Office Hours: Listening to student voices

However engaging, thought-provoking, and even polarizing the speakers were at the Future of Academic Libraries Symposium presented by McMaster University and Library Journal, they couldn’t match what five McMaster University students had to say. “Hearing from Our Users: What Students Expect,” moderated by Mike Ridley, CIO and chief librarian at the University of Guelph, offered the most striking, honest, and emotionally charged views of the entire day. It gave symposium participants a glimpse at students’ perceptions and opinions.

Ridley urged the panel to “tell us what we need to hear,” and they did. While all five own a smartphone, not one said they had ever accessed library resources on their device, although all were involved in extracurricular activities, had part-time jobs, and volunteered their time.

Comments from the panel were telling, humorous (“the food at the library sucks”), and eye-opening (“we need more one-on-one interaction with the librarians”), offering much to ponder. Some of the takeaways that resonated for me should directly impact LIS curriculum.

What they said

Our stuff is hard to use and not very simple to navigate for answers or resources. “Why do so many of you start with Google?” Ridley asked. One concise answer spoke volumes to the crowd: “Efficiency and accessibility – the simplicity. The library website is hard to use. You should not have to teach us how to use the [web]site – it should be obvious.”

student who is very fond of books always starts her research in the stacks. “It’s hard to figure out what database to use and that’s where the disconnect is,” she said.

What we should do

Information architecture, usability, and emphasis on user experience and design should be included in every LIS student’s program. It’s hard to imagine a professional position that might not include creating content, designing web services for users, or performing some form of instruction related to the site. If a site is difficult to navigate, will students ever want to return to it when the simplicity and “just in time” allure of Google calls?

What they said

One of the panelists reported he had been unaware of most library services until he took a course in library use. “We’re going to teach you to search…,” the librarian said in class, and he responded with a big “eye roll.” He soon realized how useful that knowledge could be.

Students don’t want noisy messages from the library; they’re a problem. Be in the social spaces, the panelists urged, but “don’t flood us with the same old stuff you always send….”

What we should do

Marketing and creating a presence that reaches out to students is just as important as having usable sites. Many LIS students take a User Instruction course, but they need a broader view on how to interact with student users via various channels. Such instruction might provide more insight into student behavior as well as tactics for getting the message out about what’s available at the library.

The study explored in “Can We Handle the Truth?” (Office Hours, LJ 1/11) echoed these ideas: we need to move from source-focused to research process – based instruction. And we should find ways to do it at the point of need for students because many are not coming to ask the librarians waiting for them in the library.

What they said

The age-old confusion about what a librarian does still exists. In fact, when Ridley asked the panel “What defines a professional librarian,” their comments weren’t surprising. One “had no idea” what a librarian was until it was explained to her in the car on the way to the symposium. Another stated what many students, and public library patrons, think as well: “it means everyone in the library to me….”

Ridley followed with, “Do you care if it’s a librarian, or not, helping you with your research?” The consensus was a simple, “No, we just want help,” and frankly librarians are mostly a “last resort.”

More difficult truths

One panelist asked that librarians “focus on things we want to talk about,” not just on how to search. This goes beyond designing sites and services to something deeper – that human connection forged when we understand each other. How can we reach students, how can we have a tangible impact on their education and their lives, when the disconnect from these articulate, thoughtful young people is so pronounced?

One audience member questioned the group: Were they typical students or high achievers? The panelists agreed they were typical – but even if that’s not the case, it shouldn’t devalue their opinions or any of the opinions our constituents have. We need to hear, understand, and respond to all of these voices. We need a higher level of engagement and understanding of all our users – students, faculty, people.

This post was originally published as “Listening to student voices” in Library Journal. Stephens, M. (2011). Listening to student voices. Library Journal136(11), 44.