10 Oct 2014

"I'm absolutely terrified, There is so much to learn!!" (Welcome to the Library!)

Last week I observed three students wandering amongst our stacks on our second floor. Walking through the classifications - one hundreds, two hundreds, three hundreds. Up, down and up they went. I asked did they need any help. They did.  They were looking for Accountancy books. Not only were they lost in the wrong row. They were lost on the wrong floor. They, without knowing it, should have been on our first floor. And they then informed me they had walked the length of every shelf on our third floor. If I had not encountered them I imagine they would probably have found their books. In another few hours after they had walked all the stacks. On all our floors.

They really had no idea how the library works.

I asked if they had attended our undergraduate workshops. They informed me that they had attended all four sessions. Yet still they could not find their way around the Boole and find what they were looking for. They did not even know that you start by looking at the Catalogue. This got me thinking and I asked myself:

Are abstracted generic, classroom / lecture based, induction programmes on their own the best way to introduce incoming undergraduates to the library space? In trying to craft information literate students from day one are we trying to teach them to run before they can actually walk? Or should we also be providing a walk round, show and tell, induction tour for first year undergraduates?

I think back to when I was a student and to the library tour I and my peers received day one. We received a fifty minute walk around the building tour. This was given by a number of library staff. We got  basic catalogue instruction. We saw the layout of the building. We were brought to a subject floor and physically shown how to access material. We were shown how to use the copiers. We learned all the basics in a concrete way.

When I myself started working in that very same library I was one of the staff members involved in this library induction. We still did the tours the same way as when I was a student. It was a system that worked. What was hidden to me, as a student, was the amount of man hours that went into introducing thousands of students to the library in a one week period. Every staff member, from Head Librarian to Shelving Assistant, was involved in the library induction for that week. Our other work, the day to day stuff, was put on hold - introducing students to the library and more importantly its resources took precedence.

Over the years we have moved away from this personal,  concrete, hands on approach to a specifically digital / screen abstract induction. We provide workshops. Students attend. And learn, we hope, about the library through watching and listening to our presentations. They get an in depth overview of the library holdings and resources. But is this what they need? Do they need so much detailed information at the start of their academic career? Or do we, in a manner of speaking, need to take them by the hand and gently walk them through the building, explaining our classification system, showing them how Dewey, or whatever classification, works in principle. Do we show them where the books are, how to locate them. Do we show them how to use the microfilm in Special Collections. How to print. How to photocopy. Short would we, in short, give them a grounding in the library before we introduce them to databases, Discovery Tools and e-resources?

Or should we, making much more work for the library staff, do a sort of blended induction? Provide all students with a show and tell physical walk round tour as well as providing detailed workshops explaining how to use our vital e-resources?

My personal belief is that first year undergraduate students should be introduced gently to the library, taken around and shown how things work. We often forget, as LIS workers, how intimidating, scary and confusing a big library can be. Especially for those who have never ever used a library - increasingly the case with the students now coming through our doors. We forget that classification systems are not instinctive or intuitive for those not using them every day.
And at some stage after this physical walk round, and only then, do we move onto the next step of introducing the vast treasure trove that are our E-Resources.

And if I find myself veering towards favouring the abstract, classroom based induction I will remind myself of a comment from a first year. A comment I read on a feedback form for our E-Resources workshop -  "...such a great workshop, the library has so many great resources, there's so much to learn - I'm absolutely terrified."

(I have been working on this post for the last few days and coincidentally I had an exchange on Twitter yesterday with Claire Sewell, Clare Aitken and Elaine Harrington  on the topic of library induction. Thanks for the discussion and the much needed incentive, push if you will, to get this post finished)


  1. Some interesting thoughts Martin, thanks for sharing. My own view is that peer-led tours of the library are a really excellent way to orient new students, as it is a very authentic experience for them. Their fellow students can also give them all the tips like where the quiet sections are or when the busy times of the day are etc. Fortunately we have a great peer mentor system set up for this where I work and I think the students probably get a lot more out of it than they would from tours given by library staff.

