This article discusses the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project, a series of ethnographic studies conducted by five U.S. universities, to examine how students view and use their campus libraries. The study suggests that “students rarely ask librarians for help, even when they need it. The idea of a librarian as an academic expert who is available to talk about assignments and hold their hands through the research process is, in fact, foreign to most students. Those who even have the word “librarian” in their vocabularies often think library staff are only good for pointing to different sections of the stacks.”
The study suggests that librarians and faculty may contribute to this perception: “librarians tend to overestimate the research skills of some of their students, which can result in interactions that leave students feeling intimidated and alienated …Some professors make similar assumptions, and fail to require that their students visit with a librarian before embarking on research projects. And both professors and librarians are liable to project an idealistic view of the research process onto students who often are not willing or able to fulfill it.” The article discusses how students tend to turn to their professors for help with searching and evaluating resources; the problem is that professors themselves are “necessarily any more knowledgeable about library resources than their students are.”
The study makes an interesting argument about the need to practice “librarian idealism” with “librarian pragmatism” when it comes to having a clear understanding of the knowledge and skill sets of students (and, perhaps, faculty). Faculty members also have an obligation to be more realistic in their expectations, such as not assuming that students understand what is meant by “scholarly resource” in the creation of their assignments.
The study is based on a small sample, so its general applicability is limited. The academic librarians I speak to appear to have a very clear and realistic understanding of the research skills of undergraduate (at least) students, so I’m not sure I agree entirely with the notion of “librarian idealism” in this regard. I can certainly see where professors’ perceptions of students’ research skills may not reflect reality; how well do the professors’ personal search skills stack up in comparison? I frequently encounter cases where professors search only a very limited set of resources for their research and are unaware of other possibilities and new resources available to them. It’s unfortunate that this post does not provide more tangible recommendations for what librarians and faculty can do to address this situation; I hope that the final report, when released, will provide more specific guidelines.