Are students allergic to libraries?

A recent report on the BBC website reveals there has been a 22% long-term decline in visits by students to their university and college libraries. This equates to an annual fall of 3% apparently. Now as Reivers would confirm there are lies, damned lies and statistics, but does this study tell us anything?

Over the past three years teaching at my current institution, I have found it rather interesting to observe the relationship between the students and the library. My own feelings on the shortcomings of the library are well known, but what do the students make of it? Does it actually provide them with what they need? I have commented elsewhere about their inability to behave appropriately – is this why they don’t go to libraries?

Judging by responses to my course questionnaires, most of the students are happy with library provision, but are philosophical about budgets and the need to spread stretched resources ever more thinly. Others complain vociferously (usually the more disorganised ones). Occasionally, I discover people who are unaware that at the information desk, one can find helpful members of staff who will direct one to the relevant section. More bizarre are those who want everything on the same floor as they really don’t understand that books have multiple classifications.

Further reading of the report reveals that although library visits are down, the number of books discharged is up long-term. Perhaps students are going to the library less, because of the behaviour discussed in the link above. Given the option of trying to read in the library in term time or taking the books to my nice quiet study, I know which I prefer.

The librarians questioned also reveal that the changing way that information is provided might also have an effect on how people use libraries. Holdings are now not just confined to shelves. Many journals are available electronically (though the seemingly random nature of what some publishers make available and the difficulties this causes provides enough material for several other posts) as are some books. Students can therefore log onto the library website from the comfort of their own rooms and download books and articles to read at their leisure with no pressure of loan terms and so on. In that respect, declining library visits might not be something to get alarmed about.

However, while it is undoubtedly a good thing that material is more readily available, there is something to be gained from browsing the shelves, discovering a book you might not otherwise come across and thus opening up a whole new area of research of interest. Somehow, for me, the electronic library just doesn’t cut it. I appreciate the convenience of the e-journals but love the feel and texture of the actual books. I am also incredibly curious about the people who have used the book before me (and often leave their shopping lists, etc. in them as book marks) as well as how many times and when the books were borrowed.

It is important also to remember that for a medievalist at least, the library is a social place. One may work in quietude among the stacks, but the tea room, and believe me a tea room is essential for a decent library, is where you meet your colleagues, exchange the latest gossip and discuss your research, thus opening up further lines of enquiry to be chased through those lovely books waiting for you on the shelves.

So, to the students I say visit your library. You may take it for granted over the course of your degree, but you’ll miss it later.

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10 Responses to Are students allergic to libraries?

  1. [...] On Boundaries – “Over the past three years teaching at my current institution, I have found it rather interesting to observe the relationship between the students and the library. My own feelings on the shortcomings of the library are well known, but what do the students make of it? Does it actually provide them with what they need? I have commented elsewhere about their inability to behave appropriately – is this why they don’t go to libraries?” Posted in Students | Trackback | del.icio.us | Top Of Page [...]

  2. gesta says:

    Why is this post generating so much interest? I am curious!

  3. I personally love electronic resources for research, but prefer actual books for pleasure reading. Electronic resources allow you to view your source and your paper on the same screen, but only a real book allows you to cuddle up next to a fire and read.

    The social aspect of the library is what I find interesting. I have seldom met someone in a library. People are usually: not there, not my age, busy, or just not social. Where I have witnessed social behavior is in my campus court yard and in the computer lab.

  4. gesta says:

    Thank you for your comment Eidolon. I can see the benefit of e-resources, but I will always prefer a big desk and stack of books for my research (and little of the material is online anyway).

    As history is such a solitary occupation, the tea-room of a decent research library is a great opportunity to exchange ideas with your peers; it certainly kept me going (and others) through my graduate work!

  5. Deb Waugh says:

    I’m a high school librarian with an odd phobia. I get sick to my stomach when I have to visit an unfamiliar university library. It probably sounds silly, but they feel very big and dangerous to me, like I might wander up the stairs and never find my way back down. Once I’m familiar with a library I’m OK. Loved the UTK library (when it was still in the grand old building) when I was in grad school for a summer. Never did get over the heebeejeebees in the Virginia Tech library when I did my master’s there.

    Taking a sharp left turn in my thoughts, if the conflict in library use has to do primarily with noise levels then maybe the solution is to offer the equivalent of smoking/non-smoking areas. Some rooms would be clearly marked for silent to muted noise only. Others could be more conversationally active study rooms. And still others might be more recreational in nature, helping to bring some potential patrons to feel gradually more comfortable with the idea of going to the library. Public libraries seem to have an ongoing problem with the homeless and “kids off the street”. While it’s clearly not their job, maybe they need to provide an appropriate “safe space” for these folks. “If everyman sweeps in front of his own door…” I’ll wait till I’m back at my own blog to muse on what this would mean for school libraries.

  6. gesta says:

    Hello Deb – thanks for your comment.

    Unfamiliar university libraries can indeed be a nightmare to crack – each has its own strange and wonderful cataloguing system. In addition, I sometimes feel I need a compass to navigate around.

    At my current university, the library does actually have rooms for group work where people can talk and notices in the reading areas indicating that these are silent areas and the use of mobile phones etc. is prohibited. The students, however, ignore the notices and carry on regardless…

  7. Linsey says:

    At my institution they employ the strange policy of not staffing the library with people who have any qualifications library or archival work (with the except of the keepers of muniments and manuscripts). Not only do that but the staff seem to dislike books and people. So I dash in and dash out using the self-service desk where possible and retreat to my shared office. It is a shame because when I worked in a library as a dogsbody it made me so happy to tidy a section of shelves or help someone find a book.

  8. gesta says:

    Hello Linsey – nice to hear from you!

    I can understand library staff not liking people – we have a horrible habit of wanting to use their lovely books – but not liking the books is criminal.

    I have finally found a quiet place in our library where I sit and commune with Orderic Vitalis; it’s great to be able to do that again.

  9. [...] students allergic to libraries? 05/09/2007 Posted by MR in musique. trackback Are students allergic to libraries? « On boundaries  Annotated A recent report on the BBC website reveals there has been a 22% long-term [...]

  10. [...] battered homing pigeon, I stagger back whenever I can, knowing that there will be books to read and medievalists in the tea room to talk [...]

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