University News

In digital age, libraries seek to adapt

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2012

As the University continues to embrace the digital age, libraries have undergone a dramatic transformation in order to keep up with students’ needs and preference
“The landscape has changed,” said Edwin Quist, associate University librarian for research and outreach services. Though he said he did not think Brown students have fallen victim to a trend found in studies performed at Rochester University and universities across Illinois that show students’ research skills have declined, he noted that those skills have changed rapidly in recent years.
Two recent events held by the library staff illustrated this shift. After hosting a Digital Literacy Contest and a “Wikipedia contest,” Quist said he was impressed that “students were incredibly fast and really good at navigating the web.”
“That skill is something that wasn’t there 20 years ago,” Quist added. Though he and many of his colleagues appreciate Wikipedia, he said he worries students have the “notion that you’re finding everything when you make a quick search,” he said. “What you’re missing is what we’re good at helping you find, the stuff you’re not seeing when you make that Google search.”
“We offer a banquet,” Quist added. “With the Google box, all you get is dessert.”
Despite concerns about students’ tendencies to conduct less-than-thorough research, the number of articles retrieved from e-journals has more than doubled in the last five years, Quist wrote in an email to The Herald.
 In 2007, students retrieved 955,291 articles from e-journals. Four years later, in 2011, that number was 2,039,634. The numbers may be even higher than these statistics show, as not all e-journal providers “provide user data,” Quist wrote. The library does not have usable statistics from before 2007.
Quist was quick to highlight that this shift to electronic sources does not reflect a decrease in library use – he noted that last spring, 99.3 percent of students swiped in to Rockefeller Library or the Sciences Library.
“Yes, there’s the digital piece, but the libraries are also about physical space, services and resources,” Quist said. “It’s probably true that students aren’t wandering around the stacks as much as they used to.”
The number of items being borrowed from the library – excluding books on reserve – has also fallen in the last five years. In 2007, the library reported an initial circulation of 198,849, while in 2011, that circulation was just 165,723. Meanwhile, Quist estimated that the libraries have accumulated close to one million e-books.
As the University moves into the digital age, library research and services have undergone a dramatic transformation in order to keep up with students’ needs and preferences. At least 438,636 additional e-books have been acquired and made accessible to the community since 2007, Quist wrote.
The movement into the digital age has not interfered with librarians’ commitment to teaching research skills to students, said Sarah Bordac, head of instructional design research and outreach services at the Rock. Many faculty members continue to invite librarians into their classrooms to teach students about research techniques, and librarians have incorporated digital research skills into these instruction sessions, Bordac said.
Since 2007, the number of such instruction sessions has been on the rise. In 2007, librarians presented in 253 classes, reaching a total of 4,204 students. In 2010, librarians taught 398 classes and reached a total of 6,681 students. These numbers dropped slightly in 2011 due to a wave of retirements on the library staff, but statistics showed that each librarian taught more classes in 2011, Bordac said. She added that the libraries have been hiring new staff members and designating specific digital-based positions.
The biggest shift can be seen in the number of virtual reference transactions – for example, emailing a librarian – as a proportion of reference questions, Quist wrote. The statistic leapt from 11 percent in 2007 to 45 percent by 2010, with the most significant increase occurring between 2009 and 2010, when the online “ask a librarian” feature was introduced.
The library instated this service in January 2010, and librarians have conducted an average of 216 chats per month during the academic year since that time.
Bordac and Quist said they are optimistic that the library will increase its Internet and digital sophistication in the near future and they hope students will make use of added features.
“Part of it is knowing what tools to use, and part of it is using it with sophistication,” Bordac said.
“And don’t forget imagination,” Quist said.

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