Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Cult of Instruction: or, Why A Fishing Pole is Better than a Fish

My first rant on this site has to do with what I call the "cult of instruction" that is currently sweeping through many academic libraries. As our digital environment becomes ever more complex, academic librarians have begun worshipping at the Temple of Bibliographic Instruction. Don't get me wrong: to a certain extent, I believe bibliographic instruction is useful in terms of indoctrinating, err, orienting new users of a library system on the tools, procedures, etc. of said system. But, increasingly, when faced with the vagaries of 21st Century librarianship, some academic librarians are losing sight of our mission (e.g. to provide high-quality. research-calibre information sources - in whatever format our users need them - to support the academic instruction, research, and intellectual inquiry of our parent institutions.)

What has replaced that larger vision is all too frequently an overly-simplified vision of the academic librarian/research library as a second-rate instructional center teaching bored, uninterested students how to use the frankly sub-par tools to discover content in our collections.

We need to take bold steps beyond this limited and limiting view of librarianship and libraries in the 21st Century. Contrary to popular belief, and misconception within our profession, our books are not going away anytime soon. We are not yet in an era of print vs. electronic resources. We are in an era of print AND electronic resources. If you don't believe me, get over it.

Instead of focusing our attention on half-assed attempts at bibliographic instruction, we should be putting our efforts into building much better discovery tools. Meta-search engines need to be perfected. Endeca-like indexing tools need to be inserted above our OPACS ... and over all of our other information silos. "Google"-like search interfaces need to be put into place where appropriate, and easy-to-use more advanced, finessed search functionality also needs to be at our user's fingertips. (For more on the topic of evolving library technologies, Andrew Pace has waxed philosophic for awhile on his blog. The pre-OCLC version is available at The new, improved, OCLC-era version is expected to have its grand unveiling soon.)

Any research library that does not put its money where its mouth is in terms of programming staff, system admins, and technologically savvy staff has missed the mark. If we give our researchers the search tools that they are clamoring for, they won't need us to instruct them on how to use sub-standard tools. If teaching someone to fish is better for them long-term than just providing them the fish, then by extension, building them a fishing pole that works would be just as - if not more - important.

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