.

Commercialization. The economic straits of search-engine producers are giving rise to a new development that could undermine the reliability of some web-retrieved information. All the major search engines now accept payments from vendors to put the vendors products at the top of a personís search results. Some search engines make clear that these results are ads, but too many do not. The unsuspecting information seeker doesnít realize that the information he or she chooses may be no more reliable than any paid advertisement. The sponsorship may be subtle: if you note the fine print on the major site on macular degeneration you find that is co-sponsored by the American Egg Board. Or it may be more blatant. For example, a student doing a search on gun control in Alta Vista will find the first or second result to be a paid, placed link to a far-right diatribe on the second amendment. (Actually the first link used to be to a paper mill selling research papers on gun control, but that link was there Sunday night, and gone Monday afternoon. That is another problem with information on the Web.)

Plagiarism. The organization of the Web also creates an inviting environment for students to plagiarize the work of others. Although possibly apocryphal, there is the circulating story about the student who asked his professor if he could just turn in the URLs for the sites he used to gather his information. This student was even too lazy to cut and paste the work he was “borrowing. Today there are countless cases of plagiarism on the typical campus. In all likelihood the trend toward plagiarism is bound to grow because web resources make this shortcut so tempting. To counter the plagiarism, software companies have developed anti-plagiarism programs which unfortunately may become a mainstay of every faculty memberís library of software.

Therefore, we can say that while the Web represents an important, in fact, vital information tool, it is by no means an information panacea. Hopefully the academic reader will understand that the Web falls short of what people generally think it will achieve. It is confusing, inaccurate, misleading, and increasingly more costly. But unless academic administrators recognize these limitations, why would they be motivated to “promote or “market the library, or more fundamentally, even continue current levels of support for library funding? Academic administrators need to see the Web in the context of its limitations, and understand why the library has a role to play.

 

How a Library Can Contribute

Librarians, by virtue of their training and experience, are among the best at navigating the complex world of information of which the Web is now the centerpiece. But there is still even more information to be found in books, journals, government documents, many of which are organized into online databases, some full-text.

Librarians are already beginning to respond in ways that will benefit students and faculty. The initiatives that are getting the most publicity are the collaborative efforts to provide virtual reference services on a 24/7 basis. Librarians are already strengthening their programs to give assistance to students who are baffled by the Web or who have become frustrated in their efforts to retrieve information.

Information Literacy. Possibly it is in the area of information literacy that librarians can make their greatest contributions to the education of students. Today there is increased interest in information literacy because of the enormous amount of information available and the recognition of the pitfalls one can encounter on the Web. Faculty with whom we have spoken all seem to agree that students need to learn how to locate, use and evaluate information.

The task of helping students would be greatly aided if so many of them didnít believe that they were already experts. And while we want to be tactful, the same can be said about many faculty members. In their own areas they are likely experts; they can spot worthless trash at 23 paces, but once they leave their areas of specialization, many donít even know the difference among search engines let alone the reliability of individual sites.

Identifying/Addressing User Needs. What libraries need to do first is to identify the information requirements and desires of their

users, both students and faculty or others. Once they acquire this information, they can then re-position themselves so that they are better able to satisfy those requirements and desires. This may mean dropping or modifying values that librarians have long held dear (face-to-face interaction, thoroughness, complete reference interviews, retrospective collections, print back-ups) and adding new values (remote reference, marketing, technical expertise, a balance of speed, immediacy
and accuracy).
2

Internally such changes will require a great deal of staff retraining and they are bound to create a new and different organizational culture. Such changes do not necessarily come easily or overnight. Unless funds are unlimited, which is highly unlikely, libraries must find ways to re-deploy their human and dollar resources. Choices must be made in order to provide new services. This means that some existingótraditionalóservices may have to be scaled back and staff retrained to engage in different activities. Finally, librarians and campus officials need to take a good, hard look at their own campus and/or library websites, the electronic gateway they have provided into the extensive resources they provide students. A cursory look at library websites reveals a number of barriers. Too many sites assume users know what a bibliographic database” is as opposed to a full-text database.” Often printed guides have been uploaded to the site, producing wordy texts that are seldom read. Officials too ought to be concerned because prospective students could be turned off by confusing campus and library websites that leave them frustrated.

 

How a Campus Administration Can Help

A campus administration will want to know what their libraries have or will soon do to reposition staff resources to better reflect the strengths of the campus library. The campus library should not be clinging to services that are obviously in decline. The library neednít try to compete with the Web; it embraces the Web, but as a means of delivery not a panacea. Instead a library should be focusing its energies on providing an information environment that facilitates what students need and use in order to be more successful in the classroom.

A library that is providing students with timely access to the information they require becomes a real campus asset, something to crow about. Under such circumstances campus administrators should begin to take fuller advantage of the library and its resources as a selling point to parents and students. It makes no sense not to. True, this may take some coordination with the admissions and orientation departments on campus to help spread the word.

Many libraries are already expanding their services. North Carolina State University has a 24-hour library, electronic reserves, virtual reference, authors in residence. Michigan State has online reference, all online forms, online suggestion box. Roger Williams University Libraries has an acclaimed website, electronic reserves, online reference, online suggestion box, online ILL. The Alliance group in Central Illinois, comprising eight academic libraries,4 offers 24/7 online reference services in conjunction with LSSIís Web Reference Center. The expanded services already demonstrated by these libraries suggests to us that campus administrators ought to expect no less from their own libraries. There should be no reason why libraries canít play a helping role with the current generation of students.

Where academic libraries have been in the forefront of providing electronic access, campus administrators should realize that they have another asset to highlight in their marketing plans. Their students and faculty, after all, can do their research 24/7, in the safety and comfort of their dorm rooms, homes or offices, with the world of information at their fingertips. The library can be a real campus asset if the library is realizing its potential, and if it is, then the campus should sing its praises to the world at large.

 

References

1Libraries, Net now defining their own respective niches,” by Michael Rogers and Norman Oder, Library Journal (November 15, 2000): 12

2Dougherty and Associates has sponsored numerous workshops on Creating New Reference Service Environments, Technical Services Environments, and Assessing User Needs. The values listed here are taken from compilations of exercises conducted at these workshops over the past few years. See www.rmdassociates.com for further information.

3Jeremy J. Shapiro & Shelley K. Hughes, Information Literacy as a Liberal Art: Enlightenment Proposals for a New Curriculum.” Educom Review 31(2) (March/April 1996).

4Black Hawk CollegeóEast Campus, Bradley University, Eureka College, Illinois Central College, Illinois State University, John Wood Community College, and Spoon River College

   
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last modified: Nov 2001

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