Are the Users Ahead of Us?

Inside Higher education had an article a couple of days ago about a new study on technology use among undergraduates. As we’ve been hearing for a while, students are using more information technology than ever. This certainly comes as no surprise. They use social networking sites. Everyone has a cell phone, a laptop, and an iPod. The study noted that many students are comfortable with a variety of information technologies, but don’t necessarily want them everywhere. “Over half of laptop owners don’t bring them to class at all,” the article says. And, “the study finds ‘themes of skepticism and moderation alongside enthusiasm,’ such that 59 percent preferred a ‘moderate rather than extensive use of IT in courses.’” And as much as it might frustrate some librarians trying to make contact with students, some places they want to be left alone. “Students appear to segment different modes of communication for different purposes. E-mail, Web sites, message boards and Blackboard? Viable ways of connecting with professors and peers. Same for chat, instant messaging, Facebook and text messages? Not necessarily, the authors write, because students may ‘want to protect these tools’ personal nature.’”

That more or less confirms my experience with students. Technologically, they’re usually not ahead of me. After all, I have an iPod, a smartphone (only 12% of students have one of those), a laptop, a blog, an rss reader, a Facebook site (which I rarely use), and a Blackboard site (which I use intensively for my class). I use some of those Firefox extensions. I made a toolbar for the Princeton library that the library ignores but that some students and colleagues use. I just made a wiki for my reference department and am giving a demo on it tomorrow. I’ve even been on Second Life a few times, and found it mightily boring, though the new Princeton island is nice. Just to get a reaction, I told the students I’d looked them all up on Facebook, and commented on the great parties it looked like they’d attended. They were appalled until they realized I was joking.

Yesterday, I asked my students about their IT knowledge. Since we have a class blog that becomes an integral writing assignment for the course, I wanted to know who had blogged before. Only one student, who had signed up for the course partly because he liked the idea of the blog. A few students read blogs, but mostly those of their friends. Most of the students didn’t really know what an rss feed was, and only a couple used them. I doubt they’d spent much time on Second Life. They use a lot of IT, but have gaps in their knowledge, gaps they might never want to fill.

To shift the subject slightly, the library just started hosting blogs, and I created one for the philosophy department, partly just to see how WordPress works since I use Blogger for the course blog and Movable Type for this one. However, I don’t think I’m going to use the blog for a while, because I don’t think it will be read by my target audience, in this case philosophy professors and graduate students. I’ve talked to some, and while some are very cutting edge, most are very traditional is their approach to information. They read scholarly journals, not library blogs. They’re happy emailing me with problems; they don’t need to IM me. The graduate students may be different, but not necessarily. I oversee the philosophy department’s private library, and a couple of years ago I caved in to some grad student demand to leave the print journal collection intact, even though every one of the journals was available online through the university library.

This brings me in a very roundabout way to the question in my title. I often read library blogs that argue we should be adopting new information technologies because that’s where our users are at. I’m not so sure. I think that those librarians are ahead of their users in this respect, as I believe I’m ahead of most of my users. As a reason to change, catching up with the users might not be a very good one, because I suspect most of the users might not be caught up with us.

Does this mean we shouldn’t play around with new modes of communication and information technology? Certainly not. It just means that some of the urgency of calls to change ring hollow for me. We must change QUICKLY and NOW! But that urgency doesn’t seem to fit the facts.

To be honest, most of the techie blogs I read are by public librarians. It’s been a long time since I worked in a public library, but I would think the typical undergraduate at a four-year college is technologically ahead of the average public library user. And I would also suspect that members of the public who are the most technologically advanced, who have smartphones and laptops and read blogs and keep up with information technology, are probably the least likely to use public libraries for anything other than leisure reading. I use our public library for my daughter to get books, period, and not even that often, since we buy her a lot of books.

So is it the case that in either academic or public libraries the users are ahead of the techies? Or are they just ahead of the luddite librarians, if there be such? How wired is the general populace or the average student population? Are they really ahead of us?

2 thoughts on “Are the Users Ahead of Us?

  1. Most of what you say here rings true for me in public libraries. The only difference is that teens now are very interested in new technologies and we do have to keep up with them to some degree. In some systems, schools have blocked alot of the social softwares so they come to visit us.
    I see the web/library 2.0 thing as an opportunity that we can’t afford not to take advantage of. Urgent? Well, no — but urgent enough in the sense that services can become obsolete very quickly. Think of Geocities, for instance, in the days of the blog. Or Usenet.
    Traditional reference service is a good potential victim of future obsolescence. We seem to be filling in the gaps with instruction. Is this enough? Hard to say. All the more reason to keep up with things, though.

  2. That’s a good point about the teens, but the students I’m talking about are still teens, although late teens.
    Taking advantage of the opportunity? Sure. I agree completely. For example, I implemented a chat reference service in my first job 6 years ago. I’ve helped significantly with the chat reference service here. I think we should reach out to students. The point about Geocities is good, but the history of the quick rise and fall of so many things like that makes me wonder which exciting new thing now will be history in a year.
    If by reference service you mean sitting at a desk waiting for people to come up to it, then it wouldn’t bother me if it disappeared. What I don’t think will go away, at least for academic libraries, is the need for research consultation with students. Scholarly work requires many different approaches to information, and students inevitably need help with that. The few questions I get when I’m on the reference desk are relatively simple, and mostly concern clearing printer jams and helping people navigate Firestone Library, which is no mean feat. But I do plenty of research consultations, and some of my colleagues serving research or data intensive fields do a lot more.
    I’m mostly saying I see an evangelical zeal in a lot of the change rhetoric that I think is unnecessary.

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