  2. Thanks Michelle. Our incoming students actually do have peer led tours during orientation week. Which to be perfectly honest I completely forgot about during the whole time that I was writing this post. That fact, my forgetting, is probably revealing.
    We find, that though there are some great peer guides, more often than not many of the guides are not library users themselves and often we hear them giving 'wrong' information, or in some cases dismissive information. 'I never use the library and I'm in Third year' sort of info :) But that being said, the undergrad student probably enjoys the tour given by their peer.
    We do still provide induction tours for mature students and Early Start visiting students. But in the main, the general undergrad populace don't get a library staff led tour.
    I think what is probably needed is a blended tour - workshops and tour - tour provided by somebody with a strong knowledge of the library or someone working very closely to a well written script...

  3. Great piece, Martin. I gave a library tour recently and it was a real eye opener. I had forgotten that knowledge of the Dewey Decimal system, for example, is not a priori. I think it would be beneficial to hold a student focus group to find out what exactly is needed and how best it can be delivered. I don't think that tours should be student-led though. Exposure to friendly staff can go a long way to break down library anxiety.

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback Jane. I do agree with you - we take for granted that our libraries are easy to navigate and understand - as you say, they are not. They have to be learned about. Focus groups would be a good way to gauge what is needed but they would have to be done with students already used to the library. Ask them what they would like to have learned prior to their library usage. Students who have not used the library would not know what they needed to know.
      As to student led tours - I'm not against them in principle - my proviso is that it would have to be the 'correct' students doing it. Students who know the library well, and understand the relevance and importance of the library to the academic experience.
      Exposure to friendly staff can break down library anxiety - but then again, that doesn't necessarily have to be a librarian - a good experience in the library, whether that be with actual LIS staff or students - will help to break down the library anxiety and make return users out of them

  4. Hi Martin. I am the external reader you were of great help to yesterday. I followed the link to this blog from the e-mail you sent to me yesterday.

    As someone who has been through a university education and is currently part of a vocational education system I think you present an interesting dichotomy between a constructionist and positivist learning model. To me this is representative of the current problems with university education, especially as it relates to lack of tutorials, etc.

    I would love to see a library introduction tailored to each discipline, something you mentioned might be available to non-traditional students. So an introduction that brings students down a path that begins with the student having a research idea, through catalogue searching, actually finding the books on the shelves, making notes from the books, further research through e-catalogues, etc. I imagine this would be severely hampered by a lack of resources: funding, time, and inter-departmental co-operation.

    1. Hi Phil, many thanks for your comment.
      Libraries are very much under pressure these days.
      Justifying and maintaining access to information resources (e.g. subscription databases) is one thing;
      maintaining adequate staffing levels is a different matter altogether.
      In addition to generic library tours, our library offers an introduction "that brings students down a path" as you say
      (see: http://www.libfocus.com/2012/07/tackling-course-assignments-smart-way.html).
      We receive very positive feedback on the assignment planner (a self-directed tool that attempts to address the points you raise)
      It is absolutely possible to create discipline-focused versions too.

    2. Hi Phil. Thanks for the feedback on this post - glad to see that non LIS staff / workers are engaging with Libfocus.
      UCC Library, and other University Libraries do provide more detailed Research assistance to Post Grads / Researchers in the form of PG 6009 http://www.ucc.ie/en/graduatestudies/current/pghandbook/skills/pg6009graduateinformationliteracyskills/ & http://booleweb.ucc.ie/?pageID=542 - these provide generic skills teaching and covers some of what you mention in your comment. As well as this we do provide a more hands on approach for individual students if they approach the Information Desk. But this is only manageable if it is a small amount of students - this personalised approach. As Alex points out in his post - staffing levels and increased time pressures and increased student numbers mean we need to come up with a method that best provides more with less. :)