Archive for the ‘5 Days 5 Facts’ Category

format is dead! The end of 5 Days, 5 Facts…

11 Dec

The last day of 5 Days, 5 Facts, is finally here. Today’s post is about how today’s users are ALL about the answer, and not at all about the format.

Fact 5: Format is dead, long live content  

Vultures, circling, possibly over format. Tenous, no?

Vultures, circling, possibly over format. Tenuous, no?

I was at an ‘away day’ relating to the History of Print Culture last week, and people were talking about the media revolutions of the past and how they’d influenced the culture. I was struck how all of these, from the Gutenberg Press in 1450-odd onwards, were all about the format or the platform. The invention of the printing press, then new types of printing on a larger scale, then different formats allowing for faster and wider distribution – all these were examples of the format dictating the way in which that media revolution effected the culture.  As my friend and colleague in the History department Rafe Hallet pointed out in his presentation, each new technology became the dominant influence through a sort of natural convergence of favourable circumstances: the power of the new technology was often overstated (as is often the case with new and exciting trends), the new technology was innately a rejection of the previous technology so it was well placed to supersede what had come before, the new technology created new audiences who were only part of this new media revolution having never been reached by the previous ones, and of course the whole thing was self-justifying – very often each new media revolution was the medium for spreading the good word about itself. In none of this do you get a sense of the people (or the user, or reader, or whatever you want to call them) being anything other than passive in the whole process – they are being dictated to by the technology, and are not really influencing anything themselves.

Compare and contrast that to the media revolution we are undergoing today. If you accept that the internet itself cannot be described as a ‘format’ (it is a platform which supports many formats) then we are for the first time experiencing a revolution in which the format is not dictating to the people, but in fact it is the other way around. The people are not passive, they are active in shaping the revolution – the web provides a fluid, mellifluous stage on which to present an ever-changing array of content and format according to people’s needs. The media themselves are no longer the driving force and no one format is king – in that sense, without wishing to sound glib, it’s a media dissolution rather than a media revolution. This death of format is permeating everything, including scholarly research, and that affects libraries.

Previously format was very important in search activity – if you wanted to find out about, say, the coronation, you might check a (physical) newspaper archive and try and find all the information you could. Or if you wanted more academically rigorous sources, perhaps you just look through sociological or anthropological journals. Today, research is showing, people just want The Answer, and they absolutely don’t care what format it is in. This is a product of the heuristically simple Google homepage, which just has a search box for keywords (as opposed to a library catalogue which is a little more complicated, for example), or perhaps the Google homepage is the product of our newly simpler needs. (Of course, you can limit by format or date or anything else using the Advanced Search on Google, but by and large people don’t tend to use this feature. Indeed, this is symptomatic of the widening realisation that digital literacy and information literacy are nothing like the same thing, and although clearly the Google Generation have the former, this is not leading to them having the latter. This month’s report, How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age, found students were dialling down the aperture of all the different resources available to them, sticking with a few, and not varying the way in which they used them – even when going after very diverse information goals. [1]  Similarly, the UCL report into the Google Generation found that the idea of the new breed of expert searchers is a ‘dangerous myth’, and that a study of the literature over the last 25 years showed no improvement in young people’s information skills.) [2]  So nowadays a search on the coronation would bring back results from newspapers, radio broadcasts, film archives, perhaps even blogs and, in the future, Google Waves, as well as traditional academic books and journals – and this is exactly what the researcher wants. People now are format agnostic, and content is their only God. The Discoverability report from the University of Minnesota Libraries identified one of the five main trends to emerge from its research as follows:

‘The format of useful and discoverable information objects is much broader than those traditionally offered through libraries; users increasingly rely upon multimedia objects, data sets, blogs, and other “grey” objects to meet their information needs.’ 

