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?)