From the archives: control freaks

I was remiss in suggesting that the content from Command-f might be gone – Caleb would not let that happen.

This post, however, is one that I have actually gone back to a number of times.  Mostly because I am lazy and it was an easy way to get back to the journal article I was discussing.

But also because of all of the thinking and reading I’ve done over the years about anxiety and affect and how they play into the research process – in a pretty real way, that thinking started here.

Control Freaks

August 7, 2008 – 12:11 am by anne-marie

So I want to confess something about this paper I wrote in college.

See, I took this Constitutional Law class in the PoliSci department.  We had to analyze a hypothetical Supreme Court case and write up a legal opinion just like we were Justices.  For this class we used an actual law school Con Law casebook for our textbook – and most of the pieces of the hypothetical situation we were supposed to rule on in this paper we could argue from the cases included in the book.  Most, but not all.

Students treated it as kind of a weed-out course for pre-law types.  With a zillion law schools out there, it couldn’t actually weed anyone out but it was still all very Paper Chase.  So there was some self-imposed pressure to do well on this paper to keep your dream of working 80 hour weeks to make partner alive.

So here’s my confession.  I can totally think like a lawyer.  I got an A- on that paper — but that’s not the confession part.

The confession part is that I wrote the whole thing without ever going to the library.  My 20-page argument was entirely based on what I could get out of the casebook.  And the reason I’m telling you about the A- is this:  I totally, obviously, knew better. I knew that parts 1 and 3 were solid and that walking the four blocks to the law school was the only way I could possibly get what I needed to un-twist the tortured logic of part 2 and still, I wouldn’t go.

So what’s the point of this?  The point is that I’ve been hearing a little flurry lately of “how do we get these kids, these kids today, to use all the awesome stuff we have for them” conversations and I’ve been thinking about how it’s all so very complicated.  Way more complicated than “they want fast, they want easy, they’re Millennials dontcha know.”  It’s about so much more than technology – it’s about the discourse, and the scope and query, and even about affect or emotion.

Which is what I want to talk about a little bit today – that affective, emotional piece.  I think we librarians sometimes show a tendency to assume that our users actively don’t want to use the library, don’t want to talk to us, don’t want to use our stuff.  If we’re in a bad mood, we might assume that they’re deliberately voting thumbs down on us.  If we’re in a better mood, we thnk more that they just don’t know – don’t know what’s available, don’t know how to use it, don’t know why they should use it, don’t know how to recognize it.

I think it’s worth remembering that sometimes it’s not about us — not that that means there’s nothing we can, or should, do about it.  At root, though, not about us.

There’s an article from a few months ago – in the Journal of Academic Librarianship* – looking at how some of these emotional, affective factors relate to how students perceive and use information sources.  It considers how students feel about themselves and their problem-solving — how well they do it, if they like to do it.  And even beyond that – how they understand their ability TO solve problems – if they feel in control of their feelings about it and their behaviors.

So, what did they find?

Confidence is key — confidence connects to users’ perceptions about the quality of information sources, how comprehensive, useful or even interesting they think the sources are.  Basically, users who don’t feel confident in their own problem-solving abilities are more likely to perceive a source as boring, sketchy, or not useful.  They are more likely to perceive a tool like a library catalog or database as useless than their peers with higher confidence levels do.

The researchers also examined how these students perceived their own willingness to engage in problem-solving in the first place  This factor – the approach/avoidance style – turns out to relate to how accessible students perceive information sources to be.  Users with high avoidance, who avoid problem-solving activities, perceive inforamtion sources as less accessible than their peers with low avoidance.  Isn’t that interesting?

In other words, approaching this from the perspective of “how do we get them to use our stuff,” it’d be really easy to write these students off as the worst stereotype of millennials or net gens.  After all, it’s true that these students probably don’t have great things to say about our stuff — if they lack confidence, they doubt journal articles and criticize library catalogs.  If they are highly avoidant, then they think our stuff is really hard to get.

And they probably say so.  If they talk to us at all, they probably tell us that the journal article is no good because it’s not about the pros AND the cons of gun control.  They probably tell us that the database has nothing on their topic.  But the interesting thing about this research is — that these affective characteristics apply to way more than just library stuff.  On that emotional level, these students aren’t drawing a “library stuff bad/ internet stuff good” distinction.

