Tuesday, September 25, 2007

LibQUAL+ and Library Assessment

Back in May, I had posted about library assessment. As we near our 10-year accreditation visit this November, library assessment continues to be very much on my mind.

Yesterday, at The Ubiquitous Librarian, Brian Mathews reported on some interesting work that he is doing with ARL's LibQUAL+ service quality measurement tool. At a cost of $2,250, LibQUAL+ may be out of reach for smaller libraries like mine, but the kinds of results that it is yielding look very interesting. In the ongoing quest to start measuring how well our library is doing rather than what our library is doing, this kind of tool looks promising.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Calling, Part 1

When I began this blog, I posted The Calling, Part 2 which was about the second thing that had attracted me to a career in theological librarianship. In this post, I want to write about the first thing that attracted me: The service that I can offer to students who are preparing for a vocation of Christian ministry.

As caretakers of theological collections, we gain a kinesthetic appreciation for the collocation of theological knowledge. By this, I mean that we gain an instinctive understanding of how the materials in our collections are actually used in the process of conducting research. The circulation librarian who manages course reserves year in and year out gains a good understanding of the scope of the curriculum even if he or she never attends a faculty meeting. The acquisitions librarian who sees a trend over the years from ordering a lot of church management materials to ordering more materials on spirituality and worship renewal knows something about the forces shaping course content. We walk students to sections in our reference collections where language tools or denominational dictionaries or Bible encyclopedias or New Testament bibliographies can be found, often without even thinking about the call numbers for these materials.

The end result is an ability to assist students in ways that can't be mimicked by keyword searching in a database. One of the best examples of this is the time-honored reference interview. Whether conducted in person, over the phone, or via a chat session, it is one of the ways that we bring our knowledge of our collections to bear on the questions being raised by the researcher. There is a give and take--an information exchange--between researcher and librarian that clarifies the question being asked in the process of identifying resources that can answer it. I have found that helping students to ask better questions can in itself be a rewarding profession.

In a theological setting, this can require students to lower a few barriers. Theological education often is a delicate process of getting seminarians to open their minds to a breadth and depth of theological reflection greater than that of just their home denominational backgrounds. (Here my Protestant bias shows; I wonder if this dynamic is different in Catholic or Orthodox seminaries?) As a librarian, when I participate in this process, I bring to it that kinesthetic knowledge of available resources that results from having devoted a lot of time to collecting and organizing them. I'm enthusiastic about the resources that my library has to offer in response to a research question, and sometimes that enthusiasm rubs off.

And then there are the times when we get to participate in something more formal than a reference interview. At Northern Seminary, my chance to engage in information literacy training comes as part of our Formation for Christian Ministry course, usually taken by students as one of their first classes at seminary. I have one class session to make the case to our new students that doing research well should be formational to their future careers as ministers regardless of whether or not they are planning to pursue ordination. Seminary training is not about learning all the correct answers; it is about learning to ask better questions, for oneself and for those who will bring their own questions in the future. As a theological librarian, I treasure the role that I have in assisting students with forming better questions, and then opening their eyes to the vast wisdom that is available to help them answer those questions.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Libraries and Computer Labs

The Chronicle's Wired Campus has an article about the lack of public workstations in public libraries. This article is in turn reporting on an AP story about the increasing demand for Internet access in public libraries. All of this reporting on libraries and computers has been spawned by ALA'a recently released report (227 p.; 6+ MB):

Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study 2006 - 2007.

(Many thanks to Jessamyn West at librarian.net for providing the location of the ALA report.)

Public libraries, of course, operate differently than academic libraries. Where public libraries are often the sole providers of free Internet access in their communities (so say 73% of the public libraries that responded to the ALA survey), academic libraries are usually not the sole source of Internet access on their campuses. Apart from technology owned by the students themselves, there is always the computer lab, or, if your campus is large enough, the computer labs.

Which raises in my mind the question of the relationship between the library and campus computer labs. At the annual ATLA conference in Philadelphia this past June, there was an interesting and somewhat hotly debated presentation by Dr. Kenneth Boyd and his staff from the Information Commons at Asbury Theological Seminary. In the evolving world of I.T. and libraries, Asbury's Information Commons represents a melding of these two worlds where library services and I.T. services all come from the same department. Librarians at Asbury may answer reference questions about theological research, or they may assist students with the correct configuration of their wireless proxy settings or the correct formatting of footnotes in their Word documents. (Something that many of us do anyway, regardless of how closely our libraries are aligned with campus I.T.)

In theological libraries in particular, there is a noticeable generational gap between the computer skills of our younger and our older students. Seminaries tend to have more older students than many other types of graduate institutions, with average student ages trending up toward the 40s at the turn of the century. For older students, many of whom are returning to education for the first time in over 20 years, there is a profound technology shock. The last time they did academic research, they were using card catalogs and paper periodical indexes.

Which brings me to my question: Should academic libraries in general or theological libraries in specific include a computer lab as part of the library? If the library does not include a computer lab, where do students, particularly those without computer skills, learn to use computers for academic research and writing?

Space concerns often dictate one answer to this question. The 1960s and 1970s saw a lot of academic library expansion and building projects on a national scale; for many of our libraries, though, there has not been any significant building or expansion over the past 30+ years, leaving us with little room for books much less technologies that did not exist when our buildings were built. Any public library building project that I have seen over the past decade has devoted significantly more space to computers than previous designs; I believe academic library building projects have been more mixed as to how much priority is given to computer space.

If your library space allows room for a computer lab, you are still left with the question of whether libraries are well-suited to provide computer services. If 73% of our public libraries are the only available community spaces for Internet access, does that set a standard for academic libraries as well? The answer to this question is evolving; how fast it evolves is up to us.