To provide greater insight into current and future roles of academic libraries and librarians, Ameritech recently commissioned an outside research firm to question librarians and students on a number of key issues. Over a four-month period, Kuczmarski & Associates, Chicago, Illinois, conducted three focus groups and 500 surveys, one-to-one interviews, and phone questionnaires to examine the librarians' role in classifying and navigating information. Research findings have uncovered an important issue that we at Ameritech want to share both with vendors and with librarians in an effort to generate further research and dialogue within the academic community.
What we learned is that a disconnect exists between students and librarians. While some common ground exists, most current academic library priorities do not address student needs. It is apparent that libraries are focused on addressing internal challenges and have lost sight of their original mission -- to serve the student. The following briefly illustrates some of the disparate issues and perceptions of today's students and librarians.
How Students Perceive Libraries
Students were asked to describe the main role of their library. To them, a library is primarily, "a storehouse of information," "a learning resource," and "a peaceful environment for studying." When asked to discuss their library's biggest strengths, the students mentioned extensive information resources, expertise in organizing information, and adoption of computer technology. When asked for weaknesses, students commonly cited lack of customer service, inefficient search mechanisms, and outdated books in circulation.
Another area of questioning examined what role the Internet plays for students conducting research. Findings showed that the Internet sometimes plays a useful role for quick, preliminary searches, but that students typically start with commercial online services such as LEXIS-NEXIS and then turn to print reference materials to complete their research. The consensus among students was that while the library of the future may be on the Internet, it is not sufficiently developed to be considered a key reference tool at this time.
The most common desire for students was to be able to conduct online research from home. However, despite this, students did not see the role of their library diminishing. "At home," said one student, "there is no one to help me." Additionally, students still wanted access to hard-copy library resources such as books and microfilm.
Students were also asked to make comments regarding how libraries could improve their services. Responses showed that direct or remote assistance when conducting online research was the greatest student need. Some students said they wish their libraries had more specialized expertise and that it was more available -- perhaps even 24 hours a day.
How Librarians Perceive Their Role
In contrast, the primary focus and concern for librarians was not the needs of their patrons but the internal challenges of integrating and understanding new technology, functioning with limited staff, and operating under budgetary restrictions. While librarians were focused on significant operational issues -- such as space, staffing, funds for technology, and collection development -- they seemed to have lost sight of their original goal: providing strong student patron service today.
When librarians were asked how they perceived themselves, the majority said they were information providers. While some librarians talked about direct service to faculty and researchers, only a few mentioned any concerns about providing direct services to students.
In addition to citing a lack of in-house technical expertise, a number of librarians expressed a desire for more training on Internet search techniques. Of special concern was "information chaos" on the Internet and quality of information issues. …