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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2001

[Board accepted]

Six Wishes of a Public Service Librarian

Kathy Fescemyer
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 purchased.

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 humongous system.

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 topic.

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 viewpoints.

Wish Four. Understanding the differences between magazine and scholarly journals

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 Medicine. 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 available.

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.

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