Monthly Archives: October 2007

The Academic Library Is Certainly No Place For Fun

Are there days at your academic library when it appears that a war is going to erupt between the students who just want solitude and quiet and those who want to do…well, whatever they feel like doing? And what they feel like doing just might be socializing (probably loudly), playing cards, using computers to watch a soccer match or anything else that disrupts the work of those who seek peace and quiet. And of course, since the students are totally incapable of policing this themselves and cooperating to create a workable environment for both groups, guess who gets to be the referee to help make sure everyone plays nice. Are you having fun yet? This is by no means a new issue, but with the proliferation of cell phones and multimedia digital entertainment – along with a growing societal trend toward a public lack of sensitivity to and respect for others’ needs for privacy and quiet – the severity the issue has rapidly escalated.

In addition to this student penned article (the inspiration for this post’s title), the quiet versus noise battle brews daily in my own library. In my new position I’ve had to calm down a number of students who were ready to go ballistic over the noise level where they were attempting to study. What I hear is the same tone as the article. “Don’t students know that the library is a place for quiet and study. It’s the only place on campus we can find that”. You see our dilemma. We need to satisfy everyone! One’s ability to do that depends, to a large degree I think, on his or her library facility. Abundant study rooms may allow those seeking isolation to find it, or they may be the perfect place to send that talkative group watching a DVD on a public PC. Well laid out areas for socialization can be kept at a distance from those designated for quiet study. Food and beverage consumption, which often generates conversational noise, is kept in check in designated areas. The last thing we want is for librarians to be perceived as noise cops. But I don’t doubt that some of our aggrieved patrons would like nothing better than to see little old Mr. Librarian pull out a big baseball bat to deal out some corporal punishment to a bunch of chatterbox undergrads.

There are no easy answers on this particular problem, so it just may be a matter of trying different strategies and sharing them (I’ve seen at least one article on dealing with cell phone noise) within the profession. One can only hope that library users will soon recognize the importance of refraining from loud conversation while others attempt to study (or do other kinds of work) or that both camps will gain the ability to self-police these noisy situations – or at least learn how to compromise. So what’s happening at your library?

Open Access Passes in the Senate

I’ve become a little cynical about politics of late, but the recent Senate vote for an appropriations bill that includes mandatory deposit of publications resulting from NIH-funded research has cheered me up.

As I mentioned earlier, Senator James Inhofe (who famously called global warming a “hoax” and is currently celebrating the failure of the Dream Act) tried to derail it with a couple of amendments, but in the end he withdrew them and the bill passed by a whopping 75 – 19 margin. This doesn’t mean it’s veto-proof; as Peter Suber has pointed out, the House vote was less decisive and the two bills need to be reconciled – and Inhofe hasn’t given up yet. Still, it’s a positive step forward. We could have a law by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Charles Bailey did some sleuthing and uncovered the fact that Inhofe has been getting some nice support from Reed Elsevier, which in 2006 spent over $3 million on lobbying. Salon picked up the story. (Hat tip to Scott Walter!)

Idiocracy?

I have my browser home page set to del.icio.us, and yesterday top on the hot list was an article from SFGate claiming that “the next generation of kids might be the biggest pile of idiots in U.S. history.” It went on to list the many shocking things that students don’t know and claimed:

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

I tend to discount such articles and claims, believing that they underestimate intelligence or exaggerate ignorance or something must be wrong with the survey questions.

In the evening, I attended a lecture on my campus titled, “Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education, and the Emperor’s New Clothes,” by physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss made similar claims, this time about adults. Krauss revealed that 50% of Americans believed that the statement, “the earth revolves around the sun and it takes 1 year” was false.

All of this reminded me of the recent but not widely distributed Mike Judge film, Idiocracy. The movie is set 500 years in the future. The premise is that by this time stupid people have reproduced at a far greater rate than the educated elite, and the country is left with idiocracy, rule by the stupid. Language has devolved into a mix of grunts, slang, and valley girl; the most popular tv program is Ow My Balls! As one reviewer put it: “Mike Judge’s future is not the brave new world of Asimov or Clarke. It’s a moronic Jerry Springer hell where the lowest common denominator has become the status quo.”

If you aren’t going to Netflix this second to que up this classic, the kicker is that the lead character (Luke Wilson) is an army librarian from 2005 of average intelligence who is trying to do as little as possible in his job until he can retire. He gets sent to the future (with Maya Rudolph, who plays a prostitute) and even though he’s simply average in 2005 he is the most brilliant person in the country in 2505.

