Six Wishes of a Public Service Librarian
Life Sciences Librarian
Life Sciences Library, University Library
The Pennsylvania State University
Too many students, too little time. Isn't that the way life at the library always
seems to be? How many times at the reference desk have you realized that library
users are missing important concepts on how information is organized or valued?
And some scenes and questions seem to reoccur over and over and over? For example,
there's the student who comes to the desk with a sketchy citation and says "well I
found it on the computer" and then has little notion from which database it
originated. Then there's the student or faculty member who says, "Well since the
library materials are all free, why doesn't the library provide electronic access
to those journals?" Another student says that the assignment is to find a scholarly
journal article, and then asks if an article from the New York Times will work? And
what about the student who only does a Yahoo search for information for a term
paper on genetically modified foods. These library users are missing important
concepts on how information is organized, how libraries function, and how to
evaluate the information.
How I wish the fairy godmother of librarians would visit and grant me double the
usual three wishes. Because she is the fairy godmother of librarians, she only
grants wishes that are library related. My wishes would help me teach more
efficiently and effectively these six concepts to a large populations of library
users. Here are my six wishes.
Wish one. Information is not free, and in fact is very expensive.
Library users rarely think about how they obtain or access library materials. In
fact, many library users think that what happens at the library is completely free.
I wish I could communicate to the users that information is not free and in many
cases it is very expensive. I wish I could help library users first perceive and
then appreciate the large amounts of funds that provide library materials. These
funds purchase library materials, fund the cost of the buildings and furnishings,
and pay the salaries of the personnel who staff the library.
Books don't magically appear on the shelves. Writers, librarians, library staff,
and publishers don't work for free. Databases don't magically appear on the
computer. Even databases such as AGRICOLA, PubMed, and ERIC may be free to the
users, but the costs are borne by the U.S. taxpayer. Library materials are
expensive, yet too many library users have never considered how these materials are
Library users want the articles delivered directly to their computers. The media
and science fiction literature often present information being delivered magically
by voice command from the computer. But at this point, libraries are paying large
amounts to access the information. The Web of Science is an especially good
example. The system is well known to many scientists who want access to it, but
most don't have a clue to what it costs libraries.
Wish Two. Databases have unique qualities and characteristics.
How many times have students come to the Reference Desk and handed you a paper and
said "I found this on the computer, and now I can't figure out what computer it is
on?" Or they did not write enough of the citation down to actually find the source?
So many students have not yet realized that there are many different systems
available and accessible and that each is different and unique. I am not sure what
they really think but I suspect that they think that what is on the computer is one
I wish I could teach more students to appreciate the distinctive qualities of
databases and that different databases have different purposes. AGRICOLA is
different from ERIC is different from GeoRef and is different from Proquest.
Students need to be taught to evaluate and ask questions about databases to learn
why they are distinct and then choose among databases to find information more
wisely. These questions should concern the subject of the database; the creators of
the databases; the format of the entries such as full text, abstract or citation
only; the type of materials, such as journal articles, books, reviews, or videos;
and the accessible time frame. Students would find more valuable and specific
information if they were able to choose the best specialized database for their
Wish Three. The web is wonderful but limited.
The web is one of the biggest developments in information transfer since the
invention of the printing press. It is fabulous, fun, and limited. I wish I could
make library users appraise what is available on the web and how it is presented.
In bibliographic instruction sessions, I introduce the idea of web evaluation by
using the traditional newspaper reporter's questions, -- who, what, where when and
how? Who created this web site and what are their credentials? Why did they create
this web site? When was this web site created, and when was it last updated? Does
the site promote a product or idea? Finally, is there better information available?
Wish one and wish three are related. Very little on the web is truly free.
Taxpayers, advertising, or special interest groups fund web sites. I ask students,
if information is valuable, will it be given away on the web for free? Very rarely
is complex, sophisticated information freely available. Much of the useful web
information is coming from federal and state sources such as Cooperative Extension,
university departments, and federal departments. The U.S. taxpayer supports these
sites. Many other sites are funded by advertising and promote specific products.
Special interest groups may create sites that educate about and support their
Wish Four. Understanding the differences between magazine and scholarly
Rarely does anyone take the time to explain undergraduates the differences between
magazines and scholarly journals and yet professors often expect students to know
the difference. High school libraries and public libraries may subscribe to a few
journal subscriptions such as JAMA
or New England Journal of
. Academic libraries subscribe to many professional journals. This
major difference between these libraries and academic libraries is rarely discussed
with students. In about a 10-minute demonstration, students can learn to define
these types of materials and why they are different. In classes I try to teach the
students that journal articles are written to record many types of research for
posterity and that researchers are creating original thoughts and scientific
research and are the authors of the articles. However, too few students get this
explanation and the reasons why journals are more important and more valuable than
magazines when looking for research written by the experts.
Wish Five. All search engines have rules that determine what is retrieved.
Even though database searching by users has been available for over a dozen years,
few students have learned many advanced techniques. Many students still just type
something into the search box and then let it rip. Then they choose the first
record retrieved regardless of its relationship to the topic they should be
researching. Learning a few techniques such as using Boolean operators, limits to
titles, and truncation can dramatically increase or decrease search results, but
few students use them while searching. Taking the time to learn the rules about
searching databases or using web search engines can increase the student's
effectiveness while working with electronic resources.
Wish Six. An appreciation for the amount and variety of information
All too often, students come into the library and say, "I'm a senior and this is
the first time I'm using the library." I want to respond by saying, "Oh, you poor
baby, you have missed using one of the best resources in the world. You have at
your fingertips, millions of books, magazines, and journals, hundreds of databases,
and huge resources on the web and you haven't found it important to discover." My
teaching philosophy is that one of the most important skills students can learn at
the university is the ability to find information by themselves, and it's my job to
help them learn this skill. It always makes me sad when students don't take
advantage of one of their greatest sources of information and knowledge - the
university library. I wish I had better techniques for luring them into the library
either physically or electronically and introducing them to the many wonderful
resources that are available.