College Students No Longer Looking to Librarians

When it comes to college campuses, the relationship between student and librarian appears to be dwindling. That is, at least according to the USA Today article "Study: College students rarely use librarians’ expertise," which details an ethnographic study purposed to examine how students view and use the libraries that are available to them on their college campuses.

Over the course of two years, the study took place at five Illinois universities, including DePaul University, Northeastern Illinois University, Illinois Wesleyan, University of Illinois’s Chicago campus, and the University of Illinois’s Springfield campus. At each campus, two anthropologists were placed among library staff to collect data through methods like open-ended interviews and direct observation. Rather than traditional methods that would produce statistically significant results, these untraditional methods were used so that data would be more reflective of participants’ actual thoughts.

Students, librarians, and even professors were surveyed about their library experiences, research habits, search processes, resource selection, and librarian interaction. While the ERIAL, or the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries, project shed light on many issues concerning university libraries, there were a few that stood out.

When it came to the search process at the library, students seemed to not have a clear understanding of search logic. It was found that they used Google too often, did not correctly use scholarly databases, and for the most part, preferred database searches that were simple. They also proved to be less than talented at finding quality sources. Even when using Google, students lacked an understanding about how search engine results are generated and therefore tended to conduct poor searches that were too broad to provide any quality leads. But even with poor research skills, students still were unlikely to ask librarians for help.

Perhaps this could be attributed to a disconnect between students and librarians, who students are more likely to see as someone who can direct them to the right stack rather than an academic expert who can help them with research.

One thing that could determine how students view librarians is actually the professor who assigns a research project. The study found that professors influence how students relate to the library, since they are the ones who provide instructions and grade the assignments. But since most faculty members do not know very much about library resources themselves, they do not always inform students about the help that librarians can provide. In addition, when it came to the librarians themselves, it was discovered that they more often than not overestimated students’ research skills, which resulted in less than helpful interactions with students.

The American Library Association will publish the complete results this fall as a paper titled "Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know."

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