What Nobody Knows About Each Other and the Library

Really if it weren’t so sad or scary this could be the perfect plot for a Monty Python skit or the very least Colbert’s The Word.

The Inside Higher Ed’s article, “What Students Don’t Know,” provides an alarming look at students and libraries and research.  Not surprisingly, students show an appalling lack of knowledge about their own university’s library resources and how to do competent research (they even stink at Google searching).  What is surprising is how little we librarians know about what little they know.  Equally sad and frustrating is how little professors (the first person students go to if they seek help on research projects) know about the library and librarians. 

The article is long but it is an excellent look at students, professors, and librarians and how broken the research system is. 

The students:

First, students don’t go to the library and they don’t use library resources.  Google was mentioned as the search tool used more than twice as many times as any other database. Second, they overestimate their ability to do research and evaluate resources.  Ony 7 of 30 students conducted reasonably well executed searches.  Even their Google searches were poor. Third, if they searched something other than Google, they didn’t know how to search it (using a Google type search), and they often searched databases that would not be recommended for their topic. “Students regularly used JSTOR to try and find current research on a topic, not realizing that JSTOR does not provide access to the most recently published articles.”  Finally, they don’t go to the librarian for help with research, they go to their professor.  Librarians don’t even register on their radar. “Students showed an almost complete lack of interest in seeking assistance from librarians during the search process. Of all the students they observed — many of whom struggled to find good sources, to the point of despair — not one asked a librarian for help.”  Yet, they know to ask us if they can’t find the bathroom.

The professors:

First, faculty have low expectations for librarians. Libraries are seen as a purchasing agent.  They think librarians know how to search for sources, but “don’t know how to do research.” Second, faculty assume students have a much higher level of research skills and knowledge than they in reality. They believe students will just be able to pick the skills up on their own or from a one-time search class that they may or may not have had.  “For example, a professor might tell students to find “scholarly sources” without considering that students do not actually know what a “scholarly source is.” Third professors ideals are out of sync with students.  Students are more pragmatic while professors wished students would spend more time in “contemplations and discovery” during the research process. Students (like many people in life) do just enough to get by.  “If they aren’t told to use [specific library] databases, they won’t,” hence they Google it.  Most student aren’t interested in learning how to do research they just want what they need to solve the current problem.  Yet professors (and librarians) think they should learn how to do research as a life long skill.  The article mentions giving a person a fish vs teaching them to fish. However, not everyone is going to be fisherman nor do they want to be a master angler, yet we (professors and librarians) are expecting that of them.   


Perception is our biggest problem; people’s perception of us and our perception of students.  If we even register on the radar of students and professors, their perception of us is not good nor is it conducive to helping with research.  “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.” Since most students go to the professors for help when doing research, librarians need professors to help re-direct the students back to library for research help.  Yet, “faculty may have low expectations for librarians, and consequently students may not be connected to librarians or see why working with librarians may be helpful.” 

We are just as guilty as professors of expecting more from students. Researchers “were surprised by the extent to which students appeared to lack even some of the most basic information literacy skills that we assumed they would have mastered in high school. Even students who were high achievers in high school suffered from these deficiencies.”  Students are NOT digital natives despite growing up in the information age. 


Now how does that article correlate with the medical students on your campus?  How about the residents? 

At one of my previous librarian jobs, I noticed that third year medical students were rotating to the hospital without any training or classes in searching Medline.  Yet they were expected to find articles and write papers on cases they had seen.  They were searching on Google or doing Google searches on PubMed.  Only through questioning the students (the ones I saw doing crummy searches) did I learn that they were NEVER taught how to find articles or use Medline.  The librarians at the medical school didn’t teach them because they didn’t need to know that stuff in their first 2 years of medical school.  BUT nobody taught them before their 3rd year when they definitely needed to know and were based in the hospitals.  Only through persistence was I able to work with the CORE to get a 3 part class added into their schedule where they came to the hospital library and I taught them how to use PubMed.  Almost all of the students told me that this was stuff they wish they had learned earlier in their medical school career because it helped them out immensely and saved them time.

