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University library brings in changes as a result of student study

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A two-year study of how college students use academic libraries has led to significant changes at a US university library. The study, carried out at five higher-education institutions in Illinois, has guided the libraries to make physical, operational and strategic changes.

The ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project examined how students view and use their campus libraries. One of the most striking results, according to Lynda Duke, associate professor and academic outreach librarian and principal investigator for one of the universities, Illinois Wesleyan University, on the project, was the near-invisibility of librarians within students’ academic worldview. As one student put it: 'I assume librarians are busy doing library stuff.'

Illinois Wesleyan University has now shared some of the ways that this study has impacted processes at its university's library, The Ames Library. As a result of the study, librarians there engaged the Wesleyan teaching faculty to change the perception.

According to Duke, in the 2007-2008 academic year, prior to the project, Wesleyan librarians provided 85 instruction sessions on how to conduct academic research for 57 teaching faculty, whose classes reached 1,266 students. In contrast, the most recent statistics (the 2011-2012 academic year) showed that both the instruction sessions and the number of students reached had more than doubled. Librarians are now providing assistance for students in 80 per cent of Illinois Wesleyan’s Gateway courses, she said.

In addition, the library also uses students’ dependence on Google to its advantage. In Duke's classroom presentations alongside teaching faculty, she encourages students to discuss what makes Google so easy to use and why it’s the default search engine for 900 million unique visitors each month. 'Then we talk about the 80 or so academic databases the library has, and how we pay to have access to scholarly information that Google doesn’t,' said Duke. She said the sessions focus on teaching students how to effectively access and utilise those databases, evaluate sources, and above all, encourages students to ask a librarian for help.

Results from the ERIAL project also indicated that college students exhibited a lack of understanding of search logic, didn’t know how to build a search to narrow or expand results, and didn’t know how various search engines (including Google) organise and display results.

Staff and faculty at The Ames Library have made physical changes as well. After realising that the word ‘reference’ had no meaning for students, the Reference Desk was physically removed along with the reference collection. 'The materials in the reference collection are now in the stacks, and some of those items circulate,' said university librarian and professor Karen Schmidt. 'Students now find reference material alongside the regular collections. This encourages serendipitous discovery.'