Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Are we asking our academics what they think of the library?

Recently, an academic (who is also a librarian) wrote a post on the Social Justice Librarian blog on “how academic libraries annoy academics”. It was linked to by several people on Twitter and so I’m afraid I don’t know who to credit for bringing it to my attention. The author centred their post on an experience with their institution’s library, in which they couldn’t find a book which was supposed to be available, after spending time logging into and searching the OPAC and hunting on the shelves for it. They used a “report problem” link on the OPAC page to explain that the book didn’t appear to be on the shelves after all, then returned to their office to an email explaining that they needed to report circulations problems in person at the desk. This left them feeling irritated about using the library; they had found the experience frustrating and unhelpful due to the systems in place. The reactions to this post were mixed; some blamed the author for not going to the desk to ask for help while they were in the library, while others agreed that academic libraries need to assess how well their systems are working, and that if they are not working well then that’s the library’s fault, not the user’s. Katie Birkwood wrote an excellent and thorough blog post which covers much of what I would like to say on the topic; if academics are having these kinds of experiences in the academic library, then we are “doing it wrong” and we risk alienating our academic colleagues. 

The whole blog post has made me think about my library’s relationship with the academic staff who use it, but one section in the final paragraph set my chain of thought in motion to the point of writing a blog post on the topic: “Maybe academic libraries aren’t concerned with how the power faculty at their institutions perceive them. Maybe it’s all about the students and the have-nots of academia these days. Maybe it should be. I dunno.” Academic libraries are extremely student-centred. My library service, and I’m sure others too, put out surveys to find out how students feel about the library. We take into account comments made about the library in the National Student Survey, and improve our service accordingly. We have a comments and complaints box into which students can drop quick notes on anything they want to mention. Scan the professional literature and you will find plenty of case studies and papers which focus on student experiences of the library.  My library service’s core values document and my institution’s objectives both emphasise the importance of a good quality student experience. Students are the centre of our attention, and, as the author suggests, they should be. University is an extremely expensive financial investment for students, and they rightfully expect services within the institution to provide good value for money. However, in our efforts to provide an excellent service to our students, are we forgetting to ask what our academics think about the library?

Our academics are not paying for a service in the same way that the students are. They are paid to be a member of the university. However, a library, any library, is there to serve all of its users, and academics invest a great deal into an institution; where would the university be without their intellectual and emotional contributions? Perhaps, then, we need to be taking more time to address their particular needs. I feel that, in my library, we have good relationships with staff in the departments that we support; my colleagues and I share a belief in the importance of effective academic liaison. Since reading this blog post, however, I have begun to question whether this is enough, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, just because they feel happy to talk to us about stock needs for modules, book orders and teaching sessions, does that necessarily mean that our academics feel able to talk to us about other aspects of the library? Would they expect us to be able to sort out problems with circulation of stock, for example, or might they think that that’s not an aspect of academic liaison? Would it even occur to them to ask for help with or make comments on their own personal use of the library, or might they presume we are just there to help them in terms of their teaching? With the pressures of marking coursework and exams, meeting research deadlines, supervising and teaching, do our academics even have time to contact us to talk about something which isn’t working for them? Or will they just find an alternative solution, as the author did? We cannot presume that, just because the academics with whom we liaise fairly frequently do not tell us that they have a problem with the library, everything is working well for them.

There is also the issue of whether we are reaching all academic staff in our liaison work. Some academics are bigger library users than others, depending on the nature of the modules they teach, and their own personal work. Some engage with their academic librarians more than others. Staff leave and new staff take up positions on a yearly basis. Some will be away from the institution for a significant period of time on research leave elsewhere, and so may not need or be able to come into the library or contact staff. Academic staff who don’t know us very well might not feel confident about putting forward a complaint to us, or even know that we could help. Again, just because we don’t receive any complaints from academic staff about the library, this doesn’t mean that we are offering a satisfactory service.

Additionally, it is near-impossible to measure library non-use. We just don’t know how many, or how frequently, academics are using other sources for their information needs without considering the library. We basically have very little idea about how useful the library is to our academic staff.

All that I’ve just suggested about academic staff and library usage – the possibilities that they don’t know that librarians could help, perhaps don’t feel able to make complaints, or don’t necessarily use the library as a source for research and academic support frequently or at all – sounds very familiar; they’re all issues that came up in my dissertation project on student perceptions of academic library staff. Even though students and academics have different information and research needs, some of the potential barriers to effective and satisfactory use of the library sound fairly similar – so why not try to find out about the needs and experiences of academics in the same way as we do with students? I am sure that there are some academic libraries out there who are surveying their academic staff, gaining feedback and improving the library service for academics and researchers as a result, actively asking their academic colleagues how the library could be more helpful. I really think that all academic libraries should be thinking about doing the same. Of course, there are difficulties in work like this – time being a major one – but if academics are having experiences like the one the author of the blog post in question describes, then we are not providing the service that we should be. If we want to try to ensure that academic libraries do not irritate any more academics, then we can’t afford not to find out, and act upon, what they think of the academic library.

1 comment:

  1. This post takes me back as I actually wrote my MSc dissertation a couple of years ago on the topic of academic staff perceptions of liaison librarian activities in Scottish universities.

    You make a lot of good points, and I can't comment on all of them, but I did want to mention that sometimes we librarians forget that helping academic staff IS helping students. Helping one group doesn't necessarily mean neglecting the other. Through my research, I found that one of the greatest factors that contributes to student use of the library is their professors' own opinions of the library.

    An academic who has had positive experiences of the library will be far more likely to urge his/her students to make effective use of library resources and staff for their own research. It makes the difference between a lecturer who says, "Go to the library to complete your assignment" and a lecturer who says "You'll need to use library resources to demonstrate that you know how to research effectively. Make an appointment with our fabulous liaison librarian Rachel if you feel you need help."

    It seems as though sometimes we get so focused on collaboration or integrated information literacy that we almost neglect the core functions of the library. True, circulation policies, problem reporting, and tech support may seem less "glamorous," but when students and staff become annoyed by rigid or incomprehensible policies, they are far less likely to come to us for research assistance.