At one point he tells Maya’s character with a mix of faux urgency, irony, and sorrow: “I want you to go back to the past, without me, and tell them to read. Tell them to read a lot of books.”

Spoken like a true librarian. But will it be enough?

If I Could Recommend Just One Book

I believe there are two kinds of worry: the worry that you’re failing to live up to the world’s expectations and the worry that you’re failing to live up to your own. The first is the worry that you got an “F”; the second is the worry that you haven’t gotten a 100. When I wrote about worry in my last post, it may have seemed that I was talking about the first kind of worry when I was really talking about the second. I think we’re doing a great job and I couldn’t be any happier about investing my time and money in becoming an academic librarian. But I think we should make systematic changes in order to become more effective.

The philosophy behind making these sorts of changes is discussed in a book by Donald Berwick called Escape Fire. If I could recommend just one book for academic library professionals, Escape Fire would be the one. Here are his first three “properties of interaction that ought to be objects of investment and continual improvement”:

  1. Regard information transfer as a key form of service, and increase the accessibility, openness, reliability, and completeness of information for patrons.
  2. Interactions should be tailored to patrons’ needs. The call to arms here comes to me from a friend who, when he was director of a small library, placed over the entrance a sign that read: “Every patron is the only patron.” Each person in need brings to us a unique set of qualities that require unique responses… We are not finished—we have not achieved excellence—until each individual is well served according to his or her needs, not ours. Our measure of successful interaction is not just an average of how we have done in the past for “them,” but also the answer to the inquiry, “How did I just do for you?”
  3. Interactions begin with this assumption: The patron is the source of all control… The current system often behaves as if control over decisions, resources, access, and information begins in the hands of the librarians, and is only ceded to patrons when the librarians choose to do so.

And now a confession: Donald Berwick is not a librarian and his book is not about libraries. Berwick is a physician, and in the above I’ve substituted the word patron for patient, librarian for caregiver, etc. But that’s only to drive home an important point: academic libraries, like the health care system, have a tremendous amount of money and an enormously intelligent group of skilled, caring practitioners. We’re working hard and doing well, but we’re capable of doing much, much better. I hope you’ll read Escape Fire, especially the title speech, which is available for free online. And I hope you’ll recommend a book for the rest of us.

So The Library Director Walks Into the Provost’s Office And Says…

“I have great news for both of us! You care about increasing student retention and I care about getting more funding and staff for the library. Now you can make both of us happy.”

“And how do I do that?” asks the Provost.

“Well” says the library director, “I just read a new research study that confirms that institutions where the libraries have the greatest expenditures and the most staff demonstrate a significant positive effect on student retention. So you can stop wasting money on all those orientation programs and just shift it to the library.”

The Provost hesitates a moment and replies “But if I hired lots more faculty, student advisers and plowed lots of funds into a great new student center, that would all increase student retention. Pretty much anything we do to give students a better chance at academic success – as well as more socialization and interaction with faculty outside of the classroom – will likely increase retention – and I’ve got studies to support that. Can you tell me what specific things our librarians are doing regularly that contribute to student retention – and can you document it? That’s what I want to know.”

The dejected looking library director appears to be thinking about it and then says “Let me get back to you on that soon,” and quickly shuffles out the door.

Back to reality. Wouldn’t it be great if we could easily demonstrate, with some numbers and charts, how spending on libraries contributes to student retention. That’s the core message of an article titled “Return on Investment: Libraries and Student Retention” in the latest issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship (September 2007, v.33 n5, pp. 561-566). In this study the author, Elizabeth M. Mezick (an accounting professor at Long Island University), concludes that library expenditures and professional staff have a significant positive effect on student retention. In a previous post I asked how academic librarians can do more to connect our work to student retention. And in a comment to that post Chadwick Seagraves pointed me to a study that concludes virtually the same thing that Mezick does. In essence, the more you spend on ibrary resources the more strongly associated that spending is with higher student graduation rates. But as this other study reports, virtually all instructional expenditures contribute to retention. What Mezick does add is a finding that the relationship between expenditures on resources and retention is greatest at baccalaureate colleges, while the relationship between expenditures on staff and retention is greatest at doctoral-granting institutions.

So does this new study advance our knowledge and our ability to conclude that the library, it’s staff, services and resources, contribute positively to student retention. To an extent, the answer is yes. If nothing else it appears to give some ammunition to those who might need to defend the library when other administrators argue that library resources are wasted in an Internet age. I’d still like to see academic librarians develop the metrics that enable us to demonstrate or confirm that the contributions we make as educators, not just the information commodities we deliver, boost retention rates.