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Digital Libraries, How do You Get Students to Use Them?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Digital libraries are quickly becoming the norm at colleges and universities here and abroad as ways to expand the materials available to students and to help them hone their research skills. But this laptop generation-whose idea of research is a quick troll through Google-needs to be encouraged to explore its school's digital libraries.


The posting below offers some valuable suggestions on helping students make better use of online library information. It is by freelance writer, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp in the September, 2005 issue of ASEE Prism, Volume 15, Number 1. . Copyright ? 2005 ASEE, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Digital libraries are quickly becoming the norm at colleges and universities here and abroad as ways to expand the materials available to students and to help them hone their research skills. But this laptop generation-whose idea of research is a quick troll through Google-needs to be encouraged to explore its school's digital libraries.

But how? The successful use of these libraries is contingent on several factors, including the way the screen looks and keywords used for searching. There's also a strong link between class assignments and student use of libraries. "We are pushing online access, and most of our faculty members are pretty savvy about incorporating this type of research in the curriculum," said Michael Fosmire, the librarian responsible for science and engineering libraries at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Digital libraries operate at three levels, Fosmire said. The first is any online information. Second comes specialized collections, such as ones for engineers and scientists. Third is an even more narrow collection of papers, research projects, or other materials that may be class-specific, assigned by professors. The latter would be similar to traditional reserved materials, but with the digital library, they are available 24/7 to more than one person at a time, Fosmire said.

As digital libraries continue to develop and become an integral part of student life, the information management systems universities implement will be key to their usage, said Peter Murray, assistant to the director for technology initiatives for the University of Connecticut Libraries. "Our next challenge is to embed our digital library collections and services into the new instructional tools and reposition academic libraries and archives in the creation-acquisition-dissemination flow of our institutions' research," Murray wrote in Library Journal.

These management information systems are organized and driven by variable factors, or business logic, that may be unique to a particular vendor or creator; yet, for example, they need to accommodate digital objects in content systems, he said. "Consider the digitized versions of still images of locomotives and rail yards from the early 1900s in the library's archives. An instructor in engineering pulls selected images into lecture notes on a class Web site to show the mechanics of a steam engine," Murray explained.

Not all digital libraries are for students. Some, such as the, are for teachers. Launched in January 2005, the website provides standards-based curricula and lesson plans for K-12 teachers. Teachers can search the site by keywords, grade levels, standards, subjects, and activities to find classroom-tested materials, complete with a list of needed supplies, that they can download and use, said Jacqueline Sullivan, co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program and director of K-12 Engineering, College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Sullivan is a member of the committee that has worked for three years with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its National Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education Digital Library (NSDL) to develop and launch the K-12 Teach Engineering site. The NSDL hosts the site, which is part of a network of downloadable resources for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education.

Organizing and standardizing access to online digital resources have been NSF priorities since 1994 when grants were awarded to universities and private researchers or corporations to develop software that would allow various collections to interface and allow users to search disparate materials and media, said Lee Zia, lead program director for the NSDL program.

"The consistent message is that Internet usage is way up, and while it might be faster among young people than older, we know that the elder generation is online in a big way," Zia said. Still, he said, "students are driving this as much as anything." Time is a factor for students, who are used to 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week access to what they want online. "But it's been difficult for folks to find good resources they can use," he said, which is where the NSDL comes into play with its science and engineering niche. Its mission is to deepen and extend science literacy through access to materials and methods that reveal the nature of the physical universe and the intellectual means by which we discover and understand it. Zia said the NSDL has emerged as a center of innovation in digital libraries as applied to education and a community center for groups focused on digital-library-enabled science education.


Yet most students, faculty members, and the general users muddle through their online experience, according to researchers in the United States and Hong Kong. In the November 2004 issue of Communications of the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery), James Y.L. Thong, Weiyinh Hong and Kar Yan Tam tell of their research students using the Electronic Library of the Open University of Hong Kong. Launched in 1998, the online library has 1,400 databases and 12,000 titles of electronic books, journals, newspapers, and other materials, along with links to another 500,000 volumes at libraries throughout the world. It is the first and largest digital library in Asia.

"The quality of interface plays a major role in influencing the usability of a digital library and is frequently mentioned as a key reason for not using information retrieval systems," the researchers wrote. Terminology, especially the disparity between the user's language and that used by digital libraries, which may contain unfamiliar technical or professional terms, can also compromise the ability to retrieve information.

Computer experience, screen design, navigational systems, and how content is organized can either help or hinder the users, the researchers found. Class assignments, the experiences of other users, and word of mouth also influence successful use of digital libraries. "While library administrators do not have control over the amount of computer experience that potential users possess, they can influence users' exposure to technologies by organizing introductory computer courses for them," the researchers said.

Mary Ann Fitzgerald, an associate professor in the department of instructional technology at the University of Georgia, analyzed how high school and college students used the virtual library Georgia Library Learning Online (GALILEO). "The comparison of the high school seniors to college seniors gives a fresh perspective of how the college experience contributes to information search skills. It also alerts high school teacher-librarians to collegebound students' need to progress into college-level skills," she wrote in the October 2001 issue of Teacher Librarian. "Generally, all of the students were successful in their searches. That is, they all left the session with useful material," she said. High school students had more difficulty sorting through materials and narrowing their quest.

Both groups of students made mistakes in using the GALILEO system because they didn't understand the browser and operating systems. They also seemed unable to distinguish the difference between GALILEO and Internet sites. "It would appear that teachers and teacher-librarians must continue to work on technology literacy when lack of it affects the ability to find digitized information," Fitzgerald said.

Still, the development of digital libraries is not without controversy. Universities are shifting funds from the purchase of hard copies of books, journals, newspapers, and other media to electronic versions and spending even more money to convert their printed words into digital format. Drexel University President Constantine Papadakis caused an uproar last year among faculty members and some students when he said he'd like to see the Philadelphia institution do away with books and operate only a digital library.

Purdue's Fosmire admits there is tension between the need to conserve the printed word and the transformation to a digital world. Digital information disintegrates fairly quickly, compared with the printed word, which "we know can last almost forever." However, some library content was never in print, such as movies or music, he said. "It's just a different way of doing things. We have 3 million volumes, and you might never be able to find what you were looking for" with a physical search through each book, Fosmire said. However, with online digital libraries and efficient search systems, the vast quantities of materials a student needs to study for a final or work on a class assignment are only few clicks away.

Jo Ellen Myers Sharp is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis.