ERL13 notes: Opening keynote with Dr. Michael Eisenberg

Listening to users: what the Google generation can tell us about using collections, services and systems

Dr. Michael Eisenberg conducts research on “the Google generation” at the University of Washington iSchool. He works with Project Information Literacy, looking at the info-seeking behaviour of young adults, including challenges they face and skills they possess.

The Google generation (born around 20 years ago) have never known a world without the Internet, without Google. In this age, our information needs have changed from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance. (He had a great analogy about going from looking for a needle in a haystack to looking at a stack full of needles). After abundance comes overload.

PIL looks at the Google generation — how do college students seek and use information? They’ve found that the typical user is courteous and engaged, self-taught (often using strategies they developed in high school), has the expectation that a “perfect source” exists out there and wants to use Google to get it. The typical user puts things off till the last minute but not because she is procrastinating — she’s just really busy. (Maybe we should consider this for our staffing? More staff time at service points during key times during the semester — don’t just keep the library open longer during exams. It’s that period before exams when it’s really necessary.)

When college students have an information need, they use Google and Wikipedia first, not our libraries. 7/10 students use Wikipedia, ignoring faculty warnings. They just don’t cite it in their papers. (The British Library is an example of an institution who is putting themselves where the user is, writing the wiki entries for their collection when they discovered that those entries were more popular than the same content on their own website.)

The hardest parts of research are getting started, defining and narrowing down a topic, and sorting through results. The search part isn’t so hard any more. Why is research so difficult? Students get far more instruction throughout their education on writing skills than research skills. They can’t figure out the scope of the assignments. Faculty handouts about their assignments only tell students about the form of the papers they have to write, not about how to find good research materials for those papers (or to ask for help from a librarian).

Students do come to the library, however. During crunch time, the library is a haven. Even if students have their own computers and mobile devices, they come to the library and use library computers because they’re not loaded with distracting apps and content. Sure, they use Facebook still, but in the form of incentivized Facebook break time (10 minute break after you write X words!).

When these students graduate and go into the workplace, employers find they have an instinct for instant information, but are tethered to computers when looking for answers. They lack the ability to work well with low-tech resources and traditional problem-solving skills.

What are the implications for libraries?

  • information literacy is more important than ever, but changing — stop focusing on search
  • shifting role for library from information and support to space, place and equipment
  • student needs change with the academic calendar — plan services accordingly
  • work with faculty


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