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History’s Detectives and the Way the World Searches

I haven’t watched History’s Detectives (on PBS),  in a while, so when I caught up on an episode the other night, I was struck by something I hadn’t really noticed before.  For those of you who’ve not watched it (because you are not a history/anthropology geek like myself), History’s Detectives is a sort of spin-off of Antiques Roadshow.    But instead of people bringing their stuff to the Roadshow for experts to tell them about it, the experts  come to people’s houses to inspect the item, and take it away with them for a thorough investigation as to its history and meaning.

It’s fun, if you like that sort of thing (which clearly, I do).  This time around, I particularly noticed how the beginning of the process of investigation was represented.  After taking the object away with them to their study/office, the expert sits down with their laptop, and immediately fires up Google.  When Wes Cowan was beginning his investigation of a WWII propaganda leaflet, he typed almost those precise words into the Google search box, and worked his way through the links that came up.  He actually said for the benefit of the camera, “I don’t know anything about this,” before he started Googling.

It looked just like what any student does when they are asked to write a paper about a given topic.  Or what a faculty member does when they want to have a general sense of what’s being written about a topic before they teach a class on it, or write an article about it.

Here’s what marked Mr. Cowan as an expert:  he didn’t stop with the Google search.  He’s not on this show to do televised Google searches.  He moved away from the general overview that Google searching could give him, and started reaching out to professional contacts, snowballing his sources until he’d found the answers his client was looking for.   He moved from secondary sources to primary source documents in the process, spoke to people who knew the artist who produced that particular pamphlet, and was capable at the end of all of that work of crafting a finely detailed story of the artifact in question.

Students writing papers have different goals, and how far they go beyond the Google search (or, a browse-type search on an academic library web page) is very much up to the kind of assignment.  If they are writing a five page essay, the post-Google process will look different from that which goes into a 10 or 20 page paper. There is no one perfect search, because all searches happen in a given context.  What may be sufficient for one assignment is woefully inadequate for another (and will be reflected in one’s grade for that assignment!).

What does that mean for academic libraries, and those who work with students on their assignments?  It’s more important than ever to get a grounded sense of why students are looking for information, not just the fact that they need information on “X.”  The reference interview for a 5-page paper has compelling reasons to look different from one for the 10 page paper.

Demonstrating that we know the difference, and translating it into practice in the form of a reference interview gives us more credibility, and makes it more likely that students will come to us for help in the future.

Instruction at Point of Need

I get the impression that, within academia, there is a constant, low-level (and sometimes not-so-low-level) anxiety about whether or not students are learning what they need to about information, information literacy, and how to effectively use the information that they do find.    This essay is an example of some of the strategies academic libraries and librarians engage in to attempt to inform students in effective ways about their information possibilities. 

Instruction at the point of need is not a concept that is unique to academic libraries.  Faculty struggle with when is the best time to give students information about coursework, paper assignments, and exams.  Many go over their syllabi at the beginning of the semester, but then encounter students throughout the semester who were not in class that day, who got the syllabus but didn’t read it, or who have the syllabus but forgot what it said after they read it.  Having syllabi on course management systems such as Moodle or Blackboard Vista can help with this some, because you are not relying on student access to a paper copy, but can expect that students who need the information can go find it online.

Design specialists think about instruction at the point of need in all sorts of contexts.  The website of Edward Tufte contains an entire message board discussing examples of instruction, and whether or not those examples are effective (and why they might or might not be).  Signs that assist with urban wayfinding, package instructions, safety cautions are all examples of things that need clear and obvious design elements to catch attention as well as convey information.

People who need to find their way around a city, who need to open a newly purchased item, or who need to know how to be safe when their airplane is crashing are also highly motivated to receive the information contained in those instructions.  And that is where it can all get hung up in the academic context:  faculty and other instructors (including librarians) traditionally gave instruction when it worked for their own schedule, or for when they thought students *should* have the information (e.g., at the beginning of the semester).  That time is not necessarily when students are most receptive to that information.  Finding the intersection of student need and student receptivity is a tricky prospect, and requires flexibilty.

