Thursday, October 15, 2009

Night at the Library

Note: My apologies in advance for sporadic comment moderating for a few days.

For various reasons related to a complicated weekend schedule and other activities the rest of the week, my daughter and I ended up at a university library on a Friday night not long ago so that she could get some books for a school research project. Her teachers require that students extract some information from books (the physical kind or electronic equivalents), in addition to some fact-mining from encyclopedias and assorted websources. On this particular Friday night, we set out in search of physical books.

I do go the library from time to time and I do work some Friday nights (but not in the library). Even so, it had been a while since I went to the library on a Friday night.

I brought my laptop and parked myself in a central area to do a bit of work whilst my daughter foraged in the nearby book-filled aisles.

Before we set out on our library expedition, I had several questions:

1. Would there be anyone else at the library on a Friday night early in the academic year?

2. If so, who?

3. Would there be any books published in the 21st century in the library stacks?


1. Yes!

2. There were students at the library that Friday night. There were student study groups, there were individuals poring over texts and taking notes, there were students using computers, and there were students snoozing in comfy chairs. The library was quite well populated given the day and time.

In fact, it was so well populated that I found it difficult to work given the number of distractions, including loud music leaking out of the ear pods of nearby studiers. Memo to me: If you ever work in the library again, bring noise canceling headphones and/or your own music.

3. Re. book vintage: the books my daughter found were all quite ancient. I know there are 21st century books at the library, but these were few and far between in the part of the library we visited that night. All the books my daughter checked out were published between 1950-1992. Her particular research topic can be approached with aged sources, so this was not a problem, but I hate for her to think that books = old information, internet sources = new information.

This term, I happen to be teaching a course that requires my students to go to a campus library and use library resources. I teach this course or one like it every ~2 years or so, and over time there has been greater and greater resistance by students to making a trek to the actual library building and going to the immense effort of reading physical books. You would think that I was asking the students to walk 12 miles in the cold and rain to read stone tablets with barely decipherable etchings.

Although I don't feel too much sympathy about this issue, I do know that students have complex and busy lives, so I have done quite a lot to reduce the number of library trips required. For texts that we use a lot, I lend books to the students (I have been acquiring used copies and the class is small enough for me to provide these books to everyone) and/or I provide photocopies of relevant pages/chapters and/or put pdf files on a secure website. Some books are complete enough on GoogleBooks to allow online reading of the relevant chapters.

At the beginning of this term, I was gearing up for the usual, if not increased, resistance by students to the library visit requirement and found.. none. Absolutely none. All the students have done all the library reading every week without a single complaint.

Do I just happen to be lucky enough to have an amazing class of polite and motivated students or has a trip to the library become a nice change of pace from sitting in front of a computer and reading from the screen? Or both?

My recent Friday night visit to the library showed me that students are spending time in the library as a convenient and quiet place to study or to meet other students for group discussions. This was a very heartwarming revelation for me and made me feel much more positive about the library-visit requirements in my own classes.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, at the school I taught last year, the students did not know how to use the library and when I told them to ask the reference librarian and help desk, I was told that the help desk is manned by student workers who themselves did not know how to use the library. When I approached the librarian about this, I was told I should spare one of my lectures to send the students for library orientation (the same spare your lecture time routine came from the writing center on campus too). So much for small mid-western state schools!

quasarpulse said...

I'm not sure. I just transferred to a new school where the library is actually open when students are not in class, so I figured that some of the difference I observed from my previous experience (both recently and a decade ago at my first institution) might have been due to institutional culture, but our library here looks and sounds very much like you describe. It's actually rather difficult to find anywhere to sit and work at any time other than about 6 a.m. on a Tuesday.

My professors haven't been requiring library reading - nearly every class I'm taking preferentially references either very recent research (some coming out of labs at this school as we speak) or the ancient clay tablets of Ye Olde Sacred Physics Formulae distilled neatly into textbook form. However, I'd be rather surprised if students here voiced any sort of objection to a required library visit (in fact, I'd be surprised if they objected to any request by a professor not involving violence and mayhem. But that, I'm fairly sure, is an institutional culture phenomenon.)

Quill2006 said...

Huh! Has there been a change in the environment at your campus library? I know when my old college renovated its 1970s era, rather decrepit structure and added comfortable chairs and a coffee shop, it was suddenly a favored place to study, while previously it was considered musty and uncomfortable, and to be avoided at all costs. It's amazing what an improved atmosphere will do.

Otherwise, it may be that you've found the right mix of materials for this crop of students. I know I personally prefer to keep my lazy butt in my computer chair when doing readings, rather than running around getting materials, but if it's something I'm going to have to use for more than one assignment, I'm more likely to feel the (admittedly minor) effort is worth it. My impression from my fellow grad students is that we don't care what format we have to read (some people will still print out their .pdfs and such, while others happily glue their eyes to a screen) as long as the process of accessing the information isn't too long or complex. I'm less likely to go get a reading at the library if it's all the way across campus and it's snowing, for instance, than if it's just a few blocks away and sunny. I'm also likely to give up on finding an article if the internet is being particularly slow, or the portal to access the document is one of those nastily difficult to navigate ones.

Anonymous said...

Last semester I didn't have a single student complain about anything.

The class also lacked a personality. I think I prefer it when students are engaged enough to comment/discuss more, even if it means more whiners.

