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Mother May I Have a Staff Anthropologist?

Nicole Hennig from MIT talked about their anthropological study (inspired by the University of Rochester) of their students’ research habits. Her study’s documentation is here.

It’s no surprise that students start with Google, and that they go to what they know or tap their social networks. But did you know that students are incredibly likely to refer to their own personal libraries (old text books, current text books, and other books they own)? Not surprising, sure, but here’s why: they want to see information that is presented in the way that they originally learned it. This makes perfect sense, but I’d never thought about it before. I’d known about how people go to the familiar when they’re given a choice, but this takes that to a new level for me. It also adds to the challenge of designing systems that “extend the users’ work practices” (Hennig quoted Karen Holzblatt). We can get into Google and into Course Management Systems and the like, but we can’t get into old text books.

This study also found that none of their interviewees had asked for help. Hennig speculated that this was because MIT has a “figure it out yourself” culture. I’m been hearing this so often, and from so many libraries (including mine) that I’m thinking it’s not so much an attribute of the students at specific schools as it is an attribute of students. I know that when I was a student I wondered if asking for help was cheating, and I’m sure that hasn’t changed much recently. So now we’re not only writing ourselves into old textbooks, but we’re also bucking a culture that values independent “struggling through” anything that’s hard.

So why do I want an anthropologist on staff? Because I want to know how our students in different disciplines “struggle through” their research. Hennig mentioned that they began to notice vast differences between students in different disciplines, and I’d like to see more on that. But even beyond that, I want to know what my student’s “work practices” are so that I can figure out how to extend them. If my role on campus is to develop my students’ information literacy, than I need to know what practices exist and where the points of opportunity are for me to stretch my students beyond their comfort zone.

Oh, and besides an anthropologist, I want the LibX extension live all over campus. That should be easier, and cheaper…

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Published inProfessional Development