April 26, 2017

Making a Rough Journey a Bit Smoother | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAmong academic librarians there is strong support for the premise that their work contributes to student success. A new report confirms that too many undergraduates experience a rough road with dead ends. Can we help smooth their journey?

This past week academic librarians were aggravated by former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren who showed a complete lack of understanding—and I’m being much kinder here than other librarians were in their responses—when she tweeted that our libraries are “vanity projects” and that our institutions should stop building them because “full libraries are on our smartphones.” I totally get how this uninformed rhetoric can upset us, and it certainly deserves a response, but it’s hardly anything new. For years we’ve been hearing from pundits who haven’t set foot in a library in years spouting off about the irrelevance and coming demise of libraries. Our colleagues in the campus bookstore have heard it as well, since all learning content is now on the Internet. Why not just eliminate brick and mortar colleges and universities since you can take any course online? My inclination is to ignore it all and focus on what we do best—enabling students and faculty to achieve success.

20th Century Library

I’m particularly sensitive to Susteren’s remarks because my institution is building one of those brand new “vanity projects.” I wish she could visit our current ’60s building, designed primarily to hold book stacks rather than people, to personally experience how poorly it serves contemporary students, who crowd into the building despite its failings. Less obvious are the ways in which this old building limits librarians’ capacity to serve and contribute to students’ success. I have no doubt there are members of our community who would likely agree with that “vanity project” description—and we certainly heard from detractors as the project was on the drawing board. While there are some concerns about our more limited browsing stacks, there is strong enthusiasm and excitement for the project. What will it take to silence academic library critics and forever put to rest this ridiculous notion that smartphones and the Internet serve college students as well as an academic library?

What Would Students Choose?

The cost of maintaining the academic library is bundled into student tuition. Many of our institutions add a library or technology-related fee which helps to fund library services. Students have no choice but to support the library with their tuition dollars, but the same thing could be said about student centers, rock climbing walls, and late-night shuttle services. If students were given the choice to pay only for the services they intended to use, along the lines of an à la carte menu of options, are academic librarians confident that every student would check the box next to the library? If Susteren had her way they would opt not to. More than a few would likely comply. But I think they would soon come to regret not having access to the building, the human and content resources, and realize it was a particularly bad decision for their academic future.

More Than Content

One takeaway for academic librarians from Susteren’s tweet is our need to eliminate the fallacy that content is king when it comes to libraries. It ignores our role in relationship development in support of student success. Today’s college students are on a rough road to completion. Even though more Americans than ever are enrolling in college (approximately 90 percent of millennials attend within eight years of high school graduation) a far smaller number complete a degree, and 60 percent of those who do take six years to do so. Only 29 percent of students who enroll at community colleges finish within three years. This is according to “A Primer on the College Student Journey,” from the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, an effort to compile data on the state of undergraduate education. Almost any way you look at the data, excepting high performing high school students who are well funded, getting through college is a stressful struggle. It takes more moving around between institutions, more academic support owing to lack of preparation, and more money to persist to graduation. Today’s students at public universities pay 73 percent more in net tuition than students did 20 years ago. What the report says about the student’s college journey is that it’s rough and not likely to get easier soon.

About Those Libraries

Susteren makes at least one correct point. Full libraries of content are accessible from smartphones. What she fails to acknowledge is something