Monday, August 29, 2011

Digital Natives and getting under the hood: the ERIAL Project

Tip of the OOTJ hat to Billie Jo Kauffman who sent along a link to an article from USA Today reporting on a study for American Library Association (ALA). The ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project was a series of studies conducted at Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University, and Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois's Chicago and Springfield campuses. Anthropologists looked at both the students and the librarians at these campuses, focusing, as far as I can tell, on undergraduates. The studies will be published this fall by the ALA under the title, "Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know," and apparently, what we now know is pretty darned sobering. (see presentations, powerpoints, papers, and posters from many conferences including ALA 2010 link here) The research shows that although "digital natives" may have grown up online, they are not widely digitally literate.

I don't think librarians will be surprised to know that students rely on Google far more than any other database or other resource, or that they are far worse at using Google than they think they are. The study found that a large percentage of the students studied did not understand either the search logic of Google or the display of results. And students tended to treat all search boxes the same, expecting every database visited to have a Google-type search protocol. We in law libraries see a similar expectation that everything will work like Westlaw and Lexis, OR Google! It's something I have to teach specifically in my Advanced Legal Research class.

Students were often very poor at choosing databases for research, as well. Selecting JSTOR for current type searching, as an example from the article, without understanding that JSTOR does not get journal articles until 3-5 years after publication. Again, I have to teach my students to read the descriptions of databases, either the scope notes in Lexis and Westlaw or other descriptions for other databases or websites. It's like learning to read the ingredients on the boxes at the supermarket, I suppose. Students also do not understand cataloging or how libraries are arranged, so again, this is something I am explaining even in law school. The undergraduate students often could not decipher citations. By law school, however, the students do know this, thanks to their first year LRW courses.

The ERIAL studies found what Joan Shear had found earlier for law students, that many students have a very inaccurate sense of their research ability. They tend to over-estimate their skill level, and are also very loathe to ask for assistance from librarians. Though we sometimes find e-mail and text reference bring more questions, even when the questioner is right across the room. Somehow that is more comfortable for students than asking face to face. Another problem seems to be that students apparently have no idea that librarians are there to be asked questions! They are more likely to ask their professor than to ask a librarian, according to this study.

I hope is not true of our libraries. I suppose we need to get anthropologists in! One thing that we do that may help is that many of the law librarians are involved in teaching 1-Ls research skills. So they are known to the students from that, and probably stress during their teaching that students should ask at the reference desk or other reference access points for help. Law librarians may also come into upper level seminar courses to teach a "cameo" class on how to do the research for the paper. These interactions all help the students feel that they know the reference librarian, and can approach them for help.

The article at the USA Today also talks about the tension between the desire of the college student to just get the information, and the desire of the librarian to get the student to love the research process. The student, may even want the information just handed to him or her, rather than to learn how to find it. Of course, you can't do that -- you have to teach them how to find it themselves. But is there anything wrong with teaching shortcuts, teaching them to avoid the "blood, sweat and tears" methods? Particularly if you are teaching students for whom research itself is not going to be the life-time vocation that it is for a librarian, I think there is not a problem, even if we are talking about training lawyers. They need to understand research, but I do not any longer teach every step of legislative history research, for instance. I teach them how to find compiled ones, and tell them to call me if they ever have to compile one from scratch.

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