Monday, 28 December 2009

Should copyright on academic publications be ended?

Interesting paper. Abstract reads:

The conventional rationale for copyright of written works, that copyright is needed to foster their creation, is seemingly of limited applicability to the academic domain. For in a world without copyright of academic writing, academics would still benefit from publishing in the major way that they do now, namely, from gaining scholarly esteem. Yet publishers would presumably have to impose fees on authors, because publishers would no longer be able to profit from reader charges. If these author publication fees would actually be borne by academics, their incentives to publish would be reduced. But if the publication fees would usually be paid by universities or grantors, the motive of academics to publish would be unlikely to decrease (and could actually increase) – suggesting that ending academic copyright would be socially desirable in view of the broad benefits of a copyright-free world. If so, the demise of academic copyright should probably be achieved by a change in law, for the “open access” movement that effectively seeks this objective without modification of the law faces fundamental difficulties.

Download from here.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Taking Google Custom Search Engines Further

This presentation from the 2009 Google I/O conference goes into far more detail about how to craft a really customised search engine, and may for some readers be easier to digest than the Google CSE documentation. It's still pretty involved though...

With news out that support for the JISC Intute service is to come to an end - "Our current service level will be maintained until 1 August 2010. After this date, Intute will still be available but with minimal maintenance." (JISC announces Intute funding cut) - now might be a good time for the community to start thinking about how to maintain a community sourced, distributed resource hub. Note that the maintaining community could be made up of "university representatives", rather than being an open one. And potentially, a custom search engine might provide a suitable platform?

To this end, I'd appreciate any comments/feedback on the UK HEI Library website Custom Search engine (Open Library Training Materials and Custom Search Engines and Custom Search Engines On Library Websites). Could you see something like this being used on your Library website, and more importantly, meeting some sort of user need there? If not, why not?

Friday, 11 December 2009

The First Rule of Library Club is...

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a NESTA Crucible reunion. The NESTA Crucible was on of the transformative episodes of my life, along with a month in Sante Fe on a Complex Systems Summer School, and I'm starting to think also with this Arcadia Fellowship...

One of the activities we did on our final Crucible weekend was go on a misguided walk. Although taken by a knowledgeable tour guide, the itinerary of a misguided walk (which I would probably now call an unguided walk) was largely left to chance. At every junction we took, a die was rolled, or some other random event invoked, to decide which way we went, the guide was knowledgeable enough to be able to talk about things of interest as we did so, as well as calling on us to engage in various practices that I suspect owe originally to the surrealist school...;-)

At the time, the misguided walk reminded me of several other (possibly misremembered!) things I'd come across before:

- Yoko Ono's Map Piece [PDF];
- an article (I think from an edition of Encyclopedia Psychedelica?) about a walking tour akin to a misguided tour in which the walking party was led through various London department stores and office blocks (or something like that) according to the rule: "if door is marked private, go through it, looking confident as you do so..."
- an article somewhere or other about "Guided holidays at home", where a holiday tour guide would come to your house and give you a guided tour of it through their eyes (a bit like a warped version of "Through the Keyhole", I guess?!)

So where's all this going....? Earlier today I tweeted a comment about one of the Cambridge University Library rules and linked to the rules on the Library website. This prompted several other people to visit the rules and comment back on them... For example:

UL rules commentary

So as I try to come up with some sort of report on my time as an Arcadia Fellow - as I try to come up with a post hoc rationalisation of what I've spent my time doing! - I keep coming back to this: that I've spent my time pointing at various Emperors and asking why they're wearing no clothes (or in the contemporary slang, pointing at various elephants in the room and asking: "Erm...?") Or looking at everyday things, and interpreting them the wrong way....

So for example, when I wandered into the English Faculty Library and saw a sign on a desk facing the entrance to the Library that said: "Staff Enquiry Desk", being a insecure type of soul I read it as "Enquiry Desk for Staff". (I'm not sure if the sign is there still...?!;-)

Or to take another example, how about the University Library Rules... Rules are funny things - they evolve over time to protect the current - and occasionally past - interests of an organisation; to outsiders, who don't fully appreciate the reasons for them, or the ramificiations of not having them, they can appear mysterious, overbearing, or even nonsensical; they ca be misinterpreted in all sorts of ways, either in terms of sense, or tone; they may contain inconsistencies; they may include legacy rules that may have made sense once but for whatever reason seem antiquated now; and so on.

