What Is Our Role In Improving Student Literacy

Should academic librarians be alarmed that the 2003 (latest year for which data is available) National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the nation’s most important test of how well adult Americans can read, indicated that only 31 percent of the nation’s college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. That was a nine percent drop from the prior year.

In a New York Times article about the declining literacy of college graduates, Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believes “the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.” He went on to say “We’re seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it’s showing up in our literacy levels.”

We can certainly look at these findings and conclude that we’re not responsible for encouraging reading or enabling students to think deeply about what they read. That’s what the faculty are for. But students who are less literate are also less likely to develop good research skills, and that is our bailiwick. Perhaps the most obvious solution is to encourage students to do more reading and less surfing, or to support that initiative on our campuses. A good example of one such program is found at Widener University’s Wolfgram Memorial Library where they sponsor a brownbag book club. I’m sure there are similar library-supported reading programs at other institutions and these are good ideas, though I somehow doubt they’ll reach students in the numbers needed to reverse the decline in literacy.

I hope that the latest literacy data will reach the highest levels of academic administration within our institutions, and will be found at least troubling if not a cause for panic. We know that collaboration with our faculty and other academic support professionals is essential for the success of information literacy. Perhaps we can take what we know about that and apply it to the development of programs that connect reading, research, and writing – all skills that contribute to deeper thinking – in an effort to increase literacy.

Finally, I would ask if at some level the capitulation to the “good enough” proposition, coming from some circles within our profession, contributes to the overall declince in literacy. If we no longer demand rigor or excellence in research because we fear alienating simplicity-centric students, how can we expect students to do more than just “good enough” when it comes to reading and analytical skills. That’s part of the whole problem with the “good enough”mentality. No one really knows what that means, and left to their own devices students who decide what “good enough” is for themselves may fail to realize they could be sacrificing essential literacy skills. Perhaps the latest NAAL data should serve as a serious wake up call to get this profession thinking about the implications of a “good enough research is fine by us” mentality.

Report – Archives and Manuscripts Need Attention

An ACRL member passed on this item, a call-to-action report about the neglected state of archives, manuscripts and artifacts in the nation’s museums and libraries.

The Heritage Health Index, the first comprehensive survey ever to assess the condition and preservation needs of U.S. collections, concludes that immediate action is needed to prevent the loss of millions of irreplaceable artifacts. These findings were announced at a news conference in New York City on December 6 and are detailed in A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections.

Key findings include:
* 65% of collecting institutions have experienced damage to collections due to improper storage.
* 80% of U.S. collecting institutions do not have an emergency plan that includes collections, with staff trained to carry it out.
* 190 million objects are in need of conservation treatment.

The report calls on individuals in the private sector and at all levels of government to assume responsibility for providing support that will allow collections to survive. It also calls on institutions to develop emergency plans to protect collections, to give priority to providing safe conditions for collections, and to assign responsibility for collections care to staff members.

The Heritage Health Index is a project of Heritage Preservation, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency.
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HHI was discussed on NPR’s All Things Considered on Monday, Dec. 12, see online NPR archive.

Teaching the Nature of “Truth”

There’s an interesting viewpoint piece by Amy Bruckman in the December issue of Communications of the ACM, “Student Research and the Internet” that looks at teaching students not just how to find sources and recognize differences in format, but to have a better sense of how to evaluate them: “students won’t really learn to navigate the worldwide Internet-based information space until we teach them a bit about the nature and organization of knowledge.”

Even something published online in an extermely informal venue may have a degree of credibility, depending on the source of the idea and the people who have responded to it. The latest meme on Slashdot.org may be highly credible, but something that looks like a formal article but appears on a Web site of a fringe organization may have no credibility at all. These are subtle and complicated judgments.

She asks students to articulate their reasons for their beliefs so that even those with opposing perspectives can understand where they’re coming from. She also requires her students to use at least one book.

It’s an interesting article, but demonstrates something we all know: a lot of faculty don’t think of librarians as partners in this sort of learning. At least in this case, there’s no mention of the author’s library resources, human or in terms of collections – other than books.

By the way, I couldn’t link to this article since it’s not open access. But you can probably find it in your library.