The blogosphere was humming over the weekend with a startling news story, “Agents’ Visit Chills UMass Dartmouth Senior,” published in the Standard-Times, a daily that serves Dartmouth, New Bedford, and other Southcoast Massachusetts towns. Professors told a reporter that one of their students had been visited by Homeland Security agents after requesting a copy of Mao’s “Little Red Book” through interlibrary loan.
The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said. . . The professors said the student was told by the agents that the book is on a “watch list,” and that his background, which included significant time abroad, triggered them to investigate the student further. . .
Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk. “I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said. “Mao Tse-Tung is completely harmless.”
This story roused my curiosity because if true, it’s appalling. If half-true, it’s appalling. The idea that even the threat of surveillance would cause a professor to reconsider what he teaches is chilling indeed. But there were some oddities that made me want to know more. It seemed strange, for instance, that a library would ask for a student’s social security number on an interlibrary loan form; I looked at the UMass Dartmouth library’s Web site and, sure enough, it doesn’t.
Today, the University issued a statement. Though they aren’t contesting the student’s claim, and they are protecting his identity at his request, they offer some reassurance that their library, at least, didn’t participate in violating the student’s rights. The student says he made the request through another library, unnamed. The rest of the UMass Dartmouth statement goes on:
The UMass Dartmouth library has established policies for handling requests under the Patriot Act and has taken every lawful measure possible to protect the confidentiality of patron records.
The Library subscribes to the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights and was a signatory to the MCCLPHEI (Massachusetts Conference of Chief Librarians of Public Higher Educational Institutions) resolution on the USA Patriots Act submitted to the Massachusetts Civil Liberty Union in 2003.
UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack said, “It is important that our students and our faculty be unfettered in their pursuit of knowledge about other cultures and political systems if their education and research is to be meaningful. We must do everything possible to protect the principles of academic inquiry.”
I hope the rest of this story gets a thorough airing in time. Many bloggers commenting so far don’t seem aware of the fact that libraries don’t participate in surveillance willingly and short of a court order or National Security Letter would never report on a student’s reading habits.
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.
Most academic libraries are driven by a student-centered approach to operations; doing what best serves the needs of students, within reason, should be at the core of decision making in academic libraries. One area in which this is most difficult is helping students cope with the high cost of textbooks. Readers of ACRLog are familiar with the litany of reasons why academic libraries avoid collecting textbooks. If nothing else, we might bankrupt ourselves if we had to purchase even a single copy of every textbook required each semester at our institutions.
While there have been some investigations into the high cost of textbooks there are currently no immediate solutions on the horizon. In this essay a rather radical alternative to pricey textbooks is suggested, the free book. “All Systems Go: The Newly Emerging Infrastructure to Support Free Books” by Ben Crowell presents an interesting look at how faculty might, using the WikiBook model, create alternate books for their students. Crowell acknowledges that there are barriers, the least of which is the textbook publishers themselves, but he presents a look at the different options and current ventures in producing free books.
I think we’d all agree that free books will never replace commercial textbooks, just as open access journals won’t replace subscription journals. But in the same way that open access journals have served to slow the increase in the price of those subscription journals with which they compete, it may be possible that a viable option for free books could encourage textbook publishers to price their books more reasonably. If you’ve heard stories on your own campus about students who are simply priced out of the ability to buy their textbooks or groups of students who buy one book and share it, then you know the current crisis in textbook pricing is not conducive to good learning.
I participated in the ACRL/NY Metropolitan Chapter’s symposium yesterday on “Connecting With the Net Generation,” at Baruch College in Manhattan. A highlight of the day for me was an opportunity to meet Joan Lippincott, Associate Director of the Coalition of Networked Information. It also reminded me that I had wanted to encourage ACRLog readers to listen to a podcast interview with Lippincott that was recorded at this year’s EDUCAUSE conference. It’s 30 minutes well spent. If podcasts aren’t your cup of tea just yet (although this is a good time to try one) that’s no problem. You can still read what Lippincott has been writing about the netgen and how libraries can do a better job of making the right kind of changes that will help us better connect with our students. Lippincott had a good article in Library Journal‘s October 1, 2005 issue. That article contains a link to another of Lippincott’s must reads, her chapter “Net Generation Students and Libraries,” in the EDUCAUSE publication Educating the Net Generation, edited by Diana G. and James L. Oblinger.
What I really liked about Lippincott’s presentation on netgen learners yesterday is that while she presented a number of suggestions about what academic libraries could be doing to better serve or reach the Millennial generation, she made a point to tell the attendees, “I realize that many of you are not going to rush back to your libraries to make all these changes, but if you can just accomplish one or two of them it may help to make a difference.” I think it was great for her to acknowledge that many of us are in situations where we have many pressing issues to deal with, often with limited or shrinking resources, but to encourage us to attempt creating change – slowly. This is a refreshing change from other library pundits who come up with clever catch phrases that ultimately ring hollow and perhaps do no more then make front-line librarians feel badly that they aren’t changing quickly enough, that their systems stink, that their programs aren’t hi-tech enough, or any of the other things you read that fall into this category of non-help (you can read more about this in a Library Journal “Backtalk” column). We need more speakers who come from a non-library situation who will stand up and give us sensible advice.
I spoke about Googlelization and Google Migration and my presentation materials (slides, websites of interest, and handout) are available at my website if you are interested.