And as with poster blindness, it's easy to for them, and their foibles, to become invisible, so that those familiar with them read them not so much as literally as in the local dialect, ("ah yes, what that actually means is..."). In turn, this means it can be hard to see the things with which we have become familiar as a newcomer might. Such as a new Arcadia Fellow, for example, or a new undergrad, new postgrad, new academic or new visitor. (And remember, you were new once, and may have made a similar joke, way back when...) So maybe it's worth looking at the rules once again, with as fresh a pair of eyes as you can muster...?

[The emphasis is/annotations are mine...]

Opening and closing

1. Except on the days when it is closed under Regulations 2 and 3 (Ordinances) the Library shall normally be open as follows:

Monday to Friday, 9.00 to 19.15 (22.00 during Full Easter Term).

Saturday, 9.00 to 17.00.

No person shall enter the Library less than fifteen minutes before the time of closing. [We operate an asymmetric opening/closing policy - if you're in, you can stay in in until later than you're allowed in; that is, you can benefit from a library lock-in...]

The opening hours of reading rooms are determined from time to time by the Syndicate. Details are given on the University Library's web-site (


2. In addition to members of the University, the following persons may be granted a Reader's Card and admitted to the Library, but may not borrow books:

(a) Any persons over 18 who are engaged in private study or research, if supported by appropriate evidence of academic standing and fitness for admission. An administrative charge of £10 will be made for a Card valid for up to six months.

No charge is made for the single issue within any twelve-month period of a Card valid for up to seven consecutive days, or for the issue of a Card to a current member of the academic staff or a registered research student of any other university funded by one of the higher education funding councils in the United Kingdom.

(b) Undergraduates of other universities in the British Isles normally resident in the Cambridge area, if supported by appropriate recommendations.

Cards issued under this section shall be free of charge and shall normally be valid only during the vacations of this University.

3. Readers' Cards are not transferable. Every person to whom a Card is issued under Rule 2 shall sign an undertaking to observe the Regulations for the use of the Library and the Rules made by the Library Syndicate.

Holders of Readers' Cards issued under Rule 2 may be required to work in a particular reading room designated by the Librarian and shall comply with any special conditions laid down by the Syndicate. The whole or part of the administrative charge may be waived at the discretion of the Librarian. [We laughingly refer to this as "partition" - but don't tell anyone]

Readers must inform the library of any changes to their current address. [We know where you live...]

4. The Syndicate reserve the right to cancel at any time, without assigning cause for the cancellation, any Reader's Card issued under Rule 2. ["Brazil" is one of my favourite films; Josef K. is one of the dummy names we use to test library systems]

5. Persons over the age of 16 not holding a Reader's Card may be admitted to the Library for the sole purpose of viewing the building provided that they are accompanied throughout the visit either by a member of the University or by a member of the Library staff. No member of the University may introduce more than two visitors at one time except by arrangement with the Librarian. Visitors admitted to the Library under this rule may use the Tea Room but are not permitted to consult any books or other library materials. [You WILL NOT look at any of the books - got that? Whaddya think we are - WH Smiths...?]

6. The Exhibition Centre is open to all members of the University and the general public.


7. No book shall be borrowed from the Library on any day less than fifteen minutes before the time of closing. [So bearing in mind point 1. above, you need to arrive at least half an hour before closing time - plus time to navigate the OPAC, stacks, and raise and receive stack requests - if you want to actually borrow anything Whaddya think we are, a Library..? Claiming that you got lost finding a book in the stacks, or finding your way out of the stacks, is not our problem, it's yours; got that? It's your problem...So get here in plenty of time...]

8. Any borrower who fails to return a book in accordance with the provisions of Regulation 6 or Regulation 7 (Ordinances) shall be liable to a fine of 25 pence (50 pence for recalled books) for each working day (or part thereof) that elapses before the book is returned or the Librarian is notified that it has been lost and the replacement cost of the book has been paid.

9. Works of reference, unbound works, or parts of works may not be borrowed except by the special permission of the Librarian or a person appointed by him/her, but may be consulted in a reading room of the Library. Printed books not kept on the 'open' shelves may be borrowed unless this is prohibited by special restrictions.

10. Personal details of borrowers of Library materials may not be disclosed to other readers, nor shall any person use the computerized facilities of the Library to obtain or process data except in accordance with the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998.

Use of Library materials

11. The marking of any Library materials is forbidden; readers may be prohibited from using ink and may be asked to use pencils instead while consulting certain volumes in any of the reading rooms.

12. All persons borrowing Library materials, or ordering materials for use within the Library, shall produce evidence of identity at the time of borrowing or ordering if requested to do so. [This may include iris checking, fingerprinting, DNA testing, swabs, etc etc]

13. Use of University Library’s IT facilities is governed by the Rules made by the Information Technology Syndicate of the University ( cs/itsyndicate/rules.html) and shall be only in accordance with the terms of the JANET Acceptable Use Policy (

Behaviour in the Library

14. Silence shall be maintained as far as possible in the Library. [Shhhh...]

15. Readers must present their Reader’s Card or University Card for inspection if requested by a member of the Library staff in the course of their duties. [You have no rights... You must carry identity papers with you at all times...]

