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“What is the place of print in the digital age?” 

That is the first sentence in "Concerted Thought, Collaborative Action, and the Future of the Print Record," a white paper that questions how academe should manage existing paper collections in an increasingly digital future. Over the past 25 years academic and research libraries have managed a transition from print to digital, serving as stewards of legacy print collections while adapting to a journal publishing landscape dominated by the shift to digital. Print monographic literature is moving in a similar direction. Weekly additions to the print “new book” shelf in the library gives the impression that print collections continue to grow at a healthy pace, but in ways less obvious to the naked eye, e-book collections grow rapidly.

Based on research assignments with which students come to the library for assistance, academic librarians wonder how closely faculty members are paying attention to this print to digital transformation. In their own research, no doubt, many faculty members depend heavily on electronic texts. When it comes to research assignments for their students, many faculty continue to design for a world of collections rooted in the past. When research assignments specify physical print content as the only acceptable format, both students and librarians are left feeling clueless as to the instructor’s intent. In an increasingly digital landscape, what is the value of requiring students to restrict their exploration to the hardcopy shelves?

Two things got me thinking about a phenomenon that strikes most academic librarians as rather odd. First, a thread on a college librarians’ discussion list concerning the conundrum of a librarian working with a class of students whose research paper assignment required them to use only print books. On the surface it sounds reasonable. There was a catch. That library’s print book collection was so limited in size that there were never enough books on any one subject to satisfy all the students. Efforts to convince the faculty member that digital materials could work equally well fell on deaf ears. Seeking the wisdom of the crowd, this librarian asked for advice.

Second, in his blog “The Digital-Free and Digital-Light Academic,” Josh Kim asked if it is now possible to be a “digital-free academic.” Could a contemporary instructor exist without e-mail, a smartphone, presentation software, learning management systems or even a word processor and laser printer? The response to Kim’s question as to the existence of a digital-free educator seemed clear. Despite a nostalgic longing for such a purely talk-and-chalk lecturer, an educator whose daily existence is free of all technology is an increasingly rare commodity. Yet, we appear to have instructors who think nothing of asking their students to research in a world that no longer exists, one in which print is the only available option.

When they see them, “must use print” research assignments put librarians in a state of confoundment. Initially, the instructors’ intent is questioned. Did they literally mean print only? Is it acceptable for the student to use a digital journal article if they print it out and read it off a sheet of paper? Maybe they wrote “use print” and just assumed the student would interpret that to include electronic facsimiles of print literature? Wrapping one’s head around the “must use print” requirement is no easy task. Besides placing unrealistic constraints on accessible content, in a world of digital research it seems an intentional effort to create barriers to learning.

That leaves librarians struggling to understand what drives the thinking behind and design of such a requirement. Some librarians respond by writing to instructors to ask if they did mean just print, and duly identify the cascading consequences of that choice for students and the librarians who want to help them succeed. Sometimes it leads to a relaxing of the “must be print” requirement. Other times, librarians’ concerns are ignored. Too often librarians are left with no clear rationale for why the instructor enforced a print-only requirement.

Faculty members are ultimately in control of deciding what students must do to complete an assignment. Ideally it is designed with stated learning outcomes that help students achieve mastery of the discipline or specific academic skills. That is what librarians find most puzzling about instructors who insist on print only research. What does forcing students to only use paper help them learn that comparable non-print resources would accomplish less effectively? I think librarians sense what the answer is. Discovery in the stacks. A few years ago I chaired a committee of mostly faculty members, tasked as part of a campus master planning process to make recommendations for library and information services. Despite the range of disciplines represented, to a person they all wanted the library to preserve print book stacks.

Why? To assure their students would have the same experience they did as college students, browsing the library stacks and making discoveries among those print books. I appreciated their support of the library and its collections, though I sensed many years had passed since those faculty last visited the library or attempted to learn more about their students’ research behaviors.