So where does that leave us, the Information Professionals? I think we have to have an awareness of all the stuff I’ve talked about in this series of posts, and this one and the horizontal searching one are clearly very closely related. I think we need to do everything we can to overcome the limitations of our very format-driven procedures and computer programmes. I think we can treat this is an opportunity,  as I said on Day 1, to become the source of authoritative information (regardless of format) rather than just the gate-keepers of a small selection of information, And I think eventually we will need to bite the bullet, and redesign the catalogue (which is, after all, our users’ primary point of contact with our services these days) from the ground up.  I’ll end with a quote from an interview with the very sensibly forward-thinking Eric Lease Morgan:

‘If it were up to me the scope of the catalogue would include the full-text of journal articles and books (or at least their metadata pointing to permanent URLs where the full text is located), images, sounds, movies, data sets, computer programs, etc. The search interface would be Google-like. One box. One button. Search results would embody a bit of “smarts”. Did you mean? Too many, try this search. Too few, try this one. Limit by format, genre, date, and audience — a.k.a. faceted browsing. After a bit of interaction the search interface would get to know you like a reference librarian does. It could remember you and your preferences. It could make recommendations. It could send you emails and allow you to blog against it.

My idea of a “next generation” library catalog is not really a catalog at all. Instead, it is more like a tool - a library research helper - supplementing the functionality of librarians in a networked environment.’ [3]

Amen to that.

So that’s it! The end of 5 Days, 5 Facts - I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief now…

- thewikiman


[1] Head A., Eisenberg, M (2009) How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age, p.3. Available in PDF format via
[2] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.20. Available via  
[3] Quote taken from “Eric Lease Morgan – Future of Librarians Interview.” Available at:
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library branding – the penultimate day of 5 Days, 5 Facts…

10 Dec

Nearly done… I feel like a man who’s decided to run a marathon without doing any preparation! I think I should have called it 5 Days, 5 Warnings, because they do seem to be more warning than fact – the first one about the digital universe expanding was pretty factual (albeit informed speculation) but the latter ones seem to be more 5 Days, 5 Conclusions Supported By Literature. Anyhow, look out for Day 5 tomorrow as it is, for me, the most important ersatz FACT of all…

Fact 4: your users don’t know what you are providing for them

a whole bunch of branding irons, none of which say 'library' on them

a whole bunch of branding irons, none of which say 'library' on them

I’ve gone for the more confrontational and potentially provocative ‘your’ users rather than ‘ours’ there, but I know that some of you, or the institutions you work in, will have already tried to address this problem and perhaps even solved it. I’d love some feedback on this one; if anyone’s been successfully branding library resources to raise awareness that library resources is indeed what they are, please leave a comment and tell me about it.

I work in the e-Resources team of an academic library (for another week and a bit anyway – aaargh, must finish writing hand-over document etc!) and so I get to see firsthand how little many people understand about the way in which digital resources are provided. This is quite understandable, because how can we expect people to know about the technical side of things? But what it basically amounts to is, they don’t realise the Library arranges, pays for and maintains access to many digital resources – whether that’s the obvious e-journals and e-books, the databases like Lexis Nexis, newspaper archives like the Times and the Guardian, streaming websites, online music libraries, Box of Broadcasts or anything else. So they type something they’ve seen in the library catalogue into Google, and then ring up the helpdesk to ask why they’re being told they need to pay for access…

The reason, of course, is that they’ve not gone in via our catalogue, so they’ve not been routed via our authentication procedures, and so the digital resource in question doesn’t ‘know’ they are from this University. This is problematic in that our users aren’t able to access what they want to, which is far from ideal, but of course it’s easily solved if they ask us for help. More worrying is the fact that it hasn’t occurred to them that the library is actually responsible for providing access to this stuff, and that is something of a failure of branding.

