At The University of Iowas libraries, a stereotype has bitten the dust. No longer do patrons see librarians as tight-lipped, overly zealous guardians of books, whose main focus is sternly shushing whispering library visitors.
That became evident last spring, when the University Libraries sponsored a contest that invited patrons to answer the question, What does the library mean to you?
We got responses from all across campus, from undergraduates and graduate students in every discipline, says Nancy Baker, who heads up the Universitys libraries. And the common theme was, It is a place where somebody helped me.
With more than four million volumes, its easy to understand why students would appreciate assistance in navigating the systems 12 libraries. But the changing nature of libraries also means that even todays computer-savvy students find themselves grateful for help in accessing information.
Students who come to the University are generally computer comfortablethey know how to check the weather, last nights NBA scores, and how to chat with their friends, Baker says. But theyre not necessarily information literate.
Information literacy refers to knowing how to access information, make intelligent choices from among the many available sources, and make appropriate use of that information.
Its a degree and scope problem, Baker says. If you throw a term like gun control out on Yahoo, youll get tons of responses. No one wants to sort through 500 entries, so people will often just grab the first listing and assume its authoritative. We want to help students learn to filter and refine their search terms and examine the sources of informationare they looking at a peer-reviewed journal article intended to be unbiased or is it a persuasive piece put out by an interest group? And we want to help students learn to do this efficiently.
To help students gain these skills, the library staff frequently joins forces with faculty members, who will assign a paper or project that requires students to use library resources and the skills of librarians. In addition, the library offers a number of short courses for students and faculty members. And these skills will be useful to students long beyond their years at The University of Iowa.
I cant imagine any job or profession requiring a college degree where you wont have to access information in some form, Baker says. Part of our mission is to make sure students graduate with those skills.
The importance of the libraries as a part of the Universitys educational mission is not lost on the University administration. Despite the budget cuts that have plagued Iowa recently, preserving library resources has continued to be a top priority.
Thanks to the president and [provost] Jon Whitmore, we havent had to cut our journals budget as significantly as we first feared, Baker says. Thats important, because if we dont acquire items when theyre first published, they often arent available later. Publishers, particularly of scholarly work, often print a few copies and then dont reprint. So even if money were there to purchase something next year, these publications might not be available.
The library has taken some cuts in staffing, which have in turn necessitated reducing library hours. Thanks to good statistics, however, it was possible to determine the low use times, thereby affecting the fewest library users. Thus, the Main Library will remain open until 2 a.m., Monday through Thursday, but some smaller libraries that previously closed at nine will now close at eight, while others will have their weekend hours reduced.
Baker hopes that, given adequate student staffing, the library will be able to offer extended hours during finals. And of course she hopes that with budget improvements, the libraries again will be able to extend their hours on a regular basis.
Baker asks that parents encourage their students to make use of all the University Libraries have to offer.
People still think of us as a book warehouse, and we are. But the reason we collect materials is to make them accessible, Baker says. Learning how to use our resources can make students lives easier.
by Linzee Kull McCray