Distance learning and virtual libraries need not mean the demise of the library or the extinction of librarianship. Librarians need to take a proactive role. They need to develop programs to train customers on search strategies and the evaluation of sources in order to provide better customer service and save the profession.
Libraries are not dead and librarians are not ready to exit the scene. With their expertise in search strategies and evaluation techniques, librarians are not only ideally suited to assume a leadership role in Information Technology, they are a valuable resource. The skills they teach and the flexibility they demonstrate by adapting to constant technological changes are earning librarians new respect, friends and allies. This paper will discuss the program developed at Dowling College to teach World Wide Web training techniques and the changing role of librarians.
Dowling College is a small Liberal Arts College on the south shore of Long Island. Located on the banks of the Connetquot River in a former Vanderbilt estate, the College has 6000 graduate and undergraduate commuting, non-traditional students with an age range of 18 to 90. The major instructional emphases are in Business, Education, Aviation and Transportation. Founded in 1955, Dowling is a relatively young school with a small library and heavy reliance on electronic resources. We have just completed a two and a half-year project converting our access to databases from DOS and CD-ROM to Windows and online through our new library web page.
Dowling College has become a resource for Internet training. Classes have been offered throughout Long Island under the auspices of the Dowling Institute, the continuing education arm of the College. The community outreach program is a result of the vision of our Associate Provost, who believed the library staff were ideally suited to lead the technology revolution. We timidly accepted the mission two years ago, but can now casually announce that we've taught World Wide Web search techniques to hundreds of public and school librarians, public library patrons, and special interest groups including career counselors, scientists and engineers. Our sessions have varied from Beginning Internet to Train-the-Trainer workshops; our students have ranged from total novices to skilled webmasters.
Many teaching skills have to be developed and honed to accomplish this task. First, for each new group we're asked to address, we naturally have to anticipate their mindset--who they are and where they might be coming from intellectually and technologically. This can vary noticeably even among special interest groups. Secondly, we have to determine what we feel we should include for different length sessions. You can't get into bookmark manipulation and "alt-tabbing" in an hour. And you can't spend all day on Netscape or Explorer navigation if your audience is new to the Web. Our solution has been to develop a universal manual with a few variable sections we can customize for each group. The essential components are:
We start all our sessions with introductions. We explain who we are and how we came to be standing before them, and then ask each participant to identify him/herself and briefly describe his/her computer/Internet experience. We do this for several reasons. It's a good icebreaker. It helps the participants know what networking resources they have within the group. It removes much of the guesswork for us, the instructors, as we get a much better idea of what skill levels are present in the group and can adjust our presentation accordingly.
We've learned some very surprising lessons from our teaching experience. The first was to get over feeling that we had to be the "know all / teach all" experts in the classroom. Often you will have very experienced web searchers in the classroom. Fighting our own insecurities we remembered that for every web workshop and demo we have attended, we have learned at least one rewarding gem of a trick: a shortcut, a toolbar button we never valued, a search technique, a software function. We have also found repetition of material we already knew to be a good thing. We have had our knowledge, much learned haphazardly by trial and error, confirmed by someone else. Therefore, we cover the basics confident this will be valuable. We've accumulated a list of tricks that bring at least one exclamation out of the crowd every time.
Campus wide Computer Literacy
In addition to the classes for the Dowling Institute, we have begun to provide computer literacy classes for our entire campus. We teach classes on Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Database searching, World Wide Web, Netscape, and Search Engines. Projecting my own misgivings, I would assume many of you might find this a controversial direction in which to take the profession. I no longer think so. Reflecting on an electronic resources arcade model of information retrieval and delivery, who else but we librarians/information specialists are so well suited to teach all of these skills? Take only a moment to consider what you have had to learn in the last year in order to view, retrieve and manipulate information off a government CD-ROM. What about using Dun and Bradstreet's Industry Norms? Who knows how to download CD-ROM information into Excel spreadsheets? Who knows how to copy from the Web and paste into a Word document? Our computer lab people don't know how to do it. We do.
