Re: “What Students Don’t Know” – libraries and college students

Posting to NGC4LIB

On 22/08/2011 16:43, B.G. Sloan wrote:

Interesting article in Inside Higher Ed: “What Students Don’t Know”. The concluding paragraph reads:

“Librarians and teaching faculty certainly have an obligation to encourage good, thorough research…but they also have a responsibility to serve students — and that means understanding the limitations of library idealism in practice, and acting pragmatically when necessary.”


What a great project! This is the sort of research and attitude librarians need, asking openly and honestly: how do others view me and my profession, and what do others really want from the library and librarians? The answers may not make a lot of people happy, but its is absolutely vital to acknowledge them. One of the conclusions should be: when people say they can’t work with our systems (as is very clear from this and similar research) catalogers *cannot* conclude that the problem lies with the *users* who need to be trained, thereby offloading the entire problem onto public services since *they* are the ones responsible for the bibliographic instruction/information literacy workshops, and if there are problems, the problems lie with inadequate workshops and *not* with our inadequate, antiquated systems. That mindset must be discarded completely.

If people take this kind of research seriously–and there have been several such projects lately, each coming to similar conclusions–librarians must reconsider what people actually want. For instance, are the FRBR user tasks what people genuinely and truly need? I have to mention this again because it is ostensibly what library cataloging is aiming for. If it turns out that the FRBR user tasks are alien to a majority of our patrons, wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that people want something else that has more meaning for them?

As I read these kinds of reports reflecting the reality of what public service librarians deal with, the kinds of problems students and professors come up against every day, I am reminded of my own pet peeve: this modern focus on production of the “research paper” which almost no student understands and, let’s face it, is almost impossible to do correctly when you are only given a few days or weeks to do it, especially when they put everything off to the last possible moment–and later. Doing research and writing a paper on what you have discovered demands *time*: time for dealing with the problems of finding relevant information, arranging it in a way coherent for yourself, thinking and considering, reconsidering, finding more information and arranging it, re-reconsidering, finally making some conclusions and writing them up, and students rarely have that kind of time. Every one I have met starts with writing the paper! (As is mentioned in the article) That is totally backwards, but fully understandable when seen from their point of view. Naturally, once students are out of school, they almost never have to do it again.

Still, it is important, and perhaps more important than ever, that people become as independent as possible in their information needs. Otherwise, there is a real danger of everyone succumbing to “The Filter Bubble” (the current popular term), where people get information designed to make them happy, to further convince them of their own correctness, and not to make them reconsider matters, or to face different kinds of problems that they may find irritating or offensive.

The article quoted an outreach librarian: “This study has changed, profoundly, how I see my role at the university and my understanding of who our students are,” says Lynda Duke, an academic outreach librarian at Illinois Wesleyan. “It’s been life-changing, truly.” This is the kind of research that gives me great hope for the future of librarians, no matter what words may be used to describe them in the future. If librarians can rise to that challenge, they will know that they are providing something necessary for society.