November 03, 2007

More Library Instruction or Better Database Interfaces?

My librarian friend Emily Alling recently posted a question on Facebook asking if you were the head of a reference department: which should / would get more priority, more instruction on how to use library resources, or better interfaces for those resources? The question sparked a lively discussion within Facebook, and I decided to ask my GSLIS class of future reference librarians to answer it as well.

In both groups, responses were mixed with strong feelings on both sides, although "better interfaces" won both times. My own bias: better interfaces. My students raised some good issues, which I'd like to highlight / comment upon. (I'm using this blog post both for the world at large and for my class -- oooh, multi-purposing!)

To start with, I think we'd all agree with Ben's comment: "Searching a database well requires skill" -- this is true for librarians and non-librarians, heavy library users, and occasional library users. (Not to mention folks who don't use the library at all, but should ... but that's for another post).

For More Instruction
Jess and Kristina argued that instruction is necessary for their individual patrons -- librarians in a given community (school, academic, public) know their patrons and their patrons' needs and are in the best position to "translate" between specific databases and the patrons' queries, and even to identify the best database for a given question. Without instruction, this theory goes, all patrons might search Academic Search Premier even in situations when PsycINFO or Medline would be more appropriate.

Tracey reminded us of the " '...if you teach a man to fish, he'll eat for life' idea- if we teach patrons how to use complicated interfaces, they will become sufficient, independent library users." Definitely we should be teaching our patrons, in as many ways as we can: at the reference desk, in the classroom, on the street, in Facebook ... We should take all opportunities to teach them!!

Better Interfaces
Amber provides a nice bridge between instruction & interfaces: "Instruction is still very important, but I think that these patrons are in more of a rush to get what they need and get out -- not sit around trying to learn how to search online." And sadly, what Kristen says is true: "Plenty of people aren't even aware that they need instruction and would never seek it out." Becky assesses users' expectations with respect to library databases:

Patrons expect library electronic resources to function at least as well as the non-library resources that they are used to using. I don't think that instruction can bridge the large gap between what patrons expect and what they actually get when they are introduced to electronic library resources.

Andrea's point hammered this home for me:
I also think about this from a 'business' perspective. Does offer classes on how to use their website to make purchases? They wouldn’t last if they did. ... "We're harder to use but we're better," may not be a great add campaign in this Google world.

For me, "better interfaces" wins. I struggle on the reference desk to explain our web site, our library catalog, and our various databases -- and I see from people's faces that the range of resources, and the quirks and peculiarities of each is overwhelming. Nicole, who self-identifies as being "a product of a Google-fied generation" confesses, "I still have to fight the temptation to do searching in this user-friendly interface when other interfaces are available that could help with more refined results." And she's committed -- as are all of my students -- to teaching non-librarians to use our resources. Imagine the public's temptation to search Google to answer their health questions, find articles for papers, and answer whatever other questions arise. It's hard for librarians to argue that our resources are better; "we're harder to use but we're better" is a very tough sell.

Questions for Further Study
Reading my students' and colleagues' responses raised a few questions for me:
  1. What are the odds achieving "better interfaces" or "more instruction"?
    This underlying question may be what led some of my colleagues to vote for "more instruction," because it seems an impossible task for us to improve database interfaces.
  2. Whose responsibility is the interface for our electronic products? Is it the libraries'? Definitely for our web sites. Probably / possibly for our online catalogs and institutional repositories and digital archives. Definitely not for commercial databases vendors like EBSCO, WilsonWeb, ProQuest, etc. And yet, aren't we all in this together? If an interface is hard to use, it won't get used. It's in the vendors' best interest to create, with us, usable interfaces in which the vast, robust, impressive content is "findable."

Note that in the real world, this isn't a choice we can realistically make. We must continue to do instruction -- by asking this question, I didn't mean to imply that instruction would go away. But I strongly feel that our library databases must be easier to use in an "unmediated" fashion, without library instruction. Then when we do teach patrons, we can show them the really cool stuff, like subject searching, age limits in PsycINFO, "era" limits in America: History & Life, etc.

I'll close with Amber's quote: "Of course, the databases would have to be marketed well to really get full use out of them."

For More Information
My blog buddy John Dupuis, who writes Confessions of a Science Librarian, pointed me to two recent "Academic Librarian" blog posts by Wayne Bivens-Tatum at which talk about the same thing:
* Reference is the Best Instruction; post originally appeared in LOEX News, Volume 28:1 (Spring 2001), 4, 8.
* Alternatives to Instruction. Oct. 10, 2007.


CogSci Librarian said...

nifty post about "postmodern librarians as bricoleurs" over at the Academic Librarian blog ...

CogSci Librarian said...

In a related post, at his Walking Paper blog, Aaron Schmidt asks several colleagues to briefly answer this question: "what are the most important things on which libraries should be working?"

jrochkind said...

Much of the motivation for federated searching products (of vendor-supplied content) is to put the power (and thus the responsibility) for improving the interfaces for vendor-supplised content back in library's hands.

Of course, federated search provides it's own barriers to a good interface. Many of us think the future has to be local indexing of vendor-supplied content to provide meta-search, rather than broadcast-search federated search.

stevenb said...

Interesting to see that folks are still debating this. I covered this territory in a Op-ed published in the Chronicle in 2/04 - a piece titled "The InfoDiet" - check it out. In a perfect world I think we'd all like to have interfaces that make things easy and don't require any thought - and that's what you have Google for - but the tradeoff is the results can be real disappointing for a search of any complexity. With respect to getting good results the problem is less the interface than knowing which resource to use - and identifying the right words to use. If you can't get past those two, even a super simple interface won't help you much. The best way to learn which resource to use and how to think like a researcher - that's user education.