Our computer literacy sessions have been offered two to three times a year during "slack" computer lab time before and after summer sessions and during winter "intercession." The classes are promoted to faculty and staff. The attendees were, overwhelmingly, staff secretaries with a handful of faculty. As we felt the faculty could benefit greatly from Internet instruction, we tried to attract them again by offering a faculty colloquium. The response was greater, as predicted. Faculty do need the privacy of their own peer group to learn. We are now applying the same principle to the administration and offer demonstrations to the President's Administrative Council and the Provost's Council. In every class and demonstration, we offer individual follow-up instruction. We will go to the participant's office or provide telephone consultation. We remind everyone that any of our 15 librarians who staff the reference desk is an Internet expert and can assist researchers on our 13 Web-connected computers. I can't begin to tell you how our newly developed expertise has changed our self-confidence and improved the image of the Library.
Library Information Instruction
Our third area of teaching falls under the traditional realm of student library instruction classes. These are usually a one-session introduction to subject specific resources, conducted at the request of a professor. The classes are conducted in the campus computer lab, located in the same building, directly across the hall from the library entrance.
In our sessions we review the functions and accessible gateways from our library catalog, demonstrate use of appropriate networked and Web-accessed databases and introduce Internet searching on a particular subject. We give an overview of the browser, bookmarks, and search engines. We discuss effective search techniques, evaluative techniques, the importance of dated pages, the significance of ownership of a page, and what they should expect from the various domains, etc. We try to share any helpful hints or shortcuts that time will allow.
As the lab schedule becomes increasingly tight, we will not be able to conduct as many individualized classes. Therefore, we are now posting our former handouts on our Library homepage to create a self-help tutorial. We will encourage professors to incorporate some of this subject-specific orientation into their classes as we have modeled for them.
Library Staff Continuing Education
Finally, our last area of instruction is that of staff training. Strong database searching and teaching techniques are so essential to our program that our recruitment process requires candidates to demonstrate their expertise. In-service training is, therefore, vital to maintain and improve this level.
How do we stay one step ahead? Basically, the full time librarians receive the initial training and then provide in-service training for the part time staff. The full time faculty gain much of their directional vision and expertise from conferences such as Computers in Libraries as well as from locally produced, hands-on workshops sponsored by ACRL and our Long Island Library Resources Council. We, in turn, share this training with our part time staff in the forum of monthly reference meetings. We either conduct the teaching segment ourselves or invite a subject expert to speak. The group presentation is then followed by one-on-one consultation with the full time librarians during scheduled hours at the reference desk.
REDEFINING ROLE OF THE PROFESSION
These classes have given us a visibility that we did not have previously. We have enthusiastically welcomed our redefined role. It has been an opportunity to learn and grow. The new emphasis on technology in the library has helped bring renewed respect to the role of librarians. Why is that? We all know what the old assumptions were. How many times have you been told that all you needed to be a librarian was the ability to say, "Shush," or that all you did all day was check out books? Haven't people expressed surprise to you that you needed a master's degree to be a librarian? And then there is our glorious image. You know, the one with the bun, the out-of-style glasses, and the dowdy clothing. I still remember people's surprise when they first saw me, the pregnant art librarian in a mini-skirt laughing with a customer. They knew that I couldn't possibly be a real librarian. I didn't fit the image.
In this Information Age, we have other obstacles to overcome besides the frivolous ones of image. Because of the Internet and the proliferation of resources, we live in a time when everyone is an expert. Distance learning is commonplace. Virtual libraries, already a reality, mean that customers no longer have to leave their homes to get the answer they seek. People can find information without needing the services of a librarian. The librarian as gatekeeper with the key to the proper resources is seen as obsolete.