All of this is backed up by the good old UCL  / BL report from 2008, on the Google Generation, which summarises the findings of the OCLC’s investigation of the situation like this:

‘books’ are still the primary library brand association for this group, despite massive investment in digital resources, of which students are largely unfamiliar [1]

I think by the time they get into Higher Education (rather than Further, which is what that particular report was covering) they’ll become familiar with them pretty quick – a recent graph tweeted by Dave Patterson (now sadly locked on flickr, maybe he’ll put it back up later) showed a very interesting and apparently direct correlation between grades and library use, and the people who were getting 1sts seemed to be using the e-resources more than everybody else was. But I think that even when they become familiar with them, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll become familiar with the fact that it is the library that subscribes to them so the students and academics don’t have to pay for access.

My own place of employment spends literally millions – millions with an ‘s’ at the end – on its e-resources portfolio. It takes up a huge chunk of the budget, and a lot of staff time to sort out. If people don’t know we’re doing this, they must be wondering what the hell the library spends its cash on every year. It’s important that people know what libraries were doing in this time of decreased funding etc, or the general perception might be that we’re not providing value.

We take some steps here to brand our e-resources, in particular the digitisation service I run. All our PDFs are placed in folders which we brand as library resources, and as well as the digitised readings themselves the folders contain information stating explicitly that this resource is provided by the library. It increases awareness, and also it separates our perfectly legal scans with any dodgy stuff the academics themselves put online – useful if we ever get audited by the CLA. But there’s not much we can do to brand e-journals – we’re just linking to them after all, and even though the URL itself actually changed to include the name of the University, most people don’t spend a whole lot of time reading URLs of sites they’re already on.

But you can advertise the fact YOU, the library, are paying for this stuff. Part of me thinks this whole thing is an old issue – and indeed, it’s been a problem for absolutely ages, but another part of me just doesn’t see much evidence of libraries shouting from the roof tops about this sort of thing and actually solving the problem. As Barbara McDonald says [2]

Expose and brand content. Make sure people know you’re PAYing for things. Avoid vendor labelling; shout LIBRARY every chance you get

This issue was revisted recently by Alison Circle on the Library Journal - she linked to a selection of three articles on this subject, which are worth a look.

Anyone else have any techniques for increasing library brand awareness in this context? Let me know.


[1] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.7. Available via  
[2] McDonald, Barbara (2009) “Building Library Systems” To “Designing UX” Available via
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5 Days, 5 Facts: Day 3 – we ARE the Google Generation…

09 Dec

Day 3 of 5 Days, 5 Facts, eh? Starting to question the wisdom of this, taking lots longer than I naively expected, and maybe I’m just writing a load of rubbish anyway, but I will press on regardless…  5 Days, 2 Facts On The First Two Days doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Fact 3: We behave just like the Google Generation do

We're all equally reluctant to read the manual

We're all equally reluctant to read the manual

The coming of the Google Generation is a bit like climate change, in that even though we’re all fully aware we have to act now to adapt, we still think of it as something just around the corner rather than immediately in front of us. The UCL / BL report I keep referring to defines the Google Generation as those born after 1993, [1]  which means the first of them are about 16 now and soon to enter the higher education system. If you dip your toe into the waters of generation designation and you find they are deep and murky – defining ‘a generation’ is a fairly abstract activity of course, so there’s plenty of room for grey areas. According to that unimpeachable scholarly resource Wikipedia, [2]Generation X  is the one after the baby boom ended, with a date range from 1961 to 1981. Generation Y  (also known as the Millennial generation, the Net Generation, or the particularly arch Generation Next) can spread from the mid-70s to the late-90s, apparently, meaning thewikiman is of both X and Y generations. And if you type ‘Google Generation’ into Wikipedia, you get taken to the page for Generation Z  – born between the mid-90s and now. So, estimates vary. Presumably the generation after this one won’t thank Generation X for being so short sighted as to start the nomenclature only 3 letters from the end of the alphabet. [3]

The point of all this is to show that there’s a huge overlap in the different classification of groups of people, and that while the Google Generation have many names and may cover many dates, the point of that categorisation is that they are all digital natives, born into the technology, and they’re all about to be using our libraries. What I’m trying to say in this piece is that the digital immigrants, such as myself, actually behave just the same as the digital native much of the time, so we effectively need to cater for Generation Z right now, rather than in a couple of year’s time. It isn’t the generation that is defining the technology – it is the technology which is defining all of us, regardless of generation.

