Encouraging college students to use the library

Library circ desk

Circulation desk at Newburyport Public Library

Classes have started at colleges and universities.

Some time at the beginning of every term, academic librarians conduct tours of the library and visit classes to offer library instruction.

Or perhaps meet them in the library’s own classrooms.

What are they trying to accomplish? What happens when they don’t get through to students?

The results can be comical. They also help perpetuate a cycle of ignorance. After all, some students who never catch on graduate anyway. And some of them wind up teaching somewhere.

Institutional standards in library instruction

Only 63% of US college students graduate within six years of enrollment. Colleges and universities find themselves under increased pressure to measure and demonstrate their effectiveness.

Academic libraries have always had the stated objective of supporting teaching and learning. They, too, face the same pressure.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) has recently revised its Standards for Libraries in Higher Education to “define, develop, and measure outcomes that contribute to institutional effectiveness and apply findings for purposes of continuous improvement.”

Classic library instruction, also known as bibliographic instruction is based on tools. Librarians show students how to use the library catalog, periodicals indexes, and so on.

Once these tools became available online, it too easy to reduce bibliographic instruction to filling out search boxes, clicking on various parts of the page, transcribing results, and finding the materials in the library.

Information literacy

Standards issued by the ACRL in 2000 introduced a new term, information literacy. Information literacy cannot stand without understanding how to use the tools, but it goes beyond bibliographic instruction.

It is skill based. It emphasizes not only finding bibliographic resources, but selecting and evaluating them.

This is not to say that older bibliographic instruction did not incorporate these skills, but information literacy codifies their importance. It emphasized developing a research strategy and, using tools like the CRAP test, evaluating the search results.

Reference librarian and patron

Reference interview

The information literacy approach more adequately prepares students to succeed in an academic environment.

It is not enough to foster success after graduation. That requires development of certain habits of mind.

Critical examination and questioning of information goes beyond the ability to evaluate a particular source.

Just as teaching information literacy requires different skills and methods than simple bibliographic instruction, so does developing a greater sophistication in handling information.

Marketing the library to students

To that end, librarians need to understand and then influence how and why students choose which resources and services to use and the importance they attach to them. They also need to understand and influence how and why faculty of the various departments assign papers and projects and may or may not require using the library.

Ultimately, each department describes the competencies and learning outcomes expected of its students. A history major, for example, must necessarily use the library differently from a chemistry major.

Therefore many librarians are learning that their main objective in library instruction sessions is neither to teach how to use tools or the skills of information literacy. It is to market the library itself and the services it offers.

No one can adequately learn how or why to design and execute a research strategy in a single library instruction session. Students ought to expect and receive help from their department faculty, but it is the librarians who are most qualified to teach and demonstrate information sophistication.

Clueless students

Laughing people, cartoon

Faculty and library staff alike expect students to develop at least some minimal competence in understanding libraries.

They have fun at the expense of students who don’t bother to develop that minimum.

I have culled these anecdotes from a variety of postings on blogs and email lists I have read over the years. They don’t include the myriad ways patrons have of mangling titles.

The first concerns a freshman shortly before classes started. He asked a librarian if he had books for a class.

Libraries don’t ordinarily collect required textbooks. It may or may not have other required books in the collection. The librarian offered to look up the bookstore’s web site if the student would tell him the name of the class. The kid had not chosen his classes yet!

Another student, enrolled in Introduction to Theology, asked for brief explanation—brief as in a sentence of two—of why God allows bad things to happen. Isn’t that one of the core issues of the course?

One common fault is that library patrons—not just students—have no idea how to ask good questions. A patron asked a reference librarian how to find a book about gods. After a 15-minute conversation, the librarian managed to pry loose the fact that he needed a comparison of Buddhism and Jainism.

Then there are the students who don’t seem to realize that librarians’ job is to answer questions.

One of them sat at a table within sight and earshot of the reference desk. He asked passers by for help, then whipped out his cell phone to call friends in other parts of the library. Meanwhile, he waved off the library staff more than once when they came over and offered help.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, over the course of four years, librarians could expect that students would catch on? Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

One young woman approached the circulation desk and eyed the reserve materials. Then she asked, “Is that all the books you people have?” She was a senior, near the end of her last semester before graduation, who had failed even to notice that the library occupied a four-story building!

It gets worse. Another reference librarian reported helping a first-year masters student and a doctoral student who had finished all the coursework and was about to embark on writing the dissertation. Neither of them knew that they could look up books in the online catalog or articles in the various online databases!

I can top that from my own experience. I was working in the library as a graduate student when a tenured member of the faculty came to me and said, “I don’t suppose there’s any way to tell from the card catalog if something’s in the rare book room.”

Off hand, I can’t remember if the cards for those books had the capital “X” before or after the call number. He had been on the faculty there, presumably using the library, for at least 10 years. The other faculty in the department spoke to students about him with open disrespect. No wonder.

This last story may trump even mine: A library science student reported about one of her classmates, who asked her for  help in approaching a particular assignment.

After a while, it became painfully clear to her that this third-year doctoral student in Information Science (a degree program operated by the Library School) had done all of her research up to that time using Google! She had never once used an online library catalog didn’t know what it was!

It’s easier to understand undergraduate students’ struggles with using library tools and developing information literacy when there’s no guarantee that even their faculty have a clue. Librarians have a serious struggle ahead of them in their battle against information ignorance.

The Evolution of Library Instruction / Andy Burkhardt
In the Library with the Lead Pipe, various posts with tag “college students”

[Photo credits:
Circulation desk. Some rights reserved by Newburyport Public Library
Reference interview. Some rights reserved by AASU Armstrong University Archives.
Laughing people cartoon. Some rights reserved by SigNote Cloud.

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