Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

a librarian rants


No sooner do I bristle at the college rankings and decide to ignore them for another year, than along comes the Beloit College Mindset List, guaranteed to make me feel both antediluvian and out of touch with the new clientele. Ouch!, I thought, when I saw item #4 for the Class of 2013: “[Students born in 1991] have never used a card catalog to find a book.” Now that hits home. It’s not the obsolescence that disturbs me—although I’m emotionally attached to anything that measures 3-by-5 inches — but my suspicion: have college freshmen used anything to find a book?

I don’t doubt young students are all literate to some degree (we’ll discuss their writing ability another time) and that they have all read books, but I seriously question where and how they get hold of them. Are they required texts they purchase at a bookstore, or more likely via Amazon? Are they volumes they find at home or receive as gifts? Do they browse shelves in their school or public library, a big box store, used-book shop, or flea market? Do they download a novel to their Kindle? I’m completely in favor of all those tactics, but my experience as a reference librarian tells me that most freshmen and many older students cannot search an online catalog fluently and don’t know how to proceed when they do spot a book they want.

It’s probably true that most students can’t “search an online catalog fluently” — hell, I can’t search an online catalog fluently, largely because library search software is, in my experience, uniformly terrible. I’m always restricting my search more narrowly than I mean to, or opening it up too wide. (For instance, again and again I enter exact titles of book I know are in a library and get no results.) Fifteen years ago I used to telnet into library catalogues and find everything I wanted; now it’s a crapshoot.

But wait, that’s my rant. Back to the librarian . . .

Is it really true that when students find a book in an online catalogue — I still prefer than old spelling — they don't know what to do next? I know high school and college students have poor research skills, but you’re telling me that they don't know how to jot down a reference number and find the book on the shelf? That I find rather hard to believe.

(Also, I don't think too many college students are using Kindles. Am I wrong about that?)


  • I don't find it hard to believe, because I see it fairly often in my work at the MU library reference desk. I've seen folks who don't know that they need to call number to find the book, but I've seen a lot more who know it's what they need, but simply have no idea how to get started looking for it.

    But then again, the library building I work in is huge and labyrinthine. I'm not sure I myself would know how to find a book in it if I had no training or experience.

    It's particularly problematic if you're only familiar with one of the two major classification schemes -- Dewey or LoC -- and suddenly encounter the other one. And let's not even mention SuDoc numbers for government documents.

    But still, why complain about it? It's what keeps us desk librarians employed. If no one ever needed help, we'd have a whole lot less to do. It would be like a plumber complaining that no one knows how to fix their own pipes.

  • It's true that many of them don't. Or they will write down the ISBN and bring it to us. Library catalogs are getting better-- I'll let you try mine if you like.

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