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Title

Harbingers

Where did September go? I ask this every year, suspecting that Alma Mater has teamed up with Mother Nature to play a trick on me. The stretch from Labor Day to payday is always a blur: of eager or anxious new faces, of people asking where-is and how-to questions, of hiring and training new student workers, and of reconnecting with faculty whom I haven’t seen since May. My calendar, instead of being mostly empty as it was in August, is suddenly mostly full, and my task list seems endless, with deadlines or orientation activities almost every day.

October 6, 2009
 
 

Where did September go? I ask this every year, suspecting that Alma Mater has teamed up with Mother Nature to play a trick on me. The stretch from Labor Day to payday is always a blur: of eager or anxious new faces, of people asking where-is and how-to questions, of hiring and training new student workers, and of reconnecting with faculty whom I haven’t seen since May. My calendar, instead of being mostly empty as it was in August, is suddenly mostly full, and my task list seems endless, with deadlines or orientation activities almost every day.

Amid the swirl last month, I witnessed two scenes that struck me as portents. One had to do with the economy, one with technology, both with how students in the Class of 2013 will cope with college.

At my institution, all freshmen must present themselves at a sort of bureaucracy fair on the very day they arrive on campus. Some appeared at this event, held on the basketball court of an aging recreational gymnasium, even before they had moved into their rooms. I know, because they asked for directions to various dorms. Many were accompanied by family members who seemed more interested in the proceedings than their child or sibling was. Students unencumbered by relatives tended to travel in small packs, but I met the occasional shy or cocky loner as well. (Hello, Admissions: You aced the diversity test again.) Matriculants moved from table to table to show proof of their identity and visa status, sign or submit forms, register to vote, pick up information from all sorts of university offices, and have their basic questions answered about the honor code, health services, computing, and other facts of campus life.

I helped staff a welcome station during this scramble, with a view to promoting the library open house a few days later. All we had to purvey were lime green bags (biodegradable, by the way) that advertised our event and served as receptacles for all the handouts students were collecting at other stops, a map showing campus libraries, and a sheet of paper explaining how to apply for a library job. This last was a huge success. We are used to fielding the perennial question from financial aid students, “I was assigned to work in Dining Services. How can I switch to the library instead?” — the subtext being they want to be paid to sit somewhere quiet and study and presume the library is just such a place. But this year our flyers were practically inhaled by one and all. Time and again I watched parents take one and hand it meaningfully to their son or daughter with a comment such as, “You need to look into this.” I gather that despite extremely generous, need-based support from the university, more families than ever expect their children to earn their own spending money. That’s my economic observation.

Fast forward to the library’s open house, an optional activity that took place over two days during the jam-packed orientation period. Freshmen could take a brief guided tour of our huge main library, meet staff who demonstrated our online catalog and key links on our home page, retrieve a specific book from the stacks (thereby, we hope, mastering the complex cartographic an orienteering skills involved), and chat with librarians, curators, and archivists over refreshments. We gave away prizes emblazoned with the library’s url, and provided someone from human resources to answer questions about available jobs and what they entail — actually working, for starters.

What I noticed about the young people who chose to attend this event, only about twenty percent of the freshman class according to our headcount, was that most were either international students or Americans who seemed intensely, refreshingly curious about the resources—human, physical, and virtual—the library offers. (We asked students where they were from and what they hoped to study, just as a way to break the ice.) I can only hope the other eighty percent of the class will be as engaged as these students were.

But about technology: in our non-competitive game during the open house, we gave each student a call number and quick explanation of how to translate it into a floor and general stack location. Then we turned them loose to fetch their specific volume and return with it. When they did, we checked that they had the right book, asked if they had any questions about the navigational process, and dispensed a sturdy vinyl portfolio as a reward. The thing students learned about technology from this exercise is that, in many areas of our building, one needs to find a light switch to illuminate the aisle. They were incredulous when we told them this was a circa-1948 energy conservation measure. The thing I learned about technology is that some 18-year-olds don’t follow instructions: instead of bringing the assigned book from the stacks, several students used their cell phones to take a picture of it in situ, claiming that was sufficient evidence they had figured out our system.

In my generation, we equated photocopying an article with having read it, but at least we had touched the physical source. Now I worry that students think a tiny snapshot of a book’s spine is worth several hundred pages of erudition. What would Plato say?

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