16. The use of portable computers [does that include smartphones, notwithstanding 17 below?] is permitted in the Library provided that they are quiet in operation. Users of such equipment may be required to work in specified areas or to stop using a computer if it constitutes a distraction to other readers.

17. The use of equipment likely to disturb or distract other readers or to damage Library materials (e.g. digital scanners, radios, personal hi-fi equipment [psst, I se lots of people using iPods in the Library... just don't tell anyone...], or computers to perform any of the functions of such machines) is not permitted in the Library [but you are allowed to use the big photocopier/scanner things in the Photocopier room. It's not that it's a monopoly thing, but you know - we have to be able to say we're providing some added value, non-book services...]. Mobile telephones must be set to ‘silent’ mode in the Library; the use of mobile telephones is only permitted in the Tea Room, the Locker Room and the courtyards of the Library. [We do not like the idea of the mobile library. It's evil - evil, d'you hear? Nasty, nasty technology. Dirty... Evil...]

18. Overcoats, raincoats, and other kinds of outdoor clothing, umbrellas, bags, cases, cameras [so does that include phones, notwithstanding 17 above?], photocopying devices [so does that include phones, notwithstanding 17 above?], and similar personal belongings [like what? Mobile phones, maybe, notwithstanding 17 above?] shall normally be deposited in the locker-room adjacent to the entrance hall during each visit to the Library. [You may be subject to a search when entering or leaving the building. Bags may well be taken away and destroyed.]

19. Handbags, files, folders, coats, and the like, if allowed into the Library, shall be subject to examination on exit. [You may be subject to a personal search when entering or leaving the building.]

20. Bottles of ink, correction fluid, and other potentially damaging substances shall not be taken into the Library. [Everything you do take into the building needs to be in a clear plastic bag. Homeland Security rules apply.]

21. Food and drink shall not be taken into the Library generally, but may be admitted for consumption in the courtyards or in the Tea Room, provided that paying customers are not deprived of seats. [Whaddya think this space is? A social area?]

22. Smoking is permitted only in the courtyards.

23. No person may go barefoot in the Library. [No hippies.]

24. Library staff are empowered to stop any activity in the Library which they consider prejudicial to the safety, well-being, or security of readers or Library staff or to the preservation of the collections. [We pwn you..]

PS feel free to comment below... ;-)

PPS also feel free to try this exercise with your own library's rules...

[Tony Hirst has now left the building...

...though I like to think: I will be back...]

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A Trip into the Stacks...

A couple of days ago, I took a trip into the stacks in search of a book... a book about Luddites:

Newton catalogue results

The location of the book - South Wing, Floor 6, 229.c.97.26 - is identified within the search results listing, as well as in the more detailed record for that item:

Nweton catalogue

So I scribbled down the location and reference on a slip of paper, went into the stacks - the wrong stack at first (South Front... I think Huw said someone had mentioned proposing an Arcadia project on signage? Sign 'em up - please...) - and found the book. Now I remembered from the catalogue page that there were a couple of other works in a similar stack location - 229.c.97.* - but I hadn't scribbled down the actual reference numbers. The cataloguing system being as it is (categories, accession number within that category and size of book all feature) actual tracking down subject related works, even on the same stack, can be difficult without a reference number.

Being unfamiliar with the layout of South Wing, Floor 6, I wasn't sure where, or even whether, there was a catalogue terminal somewhere handy; what I really wanted was to be able to look-up the catalogue from my phone (not that using phones is allowed in the library...;-)

So what would this app have been able to do? Well what's immediately available:

- the book reference (229.c.97.26), which is a unique identifier for that work;
- the catalogue page for that work (see above).

The catalogue page contains a set of subject categories. Clicking through on the subject category link for Luddites leads to:

Nweton catalogu - subject

Clicking on the Luddites term on this page leads in turn to:

Nwton catalogue - subject results

(Hmmm, that page doesn't say what subject term the results relate to?!)

That is, we have a list of works - along with their location, reference number and availability - available from the subject category.

So what would my first guess "In the Stacks" app look like? (I was going to do a quick run through using mockups generated using the Balsamiq mockup tool, but time is tight today:-(

The app would:
- take the reference number (e.g. 229.c.97.26)
- respond by showing the title of the work, its author, and related subjects (for confirmation).
- allow the user to click through on a subject and display other works classed using the same subject term, visibly grouped according to proximal location (e.g. grouping works 229.c.97.* first using the current example).

