“How Do You Get Students Excited About Searching?”

I was talking with a professor the other day and she asked me:

How do you get students excited about searching?

It reminded me of the old quote:

Librarians like to search. Everyone else likes to find.

I really had to think about this one. Maybe it’s that word: excite? I’m a librarian and I don’t think that searching is exciting. Sure it can occasionally be a fun detective hunt. Yes, it’s sometimes serendipitous…but often it’s just tedious–nothing I would generally categorize as exciting.

As an instruction librarian, am I failure in the classroom if I don’t think it’s my job to get students excited about searching? I don’t think so. You need to be cognizant that sometimes it just boils down to the professor’s assignment. Is the assignment exciting? Or is it just busy work? I’m more than happy to collaborate with faculty on assignment ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s the professor’s job to put the assignment together.

When it comes down to my teaching: I’m passionate about connecting people with information. The act (or art?) of searching is only one small part. My job is to get students pointed in the right direction, to de-mystify the research process a little, and to show them that it CAN be done! Let’s face it: the library is often the most itimidating building on campus. I’m here to make the library and the research process a little bit more relatable to students.

I show them the tools that will be most useful, make the connection in how these tools will help them succeed with their assignment, get them thinking about HOW and WHY they’re using this information, and get them using the tools right away. My mix of teaching is practical, personable, participatory, and slightly humorous.

I’m not here to do a song and dance razzle-dazzle routine on searching for information: “Try this ONE perfect search to find EVERYTHING on your topic. Look, it’s so EASY!” Students see right through that. I don’t do the “perfect” search because that’s not what students will encounter. I’m OK playing “stump the librarian” and having the students work with me on the problem. It makes you more authentic and approachable.

I’m a realist: Will they be excited? Chances are, no. But will they think the research process seems a little more doable and will they be willing to seek help? Yes.

What do you think? Is it our job to make searching exciting? I’d love to hear your thoughts or any tips and techniques that you’ve tried.

Stop Thinking So Much Like a Damn Librarian (or how I started liking discovery layers)

Search@UW

My library just implemented a discovery layer – Primo from Ex Libris (branded as Search@UW since most campuses in the University of Wisconsin System are using it) – to combine catalog records, plus articles and other resources from our databases. Frankly, I wasn’t excited about it at first. It had nothing to do with the product itself. It just seemed like we were getting something that we weren’t asking for.

As an instruction librarian, I approach things from a pedagogical standpoint: How will students use it? What will it do for them? I ask a lot of “what ifs.”

While the discovery layer was being tested, I happened to be teaching a semester-long senior-level information science class. As one of our projects, we did some usability testing on Primo. Guess what? The students loved the discovery layer.

We compared finding information it in versus searching the online catalog and databases separately. The discovery layer won hands down in terms of speed and ease of use. My biggest worry: “Were students finding relevant information?” was assuaged.

And this is when I had to teach myself to STOP THINKING SO MUCH LIKE A DAMN LIBRARIAN!

The discovery layer makes perfect sense to students:

  • A seamless experience for finding information.
  • A simple search interface, a la Google.
  • Start with a broad search and then narrow it to particular types of items (books, articles, etc.).
  • An element of exploration.

Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 12.05.20 PM

Don’t Box Me In!

Silo-ing information – which libraries are REALLY good at (…and which is NOT a compliment by the way) – does not make sense to students. A catalog to search for books? The databases to search for articles? It’s a holdover from the olden days of libraries: “real” card catalogs with endless drawers of records to locate books in the stacks, and volume after volume of print indexes to find articles in a periodical.

While we were testing the discovery layer, there were a few things I didn’t like. Case in point: In our “old” catalog, I had a drop down box to limit my searching to our Reference Collection. The discovery layer did not have that option from the main menu. But there I went again: thinking like a librarian! Stop. Examine what your users need to do with the tool at hand. Do my students need an option on the main menu to search for reference books? The answer is a resounding NO! Searching for reference books is simply NOT a priority. It’s OK to re-evaluate those sacred cows.

At the same time, I recognize that if you’re doing heavy duty research in a particular subject area, then a subject-specific database is your best bet. So, I created a guide for students: What Tool Should I Use to Find Information? to direct them to the appropriate tools.

Permanent Beta is OK

We rolled out our discovery layer in a not-quite-perfected state. Each class and group I’ve shown it to has loved it. Librarians get too pre-occupied with perfecting everything before rolling it out. This causes delays for your users and dwindling interest as well. Seize your patrons’ needs and desires and then deliver in a timely manner. Get feedback, re-tool, adapt, and grow from there.

The User is #1

So I came around on the discovery layer. While I always like to think I have my patrons’ needs in mind, you really need to step out of those librarian loafers and examine them. There are services that patrons would like, and probably some that they couldn’t even imagine. Harness this information and then deliver it for your patrons.