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Wilson Library's Information Commons

Wilson Library's Information Commons is the model for a one-stop shop concept for helping students with research and writing.

Libraries for a new generation

Getting the Net Gen on the right information highway

By Martha Coventry

From M, spring 2006

For years, university libraries all over the country have been preparing for the Millennial or Net Gen students--those from the Class of 2000 and beyond--and their particular needs and style. For these students, the mere notion of a library can seem as quaint as last year's ring tones. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 85 percent of them grew up with a computer in their home, and 75 percent of them used the Internet as their primary research tool throughout high school. They're used to getting information at the click of a mouse, and after 10,000 hours playing video games, they have a freewheeling, trial-and-error way of learning at odds with what they may see as a library's organized and methodical approach.

But, as computer literate as most of these students are, they can be information illiterate. They don't know how to parse out good information from bad, or use a variety of sources, or know when a work is biased or incomplete--or even tell if someone is trying to sell them something.

"Faculty are complaining more and more that students are not coming to the U with adequate thinking skills," says Jerilyn Veldof, director of the Libraries undergraduate initiatives. "They're used to skimming the most easily found information off a search engine and using it in their assignments. One professor said to us, 'Look at this stack of papers. I can guarantee that most of what's in here is junk, as far as what they're citing. And most students don't even know it.'"

The libraries are building a bridge, says Veldof, "between the Google paradigm these students are used to and a much more sophisticated research-library approach to information. And the gap is pretty big."

University Libraries has reconceived what a library is and does. "We no longer just 'catch' information as it is produced," says University Librarian and McKnight Presidential Professor Wendy Pradt Lougee. "We are engaged in it every step of the way." That engagement involves purchasing and managing sophisticated databases, allowing U students, staff, and faculty to access a staggering amount of information from any computer anywhere in the world. It also means understanding how this new generation finds information and how to build on that style to help these students succeed at the University and in the larger world.

The libraries are building a bridge, says Veldof, "between the Google paradigm these students are used to and a much more sophisticated research-library approach to information. And the gap is pretty big."

What they need and how to get them there

A few years ago, Veldof and her team began a major investigation of how to narrow that gap. They found that students truly wanted to know what the libraries offered, how to use those services, and, to everyone's great surprise, where to find a sense of community.

"We thought we would hear from students that they could care less if there was a physical library, a physical space. That what they would want was electronic text accessibility 24/7," says Veldof. "Well, they do want that, but they also desperately want a sense of community. A place that they can come between classes, where their friends are, and where they can have a connection with staff and faculty."

With more than 6.3 million volumes and 36,000 serial subscriptions spread over 15 libraries on the Twin Cities campus, along with information stored in hundreds of databases, the libraries can seem like an intimidating, almost inscrutable places. The challenge was to bring them--literally--down to size.

A library of their own

A number of students have a well-documented issue called "library anxiety." Some universities try to solve this problem with special undergraduate libraries that ease students into full-scale research libraries. Since the U doesn't have such a place, it built the one-of-a-kind Undergraduate Virtual Library (UGVL).

This elegantly simple site features a way to do quick, focused searches; find and print entire journal articles; log into the UThinks blog; and use "My Library" to track searches, results, overdue items, and preferences. Perhaps the site's most ingenious feature is the assignment calculator, where a student puts in the date a project is assigned and when it's due. The calculator then maps out the steps he or she needs to take, when they must be completed, and then e-mails reminders to the student.

Forget those lonely study carrels

The UGVL also allows students to contact a librarian by e-mail or during live chat time. But what about that sense of community students want so much? When you walk in the front door of Wilson Library on the West Bank of the Twin Cities campus, straight ahead you see the Information Commons, opened in late 2004. Students are bent over notebooks or peering at computer screens, their coats flung over the backs of their chairs. Librarians and writing coaches are milling around ready to help anyone who needs it. This is a one-stop shop run by the Libraries in collaboration with the College of Liberal Arts Center for Writing. Students can craft a term paper, research project, video, or any number of assignments from start to finish with all the help they need in one place.

The success of the Information Commons has spurred the creation of SMART Commons on the St. Paul campus, and a similar effort is under way in the Academic Health Center.

Undergraduate Virtual Library screenshot
Take a tour of the Undergraduate Virtual Library.

In fall 2005, Walter Library on the East Bank opened the Wise Owl Caf?. Students meet their friends, do homework, and have discussions with their teachers in the cozy space. Future plans for the Wise Owl include a stage for readings, music, and other events.

And those once seemingly deserted and confounding Wilson Library stacks now have friendly helpers--students workers who have been trained as front-line support staff to help patrons find their material. If a student worker isn't around, red helpline phones connect directly to a librarian.

While no one at the University is ready to require students to learn about the library--although 52 percent of the students Veldof surveyed think that's a good idea--thousands have taken advantage of the "Unraveling the Library" basic skills workshops. The library is also working with faculty to retool courses and assignments to help students become more information literate.

The notion of the library as the "heart of the campus" may one day be true again as students find it increasingly welcoming, meaningful, and useful. One thing we can be sure of is that the information highway will just keep rolling along and, if it's up to University Libraries, no one will get left behind.