Then I would trivially be able to lookup items related by subject to a work I had discovered whilst in the shelves.

PS thinking on a little further, it might be handy to catalogue the range of reference number items as displayed on the end of each stack (a couple of days work, probably) so that the actual stack locations of each work could be identified, and maybe rendered on a map? (e.g. see e.g. Mashing and Mapping, Owen Stephens' description of his Middlemash hack looking at how the Google Maps interface might be used to display library floorplans).

Imagining further, how about users grabbing an image of the refrenc range sign on the end of a stack using something like Google Goggles, and getting a list back of works, possibly arranged by topic, on that stack?! ;-) Technology assisted serendipity! ;-)


[A story that could so easily be true...]

Several weeks ago, I thought I might go to a UL training session on "Known unknowns: discovering articles on your topic", which was to be held in the Morison Room, apparently (the location of many other of the Library's training events, I think...)

Looking on the library online floorplan to locate the room wasn't that much help:

nor were the floorplans that are distributed around the Library, although the name of the Morison Room was listed (just not mapped...)

I thought that maybe the University's centralised map search might help? It does claim to list lecture rooms, after all...

Hmmm, maybe not... So online was no help (nothing even in principle scrapeable for a quick mobile app to draw on...)

There is some useful signage, though, and once I'd managed to find a sign to get me started at the top of the main stairs, I could find my way; asking at the help desk also resulted in a set of workable directions (although the help was provided by showing me where to go on a map that didn't explicitly show the location of the room... down the stairs by the tea room, to a floor that does not appear on the Library floorplan...)

Being late when I started to look for the room, I was even more late when I found it... so when the door didn't easily open (it was locked: wrong entrance, maybe?), I gave up...

A couple of days later, having a vague memory that I'd seen the Morison Room signposted on my way in to the Library through the main entrance hall, I went in search of that sign; and it was quite prominent, to the right of the issues desk, pointing in the same direction as the Exhibition Room... which was lined with doors - some saying private, some signposting toilets, and some unmarked. No hint of which was the Morison Room... though maybe a day or two earlier it had been signposted as the venue of the "Known unknowns" training session...?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

OPAC Ground Truth...

For a long time now, I've been watching the way in which Google has been developing personalised search results (e.g. see most recently A Final Nail in the Coffin of “Google Ground Truth”?). "Ground Truth" here is taken to mean the return of identical search results for a particular search query whoever makes the query, whenever thy make, from wherever.

Whilst the default assumption may be that if you and I type the same query into Google we will get the same results, that is no longer true (if indeed it ever was....) This does of course have consequences for advice givers who say: "just Google it - it'll be the top result..."

In the Library world, however, I think there is an element of search result Ground Truth, particularly in the OPAC. Given the same search terms, I suspect that the results are returned in the same order pretty much every time.

(The same is not true for federated "one search" systems over distributed databases. My experience of many of these systems is that they return results in the order they are received, with no post-ranking, which means that often the lowest quality results, returned from the smallest (though potentially responsive) databases are displayed first. And as everyone anecdotally knows, if it's too far below the fold, most people won't ever see it... that said, infinite scroll can help her, I think?)

So does it make sense to return the same results to every user of a Library catalogue? Or does it make sense to allow results to be ordered "by relevance", where relevance is determined according to the current state of the user and/or the library?

OPAC Sort by

Does anyone know what ranking factors go into the Voyager "relevance" calculation by any chance? So here are a few things that I think might be interesting in terms of possible ranking factors for an OPAC ranking/relevance algorithm...

In Doodling Ideas for a Mobile Library App I described a variety of ways in which it might be possible to personally rank search results using criteria such as preferring works from libraries that are currently on-shelf, in libraries that I am allowed to use for reference, that I'm registered with, that I can register with, and so on.

The results might also be ranked according to whether they appear on a reading list for a course I am associated with, or potentially that have been borrowed by other people on the same course as I am, maybe even from previous years, or based on recommendations from MOSAIC (see, for example, JISC MOSAIC Competition Entries - Imaginings Around the Use of Library Loans Data). Or how about ranking books according to the grades of students who have borrowed them previously? Or based on patterns of borrowing, (relating my borrowing pattern to that of students who have gone before me?) Or based on "reading level', which is then correlated against my current year of study? And so on...

As far as thee search index goes, I would probably find it useful to be able to discover items based on a keyword search of the full text, rather than just a title and maybe a few keywords.

So how close are current typical OPACS to this, assuming that some of the more obvious, highly weighted ranking factors might be exposed in advanced search screens?

