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Title

FUNQs

This is the first of a series of occasional posts I call FUNQs, for Frequently UNasked Questions. These are perplexities that anyone new to an institution — whether faculty, freshman, or employee — is sure to have about the campus library. Some FUNQs, like that below, appear to be straightforward, one-time issues. After someone has discerned the answer, they think they can check it off their agenda for good. But no. Unlike species on a birder’s lifetime list, certain FUNQs need to be checked off anew for each library a person confronts.

September 7, 2009
 
 

This is the first of a series of occasional posts I call FUNQs, for Frequently UNasked Questions. These are perplexities that anyone new to an institution — whether faculty, freshman, or employee — is sure to have about the campus library. Some FUNQs, like that below, appear to be straightforward, one-time issues. After someone has discerned the answer, they think they can check it off their agenda for good. But no. Unlike species on a birder’s lifetime list, certain FUNQs need to be checked off anew for each library a person confronts. Many arrangements, both physical and virtual, vary from library to library, some to good purpose and some to no purpose. All a fresh student or scholar can do is accept that the campus library is not Walmart and proceed with caution as they would when encountering a foreign culture.

Academic libraries try to ease and expedite the FUNQ-demystification process with orientation programs, about which I will have lots to say anon, assuming I survive the one I’m running later this month.

Chronic FUNQs, more difficult to address and more perilous to ignore, can be either matters of fact or matters of knowledge-plus-experience, but mostly a blend of the two. In any case, they are deceptively complex. A chronic FUNQ is a question that students, in particular, will rarely articulate on their own, leading faculty to assume (hope?) that students know the answer, causing students to be even less likely to ask: a pernicious cycle anywhere, but especially in academe. If students do hazard a question, they ask another student, often equally clueless, or they pray to Google or Wikipedia. Either of those gods will reply, and instantly, thus reducing anxiety, but with what intellectual consequences, one can only guess.

Anyhow, I’ll focus on chronic FUNQs in the future. For now, here is one that seems to be of the fast-fix variety, cast in the words of a typical freshman.

FUNQ: How do I find out what stuff the library has?

Let’s ignore the word choice and philosophical nuances of that sentence. What the student who is not-asking this question really wants is the library’s home page and the promising leads it should provide to resources (study spaces), services (food), job opportunities, hours, and perhaps even books. And for sure, they want all the options for getting help — as remotely and as 24/7-ly as possible. All this information should be presented in a clear (no jargon, please!) and inviting way.

Simple desire, right? Not if you’re a newbie at Emory, Haverford, UC Santa Barbara, West Point, Yale, or (I’d wager) scores of other campuses, and are expecting to see a library link up front on the institution’s own Web site. I recently scrutinized the home pages of fifty colleges and universities, all rated highly by U.S. News for their undergraduate programs. A dozen of the Web sites I examined do not have the L word in evidence, and some that do effectively hide it because you need to scroll or squint to find it. In most of the twelve cases, you have to spot and click an Academics or a Quick Something link to open a menu or navigate to a second-level page. But why Academics as opposed to Research, a top link almost every school also provides? Does that imply that one needs the library for teaching and learning but not for seeking new knowledge? I won’t go there….

The worst obfuscator in my survey — are you ready for this? — is Harvard. Who in a million years would think to look for Libraries on a menu headed Offices? Granted, the Harvard home page has few choices, so you are likely to figure this out quickly, but what kind of scary category is Offices? (Speaking of scary, when I first made it to the actual Harvard libraries home page, a congeries of pixels, a truly gruesome little image presented itself, an illustration from the digital collection Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. The scary part was that I read the last word as Academics.) I suppose Harvard should be forgiven because it has so many libraries to keep track of, some far from Cambridge. Concealing abundance and organizational complexity under a mundane, if mysterious, label may be an act of modesty the rest of us should applaud. Or not.

School’s starting. Do you know where your [library’s] home page is?

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