The-3-Click-Dilemma: are library databases nearing the tipping point of obsolescence?

The-3-Click-Dilemma: are library databases nearing the tipping point of obsolescence?

August 20, 2013, 5:56 pm, Chronicle of Higher Education

By Brian Mathews      
I had an interesting conversation with a faculty member last week that went something like this: “Brian, I want you to know that it’s getting harder for me to get students to use the library— especially the databases— anything beyond three clicks is just too many.”

 In some disciplines this would not really shock me, but it was a historian. This is someone who is passionate about the library. This is someone who advocates for primary resources and through research. This is someone—who from what I can tell—is a very sophisticated database user.

 If our super users are frustrated with database interfaces – what does that mean? Many of us spend a lot of time promoting library resources to students, but if faculty stop encouraging (or requiring) usage—what then?

 The assignment is actually straightforward. Explore historical events by comparing coverage from a U.S. newspaper with coverage from an international paper. How are the stories different? Is there bias? And so forth.

 My library offers these resources online, but maybe that is no longer enough? Besides the path of getting into the database—actually using the database is apparently too tedious… not only by students but the faculty as well.

 Now—I’m right there with you—library research is complex. Each tool has nuances. It’s a difficult process that requires experimentation and so on.

 That argument might have worked in 2003 but what about 2013? I’m trying to comprehend the instructor’s position. She wants her students to spend less time searching and more time reading. And this isn’t a matter of grooming proficient searchers, but rather, a comment on how much time it takes to track down sources. The conflict that she seems to be having is—is it worth it to focus so much on searching when there is a greater need on actually doing something with the items?

 So what’s the alternative? Instead of having them track down articles she could provide direct links to key events covered in class. This would be more like the Reserve Model rather than the Seek & Find Model. Save the time of the users, isn’t that a principal we believe in?

 I have two views here:

One is the Drucker mindset in which we aim to encourage direct use of library materials. In this view the intention of the organization is to create users. We provide access to scholarship so that it can be used, not just to collect it. If faculty (and students) are dissatisfied it is natural to seek alternatives. So in the classic sense, our job could be viewed as developing opportunities that create demand for information sources that we provide. We want everyone to be super searchers!


Taking a more zen- esque selflessness approach… maybe our job isn’t about promoting library resources, but about helping people to accomplish their tasks. In this case, the focus isn’t on search retrieval skills but on providing an environment that encourages critical thinking (and lateral thinking), reflection, and analysis of materials. (It’s the content, stupid?) If I choose to focus on my user, shouldn’t I help find a workaround?

Now don’t get me wrong—I love searching databases. I love exploring topics and stumbling upon new possibilities. I love the complexity. That’s probably why I was attracted to librarianship. But most people don’t have the patience for all that.

 In this case it isn’t an argument for “teach students to search better”—it’s a statement on how super-searchers feel that it akes too long to get the content and are now seeking new solutions. What’s the pain threshold? Where is the point that faculty actual alter their assignments because our interfaces are just too laborious? That seems to be the point that this professor has reached. The conversation has moved away from using tools to find information… and now seems to be more along the lines of finding (and building) tools that students can use to analyze, synthesize, and share information. It’s the changing role of librarians?

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