VOyager advance search page


To use a rather blunt turn of phrase, Google made - and continues to make - a shed load of cash through its ranking and auction algorithms, algorithms that rank content (whether that in the form of organic search results, sponsored links or AdSense adverts) that is relevant to a particular user in a highly effective way.

So I wonder - do Library folk get to tune their OPAC algorithms?

Prototyping a system need not even require the development of a ranking algorithm - a filter list can be used to report just a subset of works, e.g. based on a items listed in a reading list. (For a tangentially related example, see Mashlib Pipes Tutorial: Reading List Inspired Journal Watchlists.)

PS it's also worth considering for a moment the users, here... With the advent of the web, discovery and resource availability is no longer the sole preserve of the library. The OPAC exposes a tiny fraction of all available content, (admittedly curated content, which means that it's a just a locally convenient collection, albeit, just one of many that a typical student can now access). Surveys such as those described in Seeking Information in the Digital Age, Do Libraries Cater for Today's Undergraduate Students?, and Do Libraries Cater for Today's Researchers and Research Students? point at a present (not even a possible future) in which library users go elsewhere. The OPAC is just one place of many to look for information. In fact, if I was to be contentious, I would argue that the only significant thing an OPAC is good for is discovering the availability and location of known items within a particular library (ducks...;-).

Secondarily, it may also turn up items loosely related to a particular topic, based on the presence of search terms in metadata, or keywords in titles or subject classifications; but just bear in mind that subject classifications tend to reflect the preferences of the individual cataloguer and the controlled vocabulary they used, rather than the more general index that an information retrieval system based on text analysis system, and that most library users don't speak in subject classification language... (Maybe that's why asking what words to use is one of the few things that library users ask librarians for help with (Seeking Information in the Digital Age)?!

Lee Rainie's latest presentation on NetGen

Much as previous presentations, as far as I can see.

No Cameras in the Library...

One of the things that has got me in trouble a couple of times during my stint as Arcadia Fellow is using my phone as a camera within the confines of University Library (cameras, along with bags, are most defintely not allowed inside the Library). As the Library rules puts it:
18. Overcoats, raincoats, and other kinds of outdoor clothing, umbrellas, bags, cases, cameras, photocopying devices, and similar personal belongings shall normally be deposited in the locker-room adjacent to the entrance hall during each visit to the Library.

Which is not to say that photocopying, per se is not allowed in the University Library, because it is... either using self-service machines or via Imaging Services (UL: Photocopying). So the problem is presumably guarding against Library users photographing/photocopying works that they shouldn't? But from what I can tell, those works are accessible only in the Reading Rooms, so presumably a ban on photogrph/copying works in those areas would suffice? (If the books that may not be copied can be taken out of those rooms, then they can easily be copied in thre photopcopier room...)

Or maybe the photocopiers log and scan everything, so the Library knows exactly what copies have been made...?! (I think not...)

The photocopiers are modern ones, after all (I'd post a photo but I might get caught again...) which is to say that they are also scanners, capable of scanning books etc and emailing the scan to a supplied email address. Email addresses need to be entered manually (rather than being identified automatically from a scan of a Library card, or entry of the shorter CRSID for example) so it's user beware in terms of making sure you enter the correct details. (I know, I know, not every user will have those details... so in those cases, they could choose to enter their email address...)

Hmmm, so I wonder: what if I'm in the photocopier room when I take a photo/scan of a book title page, for example, using my phone rather than on of the photocopiers? Will I get shouted at if anyone sees me?!

But so what if a "no cameras" rule is enforced?

- no cameras means no scope for exploring services like the use of QR codes in the library.

- no cameras means no scope for exploring the use of cameras for grabbing universal bar codes using apps like BookMobile or SnapTell (Note that the Cambrdge University Library bar codes don't seem to be resolvable using the bar code readers I have on my phone (not that I've tried using that camera based functionality inside tjhe library, of course...;-), though with a few tweaks of the bar code reader code that could probably be addressed...)

- no cameras means no opportunity to explore personal photocopying services:

- no cameras means no opportunity to explore self-service checkout; I'm guessing that the UL currently uses magnetic strips to check whether or not a book is being taken from the library when it shouldn't be, and I also guess that RFID tag enabled books use the RFID tag and a record lookup to perform a similar role... which means that if the UL was to go with RFID, it would presumably be possible for patrons to scan out books using a client on their own phone that was linked to the UL book checky outy service (can you tell I've started picking up on library jargon?!;-)

- and no cameras means no chance of exploring what sort of role the toy of the moment, Google Goggles, might play in a research context*:

*I originally wrote "library context", rather than "research context" (or "study context") there... Hmmm... a symptom of it's our Library and we make the rules maybe?

