The ‘Cool’ Library: Research Tools Adapt to Student Needs

Posted: April 14, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

If you see a student Instant Messaging on his laptop in the Johnson Center, or listening to an iPod in the library, there’s a chance he might actually be studying. With the University Libraries pushing to combine new technologies and new ways of communicating with researchers, these devices are quickly making their way into scholarly work.

The latest effort of the library to adapt to student needs is the use of Instant Messenging services to communicate. If a psychology student is using her computer at home to write a paper and suddenly realizes she needs another source, she can just log on to her AOL account or MSN and instant messageIMasonLibraries” to talk instantly to a librarian. It’s the virtual equivalent of walking up to the Reference Desk and asking a question.

The staff at University Libraries says they’ve answered all kinds of questions since the Instant Messaging service pilot started this semester – anything from how to cite a source, what journal database to search, where to start on an English 302 topic, who was George Mason or how to use the interlibrary loan service.

Today’s generation, says Craig Gibson, associate university librarian for public services, wants faster answers. “They want it now, and now isn’t fast enough.”

“We are constantly trying to figure out the habits of our users and find technology that can convey the information to them in the best manner,” says Jamie Coniglio, head of the reference department at Fenwick Library.

Therefore, in past few years, the staff has been looking at ways to make students’ research – and lives – easier. The library has an extensive listing of databases available online, where students can pull full text academic articles, print them out and use them for research and writing. The library also subscribes to selected e-books.

Gibson is not worried that students will stop visiting the actual physical library building, despite some of the major changes in students’ behavior and information-seeking in recent years because of the digital environment.

“Students need that interaction, that’s very important to make that link to someone,” he says. “It would be like never seeing any faculty face to face. Interaction is key.”

Coniglio adds that librarians see themselves as collaborators and partners in the institution, helping students find their way to the best possible source. “We’re doing what we’ve always done, organizing and providing access to information. The tools are just different.”

Each subject area, college or department at Mason has a liaison librarian assigned to it to help students and support faculty with their particular research and information needs. Because a creative writing student would need different research materials than, say, a chemist, the liaison librarian can focus on a particular area and guide researchers in a more effective manner. One-on-one research appointments with these librarians are available and encouraged; students and faculty can also get research assistance via e-mail.

Other new ways of reaching out to users include the libraries toolbar. The libraries are also beginning to experiment with podcasting; staff members are working on recording various aspects of finding and evaluating resources to upload to the library web site for students to download to their portable audio players. The libraries also provide an RSS feed; instead of searching for new information on the library’s web site, it can be delivered to your desktop. Several liaison librarians also maintain blogs for their subject areas.

For more information about the various print and digital resources and services provided by the University Libraries, visit the Help with Research web site, or stop by any of the libraries.

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