Re: [ACAT] Un/Trained patrons (Was: Re: New Bibliographic Framework: Update with Eric Miller)

Posting to Autocat

On 12/10/2012 21:35, Daniel CannCasciato wrote:

My aha! was at the word un-trained. I agree with Jim about the way some of our new students approach searching, but my quibble is with the idea that they *remain* untrained and that it’s our job to adapt to them. I work in an academic library – – smaller regional. We try to teach students how to search the databases and the catalog, how to formulate searches, how to cite sources, why to cite sources, etc. I agree with Jim that we should make our resources as easily discoverable as we can, I also think we should *expect* our patrons to exert themselves and we can rely on them to learn and to adapt. My own experience helping students is that searching the catalog and the databases isn’t as bewildering as is sometimes stated. I’m all for better displays, added guidance, and improved access. I’m just not of the opinion that our students can’t or won’t learn and I’m especially against the idea that we shouldn’t expect them to.


This is one of the most important questions concerning the catalog: how much should the public be expected to know before they can use the catalog correctly? This question has been asked several times in history and must be reconsidered again. I agree that people should be open to being trained, but I am afraid that people are far less willing to learn–and more importantly retain–skills that they suspect are not really useful and/or obsolete. Many of these skills are highly complex, and people may learn them for a time in an info lit class (or not!) , but if they do learn them and they are unused, people forget them. So, if somebody takes a course as a freshman in college but for a couple of years they don’t have to do anything more than find a few articles in JSTOR or Ebsco where keyword is all they need, or use the catalog to look up a couple of books they find in their syllabus, they forget those skills. And of course, once they are out of the academic environment on their own at home, where information is just as important for their careers or as citizens, they find they have lost whatever skills they had.

I mentioned this in a podcast where I quoted a Mr. Line, who wrote that the term user education is, “meaningless, inaccurate, pretentious and patronising and that if only librarians would spend the time and effort to ensure that their libraries are more user friendly then they wouldn’t have to spend so much time doing user education.” I juxtaposed this with an inspiring quote from one of my favorite librarians, William Bishop, who talked about how important it is to learn how to use the catalog. I decided that although my feelings were on the side of Mr. Bishop, I had to agree that Mr. Line was probably correct. At the same time, there is more and more emphasis (and money!) being spent to provide things such as “One Search” mechanisms, that magic single text box that searches everything at once, where our records wind up mixed with all and sundry from different agencies.

As possible solutions, aside from the need to make the catalog less of an “expert system”, I think that the catalog itself could be enhanced to provide helps at critical moments along the way, such as what I tried to do in one catalog I made (which sadly, doesn’t exist anymore) where I added a number of “Two-Minute Tutorials” to provide searchers with short bits of help at the moments they need them. That was one of the real successes I had and everybody liked those a lot. I discovered that people constantly have questions about the catalog, how to search it and what they are looking at; are they searching in the wrong way or in the wrong place, and so on, but they are reluctant to ask–not only face-to-face, but even through instant messaging or Skype. They won’t begin reading an info lit course, but they would look at a very short tutorial that would appear at a useful moment that they could consult anonymously to get them over a hump. While I would get only a handful of substantive reference questions in a month, when looking at the log files, it turned out that people looked at the tutorials hundreds of times a month–and this didn’t include the whole world: these were the statistics from local IPs! People really seemed to use them.

I’ve had other ideas as well and I am sure others too would have all kinds of ideas to help people use the catalog correctly. I think it would be worthwhile to try to incorporate these aids more naturally into the catalog without expecting people to click on “Help”, which people rarely do, because, as I heard much more than once: “When I’ve clicked on help, it’s normally not helpful” and they just turn to Google.