The first major study undertaken in this area (as far as I’m aware) was by the OCLC, entitled College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources [4] around four years ago. They asked the same questions to what we’ll settle on calling the Google Generation as they did to those born earlier, and compared the results. So for example, 36% of the overall cohort of respondents decreed themselves ‘Extremely familiar’ with ‘Search engines’ as sources to find (scholarly) information, compared with 45% of the Google Gen respondents; 26% overall with the ‘Physical Library’ as opposed to 34% of the Google Gens etc. [5] So while the Google Generation are predictably more au fait with the internet as a tool for research, they were more au fait with the actual library too, suggesting that rather than being this separate online breed we sometimes think of them as, they are in fact just using a broader a range of sources for information; they are more proactive in locating them.  Significantly, while only around 30% of the total respondents had used a library website as an electronic information source, more than twice as many (62%) of the Google Generation had done so [6] – suggesting again that this generation’s love of Google  does not automatically entail a phobia of everything else. They are, in that respect, not so different from you or I.

The UCL report looks at the myths and realities of the Google Generation, [7] concluding that many of the claims made on behalf of that generation by the popular media ‘fail to stack up fully against the evidence’. For example, it is true that they are more competent with technology, but the older generation are catching up (and this process is happening so quickly it is probably doubly true now, almost two years after this report was written) and the younger generation use much simpler applications than many imagine. (This is backed up by the Project Information Literacy Progress Report, which found that “…nearly all the students in our sample had developed an information-seeking strategy reliant on a small set of common information resources – close at hand, tried and true.” [8] ) However, there was no evidence to support the notion that young people have less tolerance for delay than the rest of us – we are all equally impatient to have our information needs fulfilled. Similarly the need to be constantly connected to the web is no longer considered ‘a specific Google generation trait.’ [9] And pertinently for us in the Information Profession, the report found that the power-browsing behaviour discussed on Day 2 was common to everyone – professors and lecturers were searching horizontally every bit as much as the students were. I mentioned yesterday an article in the Times which discussed this report – Catherine O’Brien admits: “Power browsing, I have to concede, has become the norm for me. Google has been my godsend as a writer. Research that once required hours of trawling through reports and cuttings, and days of fielding calls to source experts, can be done in a few clicks of a mouse.” It is the norm for me too – all of the research for this string of posts originated on Google, not just because it’s quick and convenient but because the information is a current as possible – various of the reports I’ve cited are published, but at least one has an updated version I could only have discovered online. As I also mentioned yesterday, the Discoverability report[10] established that users now expect discovery and delivery of resources to coincide – this not just a trait of the youth of today, but of all of us now.

So to return to the point – the Google Generation is not just around the corner; it is here now, and it is consuming us too. We are becoming defined by the same traits as it, and now we need to continue to do everything we can to provide for it, right away.


[1] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.7. Available via  
[2] I’m aware of the irony that I’m doing research about the Google Generation using just the kind flawed resources they do…
[3] And no one will thank anyone for the fact that apparently ‘Generation Next’ refers to both Y and Z generations, making a mockery of the whole ridiculous thing
[4] OCLC (2005) College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources. Available via You will be asked to register but having done so you are instantly able to view the report.
[5] 5% of respondents overall pronounced themselves to have ‘Never Heard of’ the physical library, so perhaps all the results of the study can be called into question on the grounds that some of the people were clearly idiots. College Students’ Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources, 1-5.
[6] As above, 1-6.
[7] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.18.   
[8] Headm A., Eisenberg, M (2009) How College Students Seek Information in the Digital Age. Available in PDF format via – originally brought to my attention by a blog post from Free Range Librarian
[9] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, p.19
[10] University of Minnesota Libraries (2009) Discoverability Phase 1 Final Report. Available via
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5 Days, 5 Facts: Day 2 – horizontal browsing

08 Dec

Day 2 of 5 Days, 5 Facts and this is one is more explicitly user-behaviour orientated than the first one.

