Libraries through Students’ Eyes


One thing we have not discussed on this blog is the role of libraries, and particularly of reference rooms, in colleges.  Today’s  NY Times forum titled “libraries through students’ eyes” suggests some predictable student responses  to the question of whether libraries are needed:  students enjoy the tactile feel of books and the quiet of a space dedicated to reading.  Very few, if any, however, discussed the printed reference works to be found there. The value of the reference room was not mentioned.

The NYTImes forum pointed to twin pedagogical and institutional problems faculty, librarians, and students now face.  Forced to hunt for more space to accommodate computers, librarians look for printed texts that can be deleted from the reference room.  Are there rigorous strategies in place for what to do when an electronic source replaces a printed reference work?  Do colleges that subscribe to the new online Oxford Dictionary of English Biography, for example, simply throw out the older printed multi-volume set?  Does the online Encylopedia Britannica adequately replace its printed forerunner?  How do we evaluate an online “updated” version of a printed reference work to decide whether it ought to replace or merely supplement the older printed version?

Secondly, how can faculty best remain up-to-speed on the reference works students most use and, more importantly, be helpful in directing them to the sources, both printed and electronic, that are most appropriate for their work?  What strategies exist for encouraging greater and more transparent dialogue between instructors and librarians?  How do we help students make use of the two reference rooms–material and virtual–to which they have access?

Lastly, will the promising platforms of the future like 18thConnect include first-phase research tools, like encyclopedias, dictionaries, or the ODNB?  Will these platforms acknowledge printed resources that are also essential to research?  To what extent will these platforms be designed as introductions to research?

8 Responses to “Libraries through Students’ Eyes”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Many thanks, Anna, for raising the issue of the role of libraries and the use of material and virtual reference rooms.

    My experiences have indicated that library decisions to discard print reference resources are not made lightly at all, but I would be interested in hearing from others. Already having the print resource in one’s collection can also serve as justification for not investing in the electronic resource. In some cases this decision makes sense as when the electronic version essentially has the same content. Yet, the ease of access that electronic resources allow can encourage and result in increased student use. That said, among my students some still prefer the print resource over the electronic (these students often avoid journal articles and the like in favor of books, too).

    Faculty should play an active role in educating students about the availability of resources, both electronic and print. Many of my students tend to gravitate to “EBSCO host”, though as they progress toward their degree, they become more aware of ProjectMuse and JStor. These seem to be their mainstays. If a database offers only citations and not full texts, the resource tends to be under used. And librarians and faculty should work together more to increase awareness about available resources, especially the acquisition of new resources. Every semester I compile a full list of available electronic resources for our major–not just for my areas but for all. But even so, we sometimes have databases that I am not aware of and that do not appear readily on subject lists. Most recently, when I was inquiring about a trial for JHUP’s literary theory online, I discovered that we had several similar resources through Credo reference series. Years ago I also stumbled upon NetLibrary (prominent on the resource page, but few librarians at the time seemed to know anything about it.)

    It would be wonderful if 18thConnect would incorporate the OED and the ODNB, but of course one’s institution would need to have a subscription in order to use. The promise of 18thConnect also raises issues about our responsibilities to teach students to spread their sights widely, too, and not limit themselves to a virtual reference and resource room devoted to a given period. I could see the appeal and great usefulness of the “one-stop shopping” that something like NINES or 18thConnect offer, but I wonder if these resources will discourage searches off the beaten track.


  2. Dave Mazella Says:

    Because most libraries seem to acquire their digital resources in bundles, they often have little sense of what’s inside for various faculty and student use. This is where subject librarians are incredibly important, but their time is often too divided to really immerse themselves in what seems like a rapidly churning collection of resources.

    Students certainly want a one stop shopping model, but now I feel that the redundancy has its value, since I wouldn’t want to become too dependent on any single resource, which could be interrupted or overcharged so easily. But the virtue of print references is that they don’t go away very easily, while digital references seem to come and go more with fewer people voicing concerns.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    It seems to me that there is often a disconnect between librarians and teaching faculty. This is partly a matter a time and partly a matter of expertise. But greater coordination and teamwork has probably never been more important.


  4. Dave Mazella Says:

    I think one of the lessons of our digital resources is that these tools are so rich, and so deep, that only collaborative exploration of the content (your “coordination and teamwork”) discloses their full power. Indices and other kinds of short hands and finding aids seem much less effective than just meeting with someone and working with them. That is because in many cases the librarians themselves are struggling to keep up with what’s there and what it can do. So yes, this is a human capital and organizational, not a technology issue, and we should be thinking about how to strengthen the staffing at libraries, IMHO.


  5. Anna Battigelli Says:

    What mechanisms exist on your campus to facilitate that collaboration? We need to strengthen this collaboration on ours and have begun, in part, by volunteering to serve on various library task forces. But I think we can do more. Both you and Eleanor seem to have nearly ideal working circumstances, where productive dialogue takes place. How can other schools see to it that the humanities are represented in library-related deliberations?


  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I indeed feel very fortunate at my institution to have the librarians that we have here. I will also say that during my time at Maryland I worked with a number of librarians closely–even team-teaching courses with them. Our institution has faculty from various colleges on library committees and vice versa. The taskforces created last spring to build distance ed and to investigate offering a winter intercession both have library members on the committees. The new faculty orientations, in fact, make no distinction between hires for departments and library hires, and all attend the two-day, overnight orientations. So one meets librarians from the start. Meetings to guide faculty members through the tenure and promotion process include both tenure-track librarians and tenure-track department hires.

    Yet, time to work together outside these institutional settings is a huge challenge, so it is typically extremely difficult to advance new projects not initieated by the president, provost, or deans.


  7. Dave Mazella Says:

    Part of this might be about governance: my working with librarians really intensified when we worked together on the faculty senate, and then getting to know the committee structures and deliberations inside the library. But our library, like many others, makes such collaborations a priority, though faculty frankly usually don’t take them up on it. And this kind of thing is often tricky because of the various imperatives librarians work under. But the first step is developing a good working relation with your subject librarian and getting onto the library committees on your campus to see what their priorities are.

    One other thought, because I’m just about ready to submit a collaboratively written piece on my work with a special collections librarian: these collaborations may often begin with curricular initiatives like accreditation drives or what our accreditation agency calls QEP–Quality Enhancement Programs. This is what got me started with my special collections project. So maybe look for a librarian to collaborate on a curricular or pedagogy project? At our institution, there’s a surprising amount of money available for such projects.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Dave’s advice about investigating opportunities to collaborate on curricular or pedagogical projects and grants is an excellent one. I have also developed relationships with librarians and then collaborated on articles and book projects that were more specialized, disciplinary specific projects. More and more libraries have staff who have doctorates in a field (English, a foreign language, history) but have then pursued a post in academic libraries (sometimes with, sometimes without the MLS) for a variety of reasons including the lack of tenure-track jobs within a given disicpline. In other words, there might be opportunities to develop working relationships in other ways, too.


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