If the Library wants to engage in the mobile revolution, then I would humbly suggest that it needs to think about its camera policy. According to a small, informal and what I guess should be best described as anecdotal survey - Mobile Phone Internet & Camera Usage - it seems as if it's only the minority of mobile phone users who aren't in the regular habit of using their mobile phone as a camera... More elaborate surveys (e.g. Global survey shows cell phone is 'remote control' for life) seem to come to a similar conclusion...

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Seeking Information in the Digital Age

Yet another report on "How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age" [PDF] skipped across my Twitter feed yesterday, courtesy of Scott Leslie.

So how does this one compare to the findings reviewed in Do Libraries Cater for Today's Undergraduate Students? and Do Libraries Cater for Today's Researchers and Research Students?...?
Many students in our sample used a strategy for finding information and conducting research that leveraged scholarly sources and public Internet sites and favored brevity, consensus, and currency in the sources they sought.

And as with the other reports, it seems that Google's up there when doing course related research:

Project Info Lit

as well as "personal" research...

Project info lit

The four categories reported in the above charts relate to the following typology which identifies the different ways in which students appear to approach a research topic:

Project info lit - research context typology

The categories are defined as follows:
1. Big picture: Finding out background for defining and selecting a topic.
2. Language: Figuring out what words and terms associated with a topic may mean.
3. Situational: Gauging how far to go with research, based on surrounding circumstances.
4. Information-gathering: Finding, accessing, and securing relevant research resources.

To my mind, these research contexts relate to different ways in which a student may be said to be familiarising themselves with a particular topic, and leveling their understanding of the ideas contained within it. Maybe the term "presearch" is also relevant here?
Finding big picture context may indeed be part of what some students have called a “presearch stage.” Presearch is a time of thinking about and narrowing down a topic.

So what problems to students admit to having with respect to their research activities?
... students also reported they used different resources and workarounds that sometimes helped (and sometimes did not) as they tried to find the contexts they needed.
For most students, it was during these research interactions—the use of certain information resources to find different research contexts—when difficulties, frustrations and challenges arose.
Respondents stated that many of these frustrations were the effects of information overload and the sense of being inundated by all the resources at their disposal. We also found that students were challenged by their inability to find the materials they desired and needed on a “just in time” basis, especially if they had procrastinated on course-related research assignments.

A question of "appropriate tools for the job"...?
“When I’m doing research, usually it’s the material that I have from the class, or the stuff I’m looking up from the library databases. But if I don’t understand something from those things like a word or a concept, then I’ll go a search engine, or if I just need quick facts or something like that, I’ll use a search engine to find them.”
Student in a followup interview

So my reading of this is that students are comfortable with the way that "the web" can provide them with context at their level, and help them make sense of ideas presented to them through academic materials via a socially mediated filter (the Google algorithm, the link economy and the click-thru behaviour of other searchers!) That is, Google exposed "web sense" (cf. common sense...?) helps students make personal sense of their research topic through things that others researching the same topic have previously found useful...

Viewed this way, a concern raised by the report authors suddenly makes sense:
In our fall student discussion sessions we identified gaps between how faculty conducted research (usually primary research), especially at research institutions, and how students conducted research (usually secondary research) for course-related research. The gap in what research was and how it was conducted by each group, in this case, was the basis for frustrations with meeting instructors╩╝ expectations for course-related research assignments.

This gap in part arises because of the difference between the "approved" (re)search process:

Cornell library guid to course relatd research

and what I would claim is the students' use of web search engines to aid sensemaking and interpretation of scholarly resources (rather than for resource discovery, say... That is, the search is not for resources to cite, it's for "notes" that help them interpret or make sense of the (concepts contained in the) resources they are going to cite...)

This tension between how students do (re)search and "formal" models of how it should be done is also considered in the report:
1. Library guides often recommend a strategy for scholarly information seeking, underscored by the use of credible, authoritative sources. These sources are more likely to bring success by resolving many of the credibility issues facing digital natives.
2. The student approach is based on efficiency and utility. The student strategy attempts to satisfy context needs (identifying and developing a topic) by using a combination of instructor-sanctioned sources (i.e., course readings) and with open-access, collaborative public Internet resources (i.e., Google and Wikipedia) that return a lot of results early on.

That is:
As a whole, the findings suggest that students in our sample favored sources for their brevity, consensus, and currency over other qualities and less so, for their scholarly authority.

In the previous reports referred to at the start of this post, we saw that respondents did not necessarily call on the direct services of librarians; what did this report find?