Some say that with the proliferation of electronic access, we are moving towards a paperless society. Everything will be available over the Web. Some even believe that everything is currently available over the Web. "Try the Internet," is a catch phrase by many requestors. There is still the assumption that if it is not on the Internet, it simply does not exist nor is it significant.
With that arrogance of ignorance there is the assumption, and I believe it to be glaringly incorrect, that neither library nor librarian is necessary in this technological age. People are self-sufficient and they can find it themselves. WRONG!!! Now you and I know that is balderdash but now we must prove to the misguided and the mistaken that libraries and librarians are more necessary than ever. We must seize the moment and take advantage of the golden opportunity that has been presented to us as a genuine gift. The Information Age is our time to shine. Who is better suited to take charge in the Information Age than the Information Professional. In case you blinked, that is we! Yes, we are trained information professionals. As librarians we are perfectly situated to do this instruction. We are skilled searchers. We are trained to organize and analyze and retrieve information. We understand the principles of materials selection. Instead of being threatened by the proliferation of information with the World Wide Web and electronic resources, we should be grateful. The Internet has given us the gem of a chance to reposition ourselves. The Internet makes it easier for our customers to get some information, but they still need us to help them become effective and efficient searchers.
We must keep current. Our role as librarians has certainly changed and the job description is radically different from what it once was, but we must rise to the challenge. In this Information Age when change is the only constant, one must be flexible. Keeping up with technology certainly keeps one young, vital, and learning. What an exciting opportunity we have! It is a challenge that we can meet. Read those journals. Talk to colleagues. Ask questions. Remember that the technology is new to each one of us. None of us can possibly know it all, but we can all know some. And everyone is happy to share and help.
Make sure that the resources you have are the latest and most appropriate for your particular clientele. At Dowling we have just spearheaded a major transition in how we access electronic resources for our College. We just engineered a major conversion of resources: from DOS to Windows, from CD-ROM to Web access to our databases and from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 in the library. For our campus, this was a radical change. It is a change that impacts not only our program but will have a ripple effect on the rest of the College. It is a change that put the Library in the forefront and helped further redefine our role as leaders in technology on campus. It is a change that means a tremendous amount of work, but the benefits to our program are plentiful.
Don't be afraid of change or the work it generates. Change helps keep you vital and adapting to it helps you keep your job. Learn the new technologies. Approach them with a positive attitude and you may be surprised at how much you enjoy the challenge of learning and how proud you will be of yourself.
It is okay to make a mistake. I firmly believe that you learn much more by doing something wrong. When you do something right, you never analyze what you did. On the other hand, when you have totally messed up, you have to figure out just what it was that you did in order to bail yourself out. Then you have learned what not to do the next time. I know a lot about computers. That is not because I am so skilled or so smart. It is because I have made a lot of mistakes from which I have had to rescue myself! Remember that no one knows it all.
Ask for help. Don't be embarrassed or intimidated that an elementary school child is more comfortable with the computer than you are. S/he will be proud to share her or his expertise.
Fundamental library skills are as valuable now as ever. Materials still need to be organized, searched, and evaluated. The difference is that now you should not keep this expertise as a deep, dark secret for your use only. You need to share your skills with others. You need to train your customers in these skills so that when they approach a search on the Internet they are not overwhelmed with the deluge that might hit them.
At Dowling we have redefined our role in several ways. As has been stated, we offer Internet instruction through the Dowling College Institute; we provide computer literacy classes to the campus; and we incorporate search techniques in our Information Instruction classes. Our customers know that we are there to help them with countless tricks of the trade. It is well known that the best defense is a good offense. What better way to convince our public that we are, indeed, an essential component in the information equation than by demonstrating our expertise? Show your customers how to narrow a search and find the perfect reference. Find the correct answer in 30 seconds when your customer comes in extraordinarily frustrated from 3 fruitless hours of Internet searching.
Remember that we are trained professionals. We know how to properly identify appropriate sources and select materials. We can share our expertise with our customers. We are no longer gatekeepers of information. We are partners in its pursuit.