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.