Monica Colon-Aguirre “You Just Type in What You Are Looking For”

Interesting study by Monica Colon-Aguirre and Rachel A. Fleming-May on the study habits of 21 undergraduate university students in the US, who were enrolled on a number of different courses. They were comparing the students’ use of Wikipedia and other free web based resources with their use of the university library, both physical and in digital form. It was generally found that the students who were very comfortable with using the college library, and would prioritise it over online resources,  were in the minority. These were termed “avid” library users, though they admitted to often using Wikipedia etc. as a starting point to research.

There were two other categories; occasional library users and library avoiders, who suffered the most from “library anxiety” (I’m glad somebody’s given it a name.) Most of these students admitted to only using the library when their tutors expressly ordered them to and demanded evidence of it. And then they found the library an intimidating experience, difficult to navigate and confusing. While all students recognised that the libraries resources were likely to be more reliable and of better academic quality, the attraction of Wikipedia and other search engines was their accessibility and ease of use, and the fact that when you looked for something, typically you  just found it.

The authors make the point that when it comes to designing libraries and databases, maybe this ease of use should be taken into account, as it was the quality most valued by the students. The role of library instructors was taken into account as well, as many students found them a great help in easing them into the library experience. It’s suggested the library staff could liaise with the tutors in order to come up with more successful ways to prescribe research material in a less off-putting way.

This was an interesting read for me, as the last time I wrote a research paper a couple of years ago we were told in no uncertain terms to stay away from Wikipedia as a research tool. Or if we did use it as a starting point to at least have the decency to keep it quiet. This is a much more balanced approach, which tries to understand why the use of Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and challenges colleges to learn something from it.

Another point coming from this article is the lengths the authors go to describe the methodologies of the entire process, from the way in which the students were selected to take part, the conditions under which they were interviewed and how the data was gathered and analysed. it would seem to be a good example of how thorough you need to be to conduct good research.

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