Rachel said...

for me a trip to the library seriously is a welcome break from the computer screen and/or my office! i actually appreciate when i can't find an article online once in a while. fortunately/unfortunately, my college has its own earth and mineral sciences library within our building so i don't get to actually go OUTSIDE and trek to the university library all that often. :(

Janka said...

Where I come from, a lot of people go to libraries to study, both at the university and at the public libraries. I have always assumed it is because leaving their home/office and their desktop computer to go to The Place Where We Read makes it easier to focus on actually reading / making notes / writing, instead of a million other things.

I've tried it a couple of times and it seems to work.

Kevin said...

You are lucky to have a library open on Friday nights. Here the budget cutbacks have resulted in sharply reduced hours at the library:
Sunday-Thursday 10am-10pm
Friday 10am-5pm
Saturday CLOSED

Unknown said...

I go to the university library to write whenever I feel like I'm stuck or I can't focus. The studious, contemplative atmosphere helps me get past whatever's bothering me and put some words down on the page.

I never did this as an undergrad--only as a grad student, and now as a postdoc. I don't think I set foot in my undergrad library, probably because I was never required to do any serious amount of writing.

Kevin said...

"I was told I should spare one of my lectures to send the students for library orientation..."

For many years, I have gone with my students in a senior/1st-year grad class to the library for an information session tailored to the class. The librarian does an excellent job of showing advanced search tricks in medline and biosis, new databases the library has acquired, ways to download citations, how to access library-subscribed journals from home, impact factors of journals, ... Things change at the library, so I learn something new each year. She has also started incorporating a discussion of the changing field for publication: astronomically growing library subscription prices, open-access journals, the advantages and disadvantages of the subscriber-pays versus author-pays publication models, ...

The class is well worth giving up one 70-minute lecture.

Talk with your librarians---they may be a greatly under-used resource at your institution.

Anonymous said...

Yay library!

It's the best place to study. When I really had to crank it in terms of studying back in undergrad that's where I would go. I still go from time to time to take in the quiet ambiance of searching through the stacks (though at the moment I'm in a data gathering stage of my dissertation so I have less time for this sort of thing).

I'm not sure why your library only seems ot have old books. The Univ. library I frequent most has very up to date books... though I have to admit I am usually looking for books related to a relatively "new" science so that could be part of it.

Anonymous said...

Here, for the reasons Kevin cites, our library is open 8-4:30 Mo9nday through Friday. Luckily, students' expectations are quite low: they come from high schools which long ago eliminated their school media specialists positions and their public library experience was less than stellar.

quasarpulse said...

That's a really terrible set of hours, Kevin :( Your library is apparently closed at any time that anyone might actually want to use it, judging from population patterns at my school's library (it's 24 hours Sun-Thurs and open till 10pm on Fri and Sat, and it seems to get most crowded right around 11pm-3am most nights).

Anonymous said...

I had one class in college which required reading some books kept on reserve in the Rare Books Room at the University Library. I absolutely loved having a reason to spend time there, perusing books with actual physical pages, relaxing in the comfortable arm chairs, and enjoying the general Hogwarts-ish ambiance of the room. Here's to books and the libraries that house them!

John Vidale said...

I'm not sure how to find our library. I haven't looked for it in the 3 years I've been at my current university.

James said...

I'm amazed that you wondered whether there would be 21st century books in the library! Did you think the library might have just decided to stop buying books?

Doctor Pion said...

Our CC library has a number of convenient rooms for study groups that get used heavily, and was renovated to create an entire book-free section (hence outside the secure and reduced noise area of the library proper) specifically for computer use and study group discussions. It is even managing to acquire 21st century books despite some lean budget years.

Anonymous said...

I guess I'm sort of old school because I vastly prefer to have a book in my hand to reading on the computer. It seems to be easier on my eyes or maybe it's some sort of sensory preference.

I have, however, gotten lazy because I don't rummage around the library to find my books. I use the library's awesome online tools to find the books I'm looking for and then have them reserved. Then all I have to do is walk over to the library and ask for the book at the front desk. Admittedly, I probably have missed a couple very cool books because of my lack of browsing, but it has saved me immense amounts of time.

Kevin said...

"That's a really terrible set of hours, Kevin"

Yes the hours are terrible, but in defense of the librarians, they had been keeping careful track of usage for the past few years, and they did cover the hours that got the most usage. Our campus is particularly dead on Saturdays, despite having a large fraction of the undergrads in dorms. I think they all go downtown to party instead of studying on Saturday. Fewer than 10% of our students are grad students, so we don't get the good example from them. The students who are working on Saturdays are the scientists and engineers, who rarely go to the library.

Anne said...

My community college library does double duty as the local public library. It is also a convenient pass-through from the largest parking lot to the school building for cold weather. I love books and the library, so I would be there at some point anyway, but I noticed what you did: lots of students actually using the library. (I also appreciate seeing kids, parents, and older folks there.)

Conversely, I am in an Intro to Mass Media class and there is one person other than me who does personal reading before class starts. In our group project, my teammates barely knew how to judge a quality reference from a bad one, how to identify that they were quoting an item in making an argument, and how to cite that item. It was quite depressing.

Juliet McNoober said...

My school is trying to brainwash me into thinking that the ozone layer depletion was being caused by refrigerators and spray cans. My mother told me that ozone layer depletion has been happening all throughout the solar system. Who's right? My mom or my school?