This piece is about the way users approach our digital resources, and what this means for us. Most of the statistical information is taken from the UCL’s report on the Information Seeking Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future, published last year in conjunction with the BL. [1]  Although almost two years old and covered in the past by other blogs, it is a must-read report for everyone in the Information Profession, so do go and have a look at my source material.

Fact 2: Your users are power-browsers

Photo by austinevan, click the pic to view the original on Twitter
vertical browsing

As mentioned on Day 1, it’s easy to track user behaviour now because people’s actions leave an electronic trail. This is particularly useful because I bet if you asked users how much time they spent on an electronic journal, they’d over-estimate compared with UCL’s actual results. Incidentally, the reason the title of the report I’ll quote from mentions ‘Researchers of the future’ is that it was written about the Google Generation (which is in this case defined as those born from 1993 onwards – scarily, they’ll be arriving in Higher Education shortly) but, as we will see in Day 3, the Google Generation isn’t do different from you or I anyway.

What the report found was that users were ‘power-browsing’ electronic resources. I’ve tried to find a definition of power-browsing but all references to it seem to relate back to the original report; it’s evidently a term they coined to describe the horizontal search behaviour they discovered. Horizontal searching can broadly be described as skipping quickly through a broad range of content, rather than vertical searching, which is going into depth in one particular area. (For example, going to a niche website or database on, say, healthcare in the 19th Century, and searching that in detail.) The report describes it like this, with me adding the bold to the bit I think is really significant:

A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then ‘bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65%) never return. [2]

It could be that we’ve always behaved like this, even with printed materials – indeed comment 2 on this blog post   suggests exactly that – but my own experience suggests that if you go to the trouble of locating a paper journal and taking it back to your desk, you’ll read more than three pages just to try and reward your own physical effort… The report also says the average user spends just 8 minutes on an e-journal site (4 minutes for an e-book site) so the restlessness of the generation is something we need to accommodate in the library.

In a sense, one could argue that not only are we already accommodating this skipping behaviour, we actually helped foster it. It is precisely because of things like full-text searching that we only need to spend 8 minutes on a site, before we can make a reasonably informed judgement as to whether we have all the relevant information we need. Perhaps the scholarly is process is just more efficient, rather than reduced. And as James Wilson says on the Intute Blog post about this same report – “Having avoided going to all the time and trouble of ordering physical articles up from library stacks, one does not get the same sense of disillusionment in rapidly rejecting material which will prove peripheral at best.”

Where does this leave us in the library? Clearly we need to provide a broad enough scope of resources to facilitate horizontal browsing, but most libraries will do that anyway as part of their collection management. We need to brand the digital materials we do provide, so that our users know they can search horizontally within our own library resources, meaning they can access what we’ve paid so much to provide for them. And we need to develop single sign-in as far as possible to make the horizontal browsing as seamless as possible. The UCL report suggests:

…Information consumers – of all ages – use digital media voraciously, and not necessarily in the ways librarians assume. Any barrier to access: be that additional log-ins, payment or hard copy, are too high for most consumers and information behind those barriers will increasingly be ignored. [3]  

This chimes in with the findings of another report - Discoverability - this time from the University of Minnesota. A trend they identified was: “Users expect discovery and delivery to coincide. Searchers do not distinguish between discovery and delivery in their web searches…” So again, any barriers we are putting in their way will eventual be barriers to their wanting to use library resources at all. (The Discoverability report is excellently analysed in the Bibliographic Wilderness blog.)

 A couple more articles and blog posts online have also covered this subject, at the time the report was produced: The New Atlantis, and an article in the Times which I’ll also be mentioning in Day 3.


[1] UCL (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future. Available via  
[2] As above: page 10
[3] As above, page 30
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