I also understood their nostalgic feelings toward their own college days and the desire for their students to share that library experience. As academic and research libraries reduce stacks to create contemporary student spaces, moving legacy print collections to off-site storage or in-library automated storage and retrieval systems, faculty members have growing concerns about their students’ future options for serendipitous book discovery. Because I share those concerns I wrote about the challenges of maintaining what I called “collisions with collections” and concluded that it’s unrealistic to expect academic libraries to perpetually remain the same, with row upon row of print book and journal stacks. Instead librarians and faculty must collaboratively explore new ways to help students have collisions with collections, print and digital, to stimulate the discovery of news ideas, new mysteries and new knowledge. For those faculty who still believe that “must use print” research assignments are the best way to get their students into the stacks for serendipitous discovery with books, I have several suggestions for rethinking how to get students engaged with academic content.

  • Getting students into the library book stacks is a great idea. Librarians would love to see more students exploring there. Take an individual, assignment-based task and turn it into a field study. Rather than assume every student is a skilled library user, consider being their guide. Show them the virtues of browsing, help them make a new discovery or invite a librarian to participate to help students navigate the stacks. It may yield a few insights into the feasibility of “must use print” assignments if students are struggling to find sufficient books.
  • Before requiring students to use only print for retrieving journal or newspaper articles, set up an appointment with a librarian to learn more about the current availability of formats through which that content is available. It may come as a surprise to learn how thoroughly the transition to e-content has reduced the presence of print journals in academic libraries. We inhabit a digital world and students must be prepared to navigate it as competent online researchers.
  • Still want students to have a mostly print experience? Consider an assignment that leverages the heavily print primary research content found in the campus archives or special collections. If it’s applicable to your course, consider a class field trip to the special collections to get students working with rare manuscripts, historical newspaper clippings or photography collections. These collections are for discovery and learning.
  • Serendipitous discovery can happen in digital as well as print spaces. It just requires a different arrangement. If the library’s e-book collections are sizeable enough, instructors can develop subject searches that students can replicate. For example, with digital resources such as Ebrary or EbscoHost Ebook Collection, instructors can assign each student or a small group a search statement (e.g., animal rights, space law, etc.) with instructions to browse for books meeting the search criteria. Students would be instructed to identify relevant books or chapters. If a print component to the assignment is desired, ask students to locate a similar book in print format from the campus library or via inter-library loan. Then have them compare the two processes on factors such as speed, comprehensiveness and the accidental discovery of new material. Ask which they will use for future assignments. 
  • Consider any number of alternatives to the standard annotated bibliography project that requires students to acquire some set number of print books. There are better ways to get students into the stacks. Have students work in groups, supported by librarians, to create curated book displays in the library or other campus locations. It works with just about any subject and it helps to expose more students to the library’s print collections. Try having students pair up and visit the library together for stack explorations. Give each pair a random call number area to explore.  Then have them tell each other about two or three newly discovered books, and ask each student submit a brief report on the books their partner described.

There are any number of alternate library-based activities that will work well for print and digital collections. Work with the Library or Teaching and Learning Center to design an assignment where serendipitous discovery of print books is the activity, but the learning outcome is the acquisition of a new research interest. Also, as more learning and scholarly content is available as Open Educational Resources (OER), if instructors want to take advantage, they will need to accept that it is almost always in digital format. As more colleges and universities shift to a culture of openness, librarians are encouraging and supporting their faculty colleagues to be open to the opportunities made possible by the print-to-digital shift.

When academic librarians tend to gripe about course assignments, it’s  less a critique of faculty assignment design than an awareness of more effective ways to engage students with collections and research. Sometimes it is simply a matter of being better informed about the resources and services available, yet knowing faculty are under severe time constraints librarians hardly expect them to be experts on everything the library offers. Instructors will find themselves pleasantly surprised when their research assignments are produced through a collaborative effort with academic librarians.

At a time when college students must think critically to identify and evaluate content for their research assignments, limiting them to only those print resources found on library stacks does them a disservice. It fails to expose them to a vast and robust world of digital content. Shielding them from it eliminates the opportunity to build the necessary skills for what the Stanford Report on Information Evaluation refers to as “Civic Online Reasoning”, the ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers. Instructors and librarians can work together to help our student succeed by designing challenging assignments that continue to offer opportunities for serendipitous discovery while incorporating all the resources that the academic library has to offer. We can do better than “must be print” assignments. I encourage faculty and librarians to share their examples of the creative assignments and learning activities they design to stimulate student discovery in contemporary libraries where print and digital formats co-exist.


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