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4.11.2005

Some thoughts on ACRL - Long

Note: These are rough impressions and not well-formed, but if I don’t get them out now, I’ll never get around to it. They’re also as I heard them, as opposed to what was actually said. In no way were these the overriding themes of the conference, in fact most of these were decidedly in the minority and at best 50/50. Also, I should have hunted down some links for alot of what I say, but I'm to burned out form the conference to do so. Sorry. If you make it to the end, I’m sure it will seem like it wasn’t a worthwhile conference, while quite the opposite is true.

The Information Literacy pendulum is swinging.
For the first time since I’ve been listening to people talk about the topic of Information Literacy, I heard more negative than good. The backlash seems to be on two fronts.

The first I’ll call Information Literacy Fatigue Syndrome. Those suffering from ILFS often start sentences with “If I hear one more word about Information Literacy, I’ll scream/die/leave/quit….” I’m finally getting the sense that a larger proportion of the library population is beginning to take a position that I’ve longly held. Namely that Information Literacy is a last-ditch effort by librarians to retain some relevance in the face of continued marginalization. We’ve slapped a new, exciting name on something we’ve done for years and tried to get everyone to believe that the world will end without it. Unfortunately, not many people (especially students) are listening, or even care. (Though I should note a conversation about some states enacting Information Literacy competencies for state institutions.) And now, having realized that this sacred cow has no clothes, many librarians are beginning to say so.

The second, and more interesting, front is centered around the idea that Information Literacy is actually a dangerous thing. We’ve put all our eggs in the IL basket, and turned everything in the library into a teachable moment. Unfortunately, a number of studies have shown that users aren’t interested. They want convenience, we want to put them through hazing. (“I learned how to build exceptionally large search queries based on arcane controlled vocabularies and I’ll be damned if I’m going to show/build you an engine that does most of that stuff for you.”) And so in an All Info Lit All the Time model, when students turn up at the desk not being able to locate the books, we call several meetings about ways to infuse LC Classification into our classes and paper the campus about an upcoming emergency book-finding workshop (that no one attends), instead of heading to the stacks to see if the signs make any sense.

Our focus on teaching is blinding us to other, more convenient, solutions for patron woes.

Reference (as we know it) is dead.
Faced with increased demands for staff time for tertiary projects and decreasing numbers of reference questions, several schools have moved to the Brandeis model, or something like it. They've abandend the desk for good. What are those librarians doing with their newfound freedom? Creating second generation web-based subject guides and promoting individual research consultations, for one.

“The war is over. Google won.”
That’s an exact quote from a speaker on one of the more popular panel discussions. Faced with the dangerous jungle of indexes and databases that we present to patrons is it any wonder that they’ve latched on to sources that are “good enough”? One box, many results, most of them relevant. Works for me. But not everyone of course. This one here is a 50/50 issue. Half the room wishing our vendors would create more Google-like interfaces (and embrace some standards so that we might create one comprehensive box) and the other half (a fairly self-important bunch in my opinion) that seem to be evangelizing search. These are the fighting against marginalization folks. The ones who say that learning how to search is of utmost importance, when in reality (at least in the minds of students and faculty) the utmost importance is what you do after the search (analyze and synthesize).

Again, studies show that most users have no desire to learn about Booleans and controlled vocabularies, they want relevant articles and they want them now. (Anyone who has stood in front of a bunch of 18 year olds and showed them how to jump through the hoops of determining whether they have access to an article or not can tell you all about that.) Yet here we stand from on high extolling the virtues of truncation, when all we really need to do is gather together to send an ultimatum to vendors – add automatic stemming or we’re never buying another product from you. Ever.

Would it be great if every undergraduate could build a kick ass nested search? You bet. Is it imperative? Not even close.

Some notes on the conference itself
Faculty status for librarians makes for an incredibly over-bloated and often uninteresting conference. I’ve noticed this at nearly every conference I’ve attended. The publish or perish crowd will write and present about everything and anything. In great detail. I’d like to see the program for a non-faculty status conference. I reckon it’d be lean and mean.

Given the number of issues concerning academic libraries today, I’d be willing to bet that you and I could come up with a list of oh say, about 2000 topics that would have been more appropriate for a keynote luncheon than “Mystery Writers”. What were they thinking?

50 poster sessions plus 50 square feet of exhibit space plus thousands of attendees equals something resembling a veal fattening pen. Next time, how about we ask a few vendors (gasp!) to stay home so that we can actually have some room to see what our colleagues have to say?

No live network connections at the podiums? What? One mic to share amongst four presenters? What?

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