November 21, 2017

Reading: Outmoded or a la Mode? | Peer to Peer Review

By Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN

A colleague and I decided to find out

Barbara_Fister(Original Import)I was delighted when College & Research Libraries started offering preprints of accepted articles. It always makes me feel in the loop and at the cutting edge to see papers in the raw, months before they appear in print. I’m even more excited about it when an article I helped write gets introduced to the world quickly.

Okay, sue me for showing off, but I’m really excited about this project.

You know how kids today don’t like to read? Can’t focus for more than five seconds? Are so intent on multitasking, visual stimulation, and interactivity that they turn their noses up at books? You’ve heard all this before, right? (Usually at a library conference from a middle-aged male librarian in a suit pontificating about how to transform our libraries for the millennial generation.) Because when people think of libraries, they think of books, which are an outmoded technology. If we don’t do something about it, we are so screwed.

Does this suggest students would prefer a clean, well-lighted place like this perhaps? I swear, a morgue would be more inviting. And, by the way, does anyone ever remember that Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is about old age, loneliness, existential despair, and suicide?

Speaking for students or speaking to them?
The strange thing was, in casual conversations with college students, I could never confirm any of the stereotypes about their habits and preferences that I hear so frequently at library conferences. Though schools boast of innovativelybooklesslibraries, students like to study surrounded by those old-fashioned objects and when it comes to textbooks, they repeatedly say they prefer print—not always, not all of them, but in published reports it’s typically a substantial majority. (Textbook publishers, not surprisingly, would prefer a future that has no used books for sale; they will make a lot more money if everything goes digital.)

Most of all, I couldn’t get students to tell me that, in fact, they dislike books. That reading is a drag. That they would much rather fiddle with Facebook than read a novel. I’m familiar with all the terrible news about the decline of reading, particularly among youth. I just never seemed to run into any students who would say “oh, for sure. Books are so, like, over. Man, I hate those outmoded suckers.” I had to take the word of national studies and library pundits—who would probably be stumped if asked the title of the last novel they read.

Going to the source
So my youthful and avid-reader colleague Julie Gilbert and I did something radical: we decided to ask students what they think. A student researcher helped us design a survey. The student made arrangements to administer it anonymously in dozens of classes spread across the curriculum from first through senior year, collecting responses from a sample that is representative of our student body, and then we crunched the numbers. We found out—

Are you sitting down?

A whopping 93 percent of our students reported that enjoy reading for pleasure. All kinds of reading: books, magazines, newspapers. Reading on the Internet (though that scored lower than reading in print). Women like to read a bit more than men, and there’s some variation among majors—over 99 percent of humanities majors say they like to read, while only 90 percent of social sciences and pre-professional majors confess to enjoyment of reading—but still, that’s a majority solid enough it could be called a landslide.

You might be thinking, “but you work at the Little College on the Prairie, where all the children are above average.” Much as we would like to think so, we have solid data that suggests that on this measure, at least, they aren’t. In a study that involved students at a wide variety of institutions, including community colleges and comprehensive universities, our incoming students were no more likely that the average student at all types of institutions to engage in unassigned reading. Moreover, as we uncovered previous studies, they tended to find the same thing. Students like to read for pleasure.

So why don’t they read?
Interestingly, when we surveyed hundreds of a librarians and a much smaller sample of writing instructors we found that 40 percent or more of these groups assumed students don’t read much because they simply don’t enjoy it. Not according to students.

The problem is that students have piles of assigned reading to complete and very active social lives and more often than not a job as well as athletic and music commitments, not to mention that often significant relationships are developing—that’s what you do when you are starting adulthood—and they say, with good reason, they simply don’t have time. I suspect most of their professors would make the same claim.

In fact, I vividly recall a retired English professor chortling because for the first time in decades he finally had time to read. So, before you say “ah, they’re just making excuses,” check your own priorities.

Also, ask students what reading means to them. They tell me it means warm memories of being read to in childhood by a parent, a teacher, or a librarian. It means books reflect and shape their identities. What they have chosen to read and retain are expressions of who they are and where they have been. As one student wrote, “my bookshelf is not just a bookshelf. It’s a time warp.”

Okay, but what does this have to with academic libraries?
We’re trying some new things as a result of this study. We’re gathering reading suggestions from faculty that we put on bookmarks for students to take with them on breaks, we now let them check out as many books as they want out for the entire summer, we’re creating more displays and having monthly book drawings. And, in the spring, we’re offering a new course, a half-semester partial credit pass/fail “reading workshop” with this fresh-off-the-press catalog description:

In this course students will read and discuss two or more books, including a contemporary work of fiction or non-fiction announced in advance and a book chosen by the student. Students will publish reviews of the books they read to a book-related social network, will reflect on their own reading histories and practices, and will explore the place of books and literacy in contemporary culture.

Will anyone sign up? We don’t know yet. Spring registration doesn’t start until next month. But, if the college can offer fitness courses involving rock-climbing and canoeing, why not this kind of fitness? Like most schools, the phrase “life-long learning” is in our mission statement. Having some ideas about what one enjoys reading and what reading might provide besides a grade seems an important and portable skill.

What does this mean for academic libraries in general? It probably doesn’t mean redirecting scarce funds toward more popular titles, since students have so little time to read just for fun. But at least we can stop assuming they don’t want to read and can instead think of ways to encourage a taste for reading that will last after college.


Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in May by Minotaur Books.

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