Are We There Yet?

stream of color

First off, I’ve had yet another library school connection. I’m not sure which class I read this article in, but somewhere along the line in one of my classes we were assigned this article. At the time I remember being impressed that someone would have such a good sense of the future of information, though a lot of the mechanics ended up being more sophisticated than he thought they’d be what with the Internet and the advances in computing. I’m a science-fiction reader, and I’m often similarly impressed with what older science fiction authors get right about the future. Of course, they often also get it wrong. I don’t know whether to be amused or upset that male science fiction authors of the 50s and 60s could not imagine a future in which women were not housewives (see Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

I named this post “Are We There Yet?” because it seems to be that the seamless access of information and ease of annotation is lagging. As Bush notes, we have gotten very good at storing information and taking less and less space to store it cheaply. However, access and annotation are still regular snags. Search algorithms have a long way to go for research purposes. When I teach students how to use the library, knowing that they will be frustrated by the ever-present clunkiness of databases, I try to get them to see that the purpose of their searching is different. In a Google search, often the first web page or two will do the trick. Who ever scrolls to the bottom of a Google search results page? Who goes on to the next page? More likely you’d rerun the search with different words. The idea is that a web page or two will meet the need for information. Research for scholarly purposes ideally involves a more exhaustive search, and Google doesn’t handle that well. They prioritize precision over recall. A library database prioritizes recall over precision. As of yet having both done well isn’t possible. So, while the information is out there, still in traditional article form for the most part, it’s not simple to retrieve effectively.

Besides access is annotation. The research indicates that students still prefer print books, and the ease of annotating is often cited as a reason for that preference. Digital versions of annotation tools exist, but they are still awkward and limited. They also vary based on which e-reader software/hardware is being used. I feel there is a long way to go toward making annotations and links between data easy to achieve in the digital realm. Ultimately, while students prefer print, libraries generally see students use e-books more than print books. I don’t think this means the students were misleading us when they said they prefer print. I think convenience wins over preference and the student at home that wants to use information from a book for an assignment is going to use the book they can access immediately.

My musings are mainly concrete and concerning the technology we deal with right now. I’m aware that all of this assumes a scholarly communication environment that has perhaps stagnated, and some of the “but this is the way it’s always been done” needs to be challenged. My impression is that the challenges are happening – the movement behind this course is one example – but they haven’t hit a critical mass yet or gained full support from academia. When I reach the end of my career, 40 years from now perhaps, it will be interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

5 thoughts on “Are We There Yet?

  1. I certainly empathize with your struggles to help students learn to use the proprietary databases. They are generally (still) pretty clunky, and it’s hard for students to see why they should invest time in learning a particular interface when it’s so easy to do a google search. I think one big hurdle here is context, which Jon Udell described as “a service we provide each other” in the Hangout this week. It’s hard for students to know (or have the motivation to want to know) how to search and how deep to dig without having some content / context for scaffolding.
    I’m excited about the possibilities opened up by tools like Hypothes.is — do you think it might help on the front lines of the library?

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    1. Thanks! I haven’t tried Hypothes.is this time around, but I have a vague memory of using it before. I like that it’s website-agnostic, which is part of the problem with library purchased resources to some degree. They aren’t always interoperable with each other. The typical community college student is not going to want to create personal accounts in all the different databases in order to keep annotations. A tool that doesn’t care where you are online is an improvement. I still think there are some technical problems with it actually working with most library resources, for a couple reasons I won’t go into, because: boring. Plus, many community college students still don’t even have internet access at home! I’ll have to mess around with Hypothes.is and see how it does with our resources all the same.

      And you’re absolutely right, the students aren’t always motivated to understand more unless they are an unusually academic type. Or unless I can make it relevant to them. I typically only get one class session with them and I try to simply explain why we aren’t just torturing them by sending them to library databases. I also try to help them see how the skills they are learning will help them in their everyday lives. But it’s hard when you have to condense it. I’ve still got some work to do to get my library instruction more engaging to the students in a short amount of time. Not that I’ll ever convince all of them. 🙂

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  2. Fascinating and wide-ranging post. A fine contribution! Thank you. Some thoughts:

    I wonder: how many students annotate their print books? At times I’ve asked my English or Film or New Media students about their annotations, and many of them say they don’t want to write in the margins because a) they want to sell the book back at end of term or b) they don’t want to mess up (deface?) the book. That’s anecdata, I know, but it’s been consistent.

    I’m also now wondering about how to cultivate an “annotation disposition.” My favorite English Comp reader, “Ways of Reading,” describes reading as a deeply interactive experience. My educated guess is that most students view reading as essentially an experience of consuming content, especially when it comes to textbooks of one kind or another. Some work to be done here.

    And of course, we don’t want folks writing in library books….

    As you can see, you’ve provoked many thoughts in my own head–thank you!

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    1. Thanks! I will flatter myself and consider myself not that far off from our current students (I graduated from grad school about 6 years ago). 🙂 And if memory serves, even though I was an English major, it wasn’t quite the same. My textbooks in the upper level classes were novels so they were cheap to start with. I didn’t mind marking those up a lot. In grad school, I had more of the leave-it-alone strategy because the books I had were more expensive traditional textbooks. And then when it came to library resources, I rarely used a print book, so I was often printing out articles or e-book chapters and then physically marking it up. I don’t know that I had the same digital annotation options within the library resources themselves that students have now, however limited it is.
      I agree with your point about students as consumers. By my senior year, I was starting to be more engaged with the work I was reading and trying to create a new idea. I often like to tell students that writing a research is their first step in entering the scholarly conversation as a new scholar to try to get them thinking that way, but it doesn’t necessarily sink in. I’m inspired to brainstorm and explore how I might help students see that better, especially if it helps motivate them.

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