Students who lack confidence are also more likely to be skeptical of web sources, and they are more likely to have problems with how search engines work.  Highly avoidant students even characterize information from friends and family (friends and family!) as less accessible than their low-avoidance peers do.  It’s about them, not us – except to the extent that understanding them will help us reach/teach them.

So that’s all fascinating to think about, but the factor I found the most interesting was the users’ perception their own control.  This was the only factor that significantly affected how a student chose their sources.  The more out of control a student feels, the more likely they are to choose sources based on how easy those sources are to use, or how familiar those sources are.  “Accuracy” comes down below “easy” and “familiar” to these users.

Now this is a little bit about us, in that classic library anxiety way – if the environment is unfamliliar or intimidating (virtual or face to face) the user will tend to favor what they are familiar with before trying something new.  But it’s a slightly different way of thinking about it – at least of thinking about the solution.  Instead of thinking of ways to make the library friendlier, or the librarians more approachable or accessible, or the online interfaces more google-like and familiar, this way of thinking about the question suggests that we should be thinking of ways to put the users back in control.  To let them define their own questions, their own stories and their own interactions.

But it goes beyond library anxiety as well, because a user can feel out of control of the situation, even when the do know what it is they need to do, and even how to do it.  This is especially significant for students, I think, who ARE out of control when it comes to a lot of their information needs.  They don’t have control over their tasks, their timelines or even their conditions for success.

And its not just students.  Lots of people who come to us with information needs are out of control of something in their lives – they have problems, they need information – at that moment they are almost inherently out of control of something.  The search for information is in itself a desire to assert some control over whatever that problem-solving situation is.

This control question made me think of another study, one that Kate and I used to better understand some pieces of the virtual or IM reference transaction.**  In this study, the researchers found that flexible forms of communication that can be both synchronous or asynchronous are attractive to teens when they are trying to talk about emotional topics because they allow the teens to assert a lot of control.  They can control the pace and duration of the conversation, and even the identity they choose to present within the conversation.

I have no idea if this research really applies to IM reference – which usually isn’t all that emotional – but I think there’s a good chance that it does.  It seems logical to me that library users, feeling out of control and vulnerable because there is information they lack, would be attracted to a communication style that allows them to assert some control over how they get help?  I find this just as plausible than the more common interpretation I hear, that they choose IM because they’re in a hurry and they have no time and they want someone to just give them the information they want.

Not that I would have IM’ed those librarians at the law library at Penn.  I totally knew how to use the systems, and where the stuff I needed was in the building.  But back in the 1980’s, there was a definite sense that the law school did not really want the undergraduates anywhere near their library.  They had restricted hours, they had a we’re only letting you in at all because we have to attitude.  And asserting some control over my own process, I decided not to deal with that.  So yes, some of that emotional, affective response I had had something to do with the library.

But some did not.  Some was about taking control of: my timeline, my scope, the amount of energy I spent and how I balanced that project with all the others.  Some was about taking control of the project – I was most interested in part 3, and wanted to spend my time there.  And on some level, it was taking control of the outcome – defining my own conditions for success.

Which is where these two studies, and these ideas, connect in my head. On the one hand, the idea that it’s not about me or about my library.  That sometimes our users are dealing with a lot of stuff that has nothing directly to do with us – so there’s no need to take their frustration personally.  On the other hand, that we can do some things to let our users control their stories, their questions, and their interactions with us and with our resources.  And in so doing, alleviate some of those frustrations.  Here I’m fuzzy on the details, yes.  But I think we have been and will be talking about them around here.

________

*Kyung-Sun Kim and Sei-Ching Joanna Sin (December 2007), Perception and selection of information sources by undergraduate students: Effects of avoidant style, confidence and personal control in problem-solving.  Journal of Academic Librarianship, 33:6, 655-665.

**Dominic E. Madell and Steven J. Muncer (2007), Control over social interactions: An important reason for young people’s use of the Internet and mobile phones for communication, CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10:1, 137-140.

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