Residents leaving our hospital must always “check out” with the library making sure they don’t have any outstanding books or fees.  Yet every year there are some who come to the library with the sign-out sheet in hand telling me they have never used the library before but they still need our stamp.  Sure enough, they only have an HR skeleton record in our OPAC meaning they never used our resources from home, ordered an article, nor checked out a book.  I hope they at least used our electronic resources while on campus, but all I can think is, “How sad, that is another one we didn’t reach.”

So, enough of the depressing stuff.  How we can do better?  What can we do to get perceptions changed?  Clearly there is a lot for us to do.  What should we be doing to to extend the library services and to get librarians thought of more?  What are you or your library doing?

10 thoughts on “What Nobody Knows About Each Other and the Library”

  1. It went the other way for me, as a distance student. I electronically requested help with a search. The librarian at the school gave me some search terms, suggested a database, and wrote “You can limit results by year, Full Text, and Scholarly on the right on side.” As someone who isn’t an expert searcher, I was expecting a bit for from the experience. To be honest, I questioned the need for reference librarians after that exchange.

  2. I think we should focus on integrating into their workflow, teaching them how to ask a good answerable question, and showing them the kind of information we can find for them. I think searching beyond the basic reference question has become too complicated to teach and should remain in the terrain of experts. Rather then expecting them to know how to search we should promote ourselves as being the search experts. This is what I find myself doing more and more of in my work.

  3. Nice overview of this article and its findings. I liked how your reflections tied it to your own users and that of medical libraries. Kudos.

  4. The findings of the reported research didn’t surprise me, and I was actually encouraged by many of the comments from librarians reporting on the various things that they do and from faculty and students talking about how great the librarians at their schools were. Nonetheless, it remains the case that many librarians (and this is more common among general academic than health sciences) still think that the problem is how to get students to come to the library and ask them questions. “Engagement” is the word that I use over and over — we need to be entangled in the daily lives of our students and faculty and that means we have to spend as much time as possible (which is actually more time than we think) outside of the library building and in the classrooms and labs and offices and lounges and hallways.

  5. Here at UdeM we have been able to intergrate Medline and PubMed workshops in the 1st and 2nd years of most health sciences programs, including medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. A graded assignment helps a lot to keep students focused during the presentation. Each year we also convince new residency programs to include EBM and EndNote classes in their curriculum. It is a slow process, but we are gaining ground; as a result, more and more students sign up for one-on-one research interviews. We keep track of our progress on our information literacy website to inspire more faculty to use our services.

  6. Pingback: EHSLibrary
  7. Here at MAHEC (Mountain Area Health Education Center), we have protected time in our Family Medicine residency program throughout the three-year period. In the first year, we get 6 hours — 4 for an exhaustive review of resources available, searching tips, etc., and 2 for sitting in the clinic with the resident as patients are being seen, helping to answer questions in real time when the attendings don’t have answers. In the second and third years, we meet with them when they are on specific rotations and have presentations to do. We also send them proactive FYI alerts on relevant clinical literature (faculty get these, too), and get requests to continue the FYIs even after they graduate.

  8. Mark, I realize this is a late reply and you might not still be around, but I’d love to hear from you what type of help would have been more, um, helpful to you in that situation.

  9. I think it would have been more helpful to give me a list of publications which I could have used for my paper.

    That may sound like I’m expecting the librarian to do my dirty work for me, but
    1) it is, since they are experts in this kind of dirty work and I am not. I know enough to go to the experts when possible.
    2) The research wasn’t a major component of the assignment. (At least, that’s what I assumed by the prof telling us that we can use wikipedia but not ALL of the sources can be wikipedia.)
    3) I was genuinely interested in the topic and wanted the best information I could get.
    4) The topic was so precise that I wasn’t able to get the information I wanted through my own searching skills.

  10. In a recent conversation with the associate residency director, he mentioned he used Google.

    I think time is a huge factor. I would love to see more research or do interviews on how physicians’ information seeking behavior. Maybe if I understood that I could suggest strategies, or sites or articles to save them time.

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