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Late Summer Rantings

I know vacation is over when the U.S.

August 23, 2009

I know vacation is over when the U.S. News “best” colleges issue hits the fan — I mean the newsstand — followed in a nanosecond by stories on the home pages of the most favored campuses, followed in a millisecond by objections about methodology from those who deplore the very idea of rating institutions (and whose employer or alma mater didn’t make the cut), and Schadenfreude disguised as aw-shucks disclaimers from officials whose institutions came out to their satisfaction. This annual farce amuses me no end, although the actual commentary gets tedious.

What doesn’t amuse me are an exclusion and an omission in the categories U.S. News uses. The exclusion is library resources, the omission is a student-to-librarian ratio.

I don’t much care how anyone defines library resources these days, as long as pollsters state their meaning when they collect data, analyze numbers consistently for each type of institution, specify the weight they give to various factors, and report their findings clearly. I have never believed that volume or database counts (about which parents of prospective students sometimes ask) or the size of the acquisitions budget (about which only senior scholars coming to interview ever inquire) have qualitative significance on their own. Before such figures could be useful for comparing institutions, they would need to be correlated with, for instance, how many students major in a field and the college’s requirements for independent research. These would be difficult calculations, but are certainly worth the effort to offset the hyperbole one finds in admissions literature and on institutional Web pages.

As for the student-to-librarian ratio: here we’re talking not just a fraction but real expertise, as with the student/faculty ratio that U.S. News does take into account. If you divide the number of undergraduates at a college by the number of full-time, professionally-trained librarians who work there, you will have a meaningful quotient, telling you the relative value each institution places on the human intellectual record and on assisting students to connect with that record. Yes, that ratio would be a proxy and an approximation, but it would be more helpful to serious college-shoppers to include it than to pass over it in silence. The academic library, with its tailored collections and specialized staff, has a more central role in higher education than do most other units on campus. Housing, nourishment, health services, public safety, custodians, administrators, and — I wince to mention it — athletics are all essential to the contented functioning of the institution, but only the faculty, research labs, and library distinguish a college from a resort, or from a minimum security prison.

No sooner do I bristle at the college rankings and decide to ignore them for another year, than along comes the Beloit College Mindset List, guaranteed to make me feel both antediluvian and out of touch with the new clientele. Ouch!, I thought, when I saw item #4 for the Class of 2013: “[Students born in 1991] have never used a card catalog to find a book.” Now that hits home. It’s not the obsolescence that disturbs me—although I’m emotionally attached to anything that measures 3-by-5 inches — but my suspicion: have college freshmen used anything to find a book?

I don’t doubt young students are all literate to some degree (we’ll discuss their writing ability another time) and that they have all read books, but I seriously question where and how they get hold of them. Are they required texts they purchase at a bookstore, or more likely via Amazon? Are they volumes they find at home or receive as gifts? Do they browse shelves in their school or public library, a big box store, used-book shop, or flea market? Do they download a novel to their Kindle? I’m completely in favor of all those tactics, but my experience as a reference librarian tells me that most freshmen and many older students cannot search an online catalog fluently and don’t know how to proceed when they do spot a book they want.

The fashionable thing in academic libraries today is to overlay the catalog with a Web 2.0 interface. Implemented well, such software can reduce the number of frustrating searches, those that retrieve nothing relevant, and allow researchers to succeed with their own terminology, but it will not help students judge the items they find. But then neither did the card catalog when that was the sole means of discovery. It’s just that now alphabetical order and a grasp of standardized/stilted subject headings are less important, while spelling, synonyms, and typing skills are more so. So this year’s Beloit list reminds me that when it comes to exploring the library’s collection, the challenges remain the same, both for me as a teacher and for freshmen as learners.

I welcome library research assignments in any field and at any level. I will analyze some of these (either anonymously or not, as each submitter prefers) in this blog, suggesting ways to foster student understanding of the source-seeking process. Please send the context and wording of the assignment to mary.george@insidehighered.com, with your own comments on what aspect of the project you would like to strengthen. --MWG


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