Use of librarians

No change there, then! However, it was reported that "respondents who needed to fill a language context need were more than 1.5 times more likely to consult librarians than were respondents who did not have a language need". That is: "please, Sir, Miss, what word should I use here?"
“It’s kind of tough to answer why I use librarian, but is really more when I’m trying to think of the word to use, how to narrow my search, so it’s not such a huge list to choose stuff from. Say you are searching a certain kind of plant, or something, and you end up with a 100 plus things to look and they are not even necessarily what you need, so you want to know how to cancel those out and have a narrower search—librarians help you with that process of narrowing a search down.”
Student follow-up interview

And again:
Students in our sample were much more likely to use a librarian when they needed help finding the meaning of a word or term related to a topic or figuring out what search terms to use. Also, respondents were more likely to turn to librarians for help with finding full text materials that were available from different sources.

So where are we at? Students use Google, and sometimes they ask for help about vocabulary. And if they do actually use subscription databases, what do they see as the benefits?

Project infolit - use of databass

In other words:
The perceived reliability of content found on scholarly research databases was the most significant driver for respondents╩╝ use. A majority of respondents (78%) used databases because they were a source of credible information—more so than what students might find elsewhere on the Internet. In addition, three-fourths of the sample (76%) used databases for the in-depth, detailed information, often found in journal articles, they could find with a keystroke.

Referring back to Figure 8 from the report (shown above) about resources used for course related searches, instructors rather than librarians scored highly as an important resource. So how did instructor support manifest itself?

Projct info lit - instructor support -

Taken as a whole, these results suggest that most respondents definitely included instructors in some role during their course-related research workflow. In particular, respondents turned to instructors for coaching throughout the entire research process from defining a topic to developing an information seeking strategy to writing up their final papers.

On the upside, we could say that instructors are embdding infoskills in their teaching and support of students. Which means what?
We have come to believe that many students see instructors—not librarians—as coaches on how to consult research. This situation seems to occur whether the faculty may qualify as expert researchers in the area of student research methods, or not. Librarians and faculty should see the librarian-student disconnect as a timely opportunity, especially when it comes to transferring information competencies to students.
We recommend librarians take an active role and initiate the dialogue with faculty to close a divide that may be growing between them and faculty and between them and students—each campus is likely to be different. ... No matter what the means of communication may be, however, librarians need to actively identify opportunities for training faculty as conduits for reaching students with sound and current information-seeking strategies, as it applies to their organizational settings.

Finally, a question occurred to me whilst I was reading the report: If you viewed Google as a member of Library Staff, which staff member (role or actual person) would they be? If you had to write a job description for what Google currently does, and what it could do, what would that job description look like? Is there a post that fulfills a similar role in your Library already? If not, why not?

As the report puts it:
Librarians should systematically (not just anecdotally) examine the services they provide to students. This may require looking at things through a new lens, if need be. Questions should be addressed about how and why services and resources are used—not only how often (e.g., circulation or reference desk statistics). Librarians may want to initiate their analysis by asking what percentage of their campus are using the library, for what particular resources or services, and why or why not? At the same time, we recommend librarians seriously question whether they are developing a set of “niche services,” which only reach a small percentage of students.

You have been warned... ;-)

Monday, 7 December 2009

Researching early career researchers

When considering the needs of academics as the users of a service, it's very tempting to divide them up into different groups. We tend to assume that scholars in STEM subjects have different needs to those in the arts and humanities; we imagine that a teaching focus might lead to differing requirements from those concentrating on research. And sometimes we seem to forget one key differentiator: the gulf between the needs of a young and enthusiastic postdoc, still building a network and a profile, and those of a well-known Professor who spends his time dashing between keynote opportunities.

CARET recently produced a report into the lives and technology use of early career researchers, and found their needs are clearly distinct from those of established, senior academics.

The early career researcher is a PhD student or postdoc, who has only been in their field of research for a few years. Early career researchers may be a force for change in research processes and technologies, flexible and willing to experiment with new systems, but this affect may be moderated by the more conservative researchers who work with, and in some cases supervise, them.

The report investigates some of the ways in which "ECRs" use technology, would like to use technology, try to use technology, and how higher education institutions and funding bodies may be able to help them in the future. One key finding is that a great deal of the scholarly activity of an early career researcher involves ICT in some way; but perhaps more interestingly, almost all their technology use involves people in some way.

You can download the full report here, but some of the highlights are included below.

Every early career researcher is uniquely situated in career stage, research area, discipline, networks, and objectives. Nonetheless, their experiences share some common features. Early career researchers (ECR) are attempting to build their professional research profile, whilst often trying to fit in to a new environment, be that a new discipline, institution, group or role. Short degree courses and short term contracts mean that many early career researchers have lives punctuated by change. Throughout, they are aware of complex issues of trust, an example of which is the delicate balance between mutual support from peers, and competition for funding, jobs, and publications.

