Library Orientation

Student orientation in academic libraries presents certain challenges. Staffing in libraries is always stretched, but add to that a demanding and time consuming intervention like library orientation and some creativity becomes necessary to ensure that sufficient staff are deployed with the right resources to make it a success. For the amount of trouble you’re taking, you’d want to make sure that the programme is worthwhile. But notwithstanding the challenges associated with it, for that short period of time it is heartening to witness the library as a hub of activity and a central part of college life. The collegiality that it fosters between library staff and students as well as among students themselves should likewise not be underestimated (although it barely receives any recognition at all). Further to this, I feel that it is important from an advocacy point of view for libraries to make a pronounced demonstration from the get go that they are ready to welcome students and respond to their needs. That said, when you spend the remainder of the academic year trying your best to assist students who remain profoundly disorientated, you have to wonder how effective  library orientation actually is. In my own case, while I do remember attending my library orientation tour and the library making an impression on me, I don’t remember absorbing much relevant information about it.

It seems a persistent problem with orientation that no-one is quite sure how best to go about it. It’s generally held that the traditional kind of library orientation, where library staff show groups of students around the library and explain to them how it works, is insufficient. It’s hard to disagree. An introduction to the library should be a learning experience that makes an impact; one that actively involves students and from which they can take something away, otherwise (like me) it’s unlikely that they’re going to remember a great deal about it. It should also reflect the reality that so many of the resources that students are going to need are available online and that they will need to spend a significant bulk of their time exploring this virtual library (hopefully in partnership with the physical one!). A tour around the physical library is unlikely to have the desired outcome here. Worse still are orientation talks or ‘library inductions’, which do not even take in the experience of exploring the physical library. Academic libraries need to be able to offer students an orientation experience that does its best to showcase the resources of the library (both online and physical) while also ensuring that students actively learn how to use them. But how best to achieve this?

I read with interest Dana Ingall’s Virtual Tours, Videos and Zombies: The Changing Face of Academic Library Orientation. In it, she makes the case that academic libraries should embrace an online orientation platform. Her argument is persuasive and she cites research that an online orientation programme can be at least as effective as a physical tour and in many cases more so. There’s no argument but that such an approach deepens students familiarity with online resources in a way that physical tours cannot. While Ingall does allude to the danger of a deepening chasm between library staff and students, I’m not sure that she fully appreciates the extent to which a fully online platform for orientation will serve to undermine this relationship at the very time when we are presented with the ideal opportunity for cultivating it. It’s my concern that this relentless drive towards digitisating library services, on top of resources, is threatening the whole notion of the library as place, and as a social good where librarians can help to facilitate student learning. While I’m clearly biased, it remains my view that library staff are always going to be more responsive and best placed to advise on the changes that the information landscape is continually undergoing than any online equivalent can be.

To get to the point, I would advocate a balance between the two approaches. I feel that a short tour by a library staff member to be followed by an online orientation activity, ideally within the library and under the stewardship of a teaching librarian or peer mentor, would satisfy both concerns. Ingall underestimates the severity of extending the gap between library staff and students any more than is already the case. If we don’t do more to connect with students and demonstrate our value, they’ll wonder why we’re here at all. In time we might begin to wonder the same thing.

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Ingalls, D. (2015). Virtual Tours, Videos, and Zombies: The Changing Face of Academic Library Orientation/Visites virtuelles, vidéos et zombies: Le nouveau visage de l’initiation à la bibliothèque universitaire. Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science, 39(1), 79-90.

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