From IWU Magazine, Spring 2013 edition
A new study addresses academic library use in the age of Google.
Story by KIM HILL
Today’s college students are sometimes called the “Net generation” because they cannot
remember a time when there was no Internet.
Yet the most technologically savvy generation to date — for whom “Google” is a verb
— is not very good at using it, according to one of many surprising results from a
two-year study of how Illinois college students use academic libraries.
Entitled ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries), the study at
Illinois Wesleyan and four other higher education institutions in the state examined
how students view and use their campus libraries.
Two of the most striking results: 1) students did not understand the logic of how
a search engine organizes and displays its results, and 2) librarians were nearly
invisible to students within their academic worldview.
The Ames Library is a busy hub on Wesleyan's campus. But a new study showed that students
don't always make effective use of its myriad resources.
“I assume librarians are busy doing library stuff,” one sophomore said during the
ERIAL study’s data collection. During the study, researchers routinely observed students
choose one search term in an academic database that yielded disappointing results.
Without asking a librarian for help, the student would abandon the topic without further
In addition to working with faculty to engage students early on in the research process,
Ames librarians strive to clarify how that process differs from, say, Yelping a restaurant
for reviews. Above all, the Ames faculty want to make sure students know that librarians
are there to help them.
Results thus far are encouraging. For example, in the 2007-2008 academic year (prior
to the ERIAL Project), Ames librarians provided 85 instruction sessions on how to
conduct academic research for 57 teaching faculty, whose classes reached 1,266 students,
according to Academic Outreach Librarian Lynda Duke, Illinois Wesleyan’s principal
investigator on the project.
The most recent statistics (the 2011-12 academic year) indicate both the instruction
sessions and the number of students reached had more than doubled. Librarians are
now providing assistance for students in 80 percent of IWU’s Gateway courses.
Rather than fighting today’s students’ dependence on Google, Duke uses that dependence
to her advantage. In her classroom presentations alongside teaching faculty, she encourages
students to discuss what makes Google so easy to use and why it’s the default search
engine for 900 million visitors each month.
“Then we talk about the 80 or so academic databases the library has, and how we pay
to have access to scholarly information that Google doesn’t,” said Duke. She said
the sessions focus on teaching students how to effectively access and utilize those
databases and evaluate sources while encouraging students to consider asking a librarian
Results from the ERIAL Project indicated college students exhibited a lack of understanding
of search logic, didn’t know how to build a search to narrow or expand results and
didn’t know how search engines (including Google) organize and display results. Duke
emphasized that ERIAL’s findings were not unique to Illinois Wesleyan students — rather,
the ERIAL Project results are indicative of student attitudes and research habits
across the nation.
When students did get the connection between librarians and what they do (i.e., help
students and others with research), students reported high levels of satisfaction
with the help provided, returned to that librarian for help with other assignments
and recommended librarians to their peers, according to the ERIAL Project’s findings.
Library staff and faculty have made physical changes as well. After realizing the
word “reference,” as in “Reference Desk,” had no meaning for students, the reference
desk was physically removed along with the reference collection.
“The materials in the reference collection are now in the stacks, and some of those
items circulate,” said University Librarian Karen Schmidt. “Students now find reference
material alongside the regular collections. This encourages serendipitous discovery.”
“The waves resulting from the ERIAL Project have been significant,” said Duke, who
also served as co-editor of College Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know (ALA Editions, 2012), a publication of the ERIAL Project’s findings.
Those waves will continue breaking thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, whose
grant will fund research on how students acquire information literacy in their disciplines,
train student tutors in writing and research skills, provide workshops for faculty
and fund partnerships between library and teaching faculty.