For instance, there are faculty members who have online office hours the night before homework assignments are due, because that is when students both need and are willing to listen to the relevant information.  Students who are writing papers often do so in the week (or day) before the assignment is due–that is when they are most receptive to information about how to structure their paper, how to find information to use in the body of their paper, how to configure their bibliography.  Short of reference librarians giving middle-of-the-night library instruction, how can we get that information into the hands of students when they both need it and are listening to what we have to say?

This is something we are actively thinking about in Atkins, and there are already a few possible solutions that we are working towards.  I’d be interested in hearing what you think are really effective ways of reaching people with the information they need to have to be successful.  What has worked for you?

New Places for you to Work (edited to give credit where due)

Joan Lippincott  and Sarah Watstein came to talk to us in the library this past semester about learning spaces.  We were shown photos of a variety of library spaces in a wide range of places.  I was particularly inspired by a picture of a picnic table tucked under a chalkboard in a friendly outdoor nook.  And I thought, “we can do that.”

Thanks to the quick work of our facilities staff, when you come back for the summer sessions, or even if you are not coming back until the Fall, there are new workspaces waiting for you!  There are now chalkboards in the outdoor area just outside of Peets.  We are lucky in Charlotte to have nearly year-round outside-friendly weather.  Enjoy!

Questions for you! Just in time for finals…

…but in this case, there’s no such thing as a wrong answer.
We’ll have easels up soon, so you can write your answer hard-copy if you like, but I thought I’d put the questions here in case someone (you, perhaps) might be inspired to answer them here.

We’re trying to get at what people think about the library, and have been presented with some questions that might help us do that.

Please answer in the comments:

1.      1.   If the library as it is now were a car, what car would it be? What car would the library be if the library were everything we wish it to be?
2.    2.   If the library were to be a song, which song?
3.    3.   If the library were an actor/actress, who would it be?

Mobile Devices and how people use them

This is a great snapshot of mobile devices usage at UW–I believe the stats are campus-wide, not just in the library.

If you go to the library.uncc.edu URL on your smartphone, you’ll see that we’ve got the beginnings of a mobile site.  In thinking about developing the new mobile site, we need to think about library things that people are likely to do on their phone (as opposed to on their laptop, in person, etc).  That means knowing the sorts of things that people already do on their phones (or tablets).

I see tablets and smartphones (as well as laptops and regular cell phones) as a part of student workspaces in the library all of the time.

Like this:


Do you use your smartphone to Google things?  What kinds of things?  What kinds of work do you do on your tablet (iPad, or other)?  Is it different from work you do on other kinds of computers (laptops, desktops)?  Are you Macs or PCs, and what difference does that make in the kinds of work you can do in the library and/or with library digital resources?

An Anthropologist in the Libraries of LA

No, not me.  No field trips for me, yet.

But I was sent this link to a great interview of the new head of the Library Foundation in LA–this gentleman is a trained anthropologist who did fieldwork in the Amazon, as well as many other non-library related jobs (among them, running the Sundance Institute, and while he did that, starting the documentary division of that film institute).

He clearly sees the LA libraries as community resources, not just (as if they ever were) dusty book repositories.  He describes libraries as “21st century spaces.”

So do we, here at Atkins.  More and more of our collections are digital, in part because that is one of the best and most effective ways we can increase our patron access to world-class collections.  In thinking about space, we are thinking about the work you need to do, which includes the need to use books but also includes computers, digital materials, and eventually, information formatted in ways we haven’t even imagined yet.

What does your library mean to you?  Is Atkins “your library?”  Or is it the public library back home?  Or in your neighborhood here in Charlotte?  Where are you when you are “in the library?”  Are you here in the building?  Or at home, “in” our website?

A Google A Day–Trivia Questions to help investigate how people use google to search for information

So Google has a self-described “anthropologist of search,” and his blog describes his new “A Google a Day” trivia game.

The game itself appears to be the point of much of the coverage–although at least one journalist sees the game as a potential search tool in and of itself.  Hardly anyone points out that what this game will actually do is allow Google to gather information on how people do search.  (this is not a secret–Google says that’s what they’re doing) I wonder if they will share with the rest of us what they learn, or just plow their knowledge back into Google.  I wonder if we could ever do something similar with the way that people search for information in our library.

People who know far more about search technology than I do doubtless have much to say about Google’s efforts.  What do you think about their using a trivia game to gather information?