Day-to-day, early career researchers’ lives have much in common, even across quite different disciplines. Their work involves them in a wide variety of tasks throughout the research lifecycle - seeking new information, gathering data, analysis, reflection and discussion, and publishing - plus teaching and administrative roles. ICT plays a role in almost all these activities, and ECRs choose the tools they use with care, balancing the costs and benefits of each. People and relationships play a key role in the ICT experience of the early career researcher.

Early career researchers are members of multiple networks, frequently overlapping, with subtly graduated relationship types and trust levels. For whatever reason, physically proximate relationships are currently dominant in the lives of many ECRs; particularly strong relationships are characterised by the use of multiple redundant communication channels or technologies. It can be argued that the development of early career researchers would be enhanced by a more distributed network, which is not always possible today due to the often limited travel funding for conference attendance and visits; online scholarly networking could support this instead. Work-life balance is important to early career researchers, who wish to retain their own boundaries between professional and social activities, even if those boundaries are blurred.

The culture and practices of a discipline, or research group, often dominate choices about the ways in which technology is used. Traditional methods - even pen and paper - still play an important role for many early career researchers. Email is also still widely used, although this is often forgotten in discussion of communication technologies today. Early career researchers are happy to repurpose non-academic technology tools for scholarly use, although this practice is not widespread. Awareness of novel ways of using tools spreads generally via networks. Serendipitous discovery of new tools and methods through word of mouth is also very common and appears to be one of the best ways to find out about new systems or practices.

Despite many ECRs being interested in trying out new technologies, 72% of early career researchers reported that they did not even use Web 2.0 or social media to share their research. This may reflect the many and varied constraints which limit ICT take-up amongst early career researchers, perhaps including norms of secrecy in research practice; this study found social, confidence, skills, institutional and participatory constraints on technology use by ECRs.

Any tool used for collaboration or communication requires that all those engaged in the work must have the tool available to them, and be capable of using it, and choose to do so. This can limit the adoption of new technologies, as many groups will include a mixture of more and less technically-savvy researchers (whether early career, or established), and any tool which is to be used across the group must be acceptable to all. Other researchers who may view new technology (particularly ‘social web’ tools) with scepticism, or as frivolous, can discourage early career researchers from using, or promoting, these systems.

What Can Academic Libraries Learn From Public Libraries... about a glimpse of the future?

In a consultation document published last week - Empower, Inform, Enrich - The modernisation review of public libraries: A consultation - and reprinted today in commentable form on WriteToReply* - Empower, Inform, Enrich on WriteToReply the following five significant challenges are identified for the (public) library service:

* I need to declare an interest here - I was involved with the republication of the document

  • How can the library service demonstrate to citizens, commentators and politicians that they are still relevant and vital?

  • How can we reverse the current trend of decline in library usage and grow the numbers using their local library?

  • How can all libraries respond to a 24/7 culture and respond to changing expectations of people who want immediate access to information.

  • How can all libraries grasp the opportunities presented by digitisation?

  • How can the library service cope with limited public resource and economic pressures?

These challenges are also faced by academic libraries in one form or another, so it's worth looking through some of the questions raised by the consultation (a compilation of the question can be found here: Consultation Questions).

The consultation also includes several case studies about recent initiatives in various local library services. (Is there a collection of similar case studies relating to academic libraries, I wonder, or maybe scenario planning reports produced while developing strategic plans for academic libraries?)

View Library Consultation Case Studies in a larger map

A series of essays from a range of "thinkers, commentators and leaders in library services, as well as individuals working in retail, digital media, education, publishing and local government" was also commissioned by the organisers of the consultation, including one from Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive, The British Library, who wrote:
Whilst there are often informal links between university libraries and the British Library, and in the case of the latter we certainly play a part in supporting public libraries through a range of activities, these links could be better promoted to increase public access to a wider range of materials. The Inspire scheme already plays a valuable role in supporting libraries across England in working together, whether they be public, higher education, health, specialist or national libraries. Together these libraries offer a hugely powerful resource and the challenge is to create seamless access to all citizens.

It might well turn out that the public and academic libraries face a shared future - and even shared services. So if for no other reason than that, maybe it's worth familiarising ourselves with the current consultation, and maybe even responding to it? Comment on Empower, Inform, Enrich at WriteToReply

PS a quick search on the Inspire/Find it! service for "University of Cambridge" related libraries turned up five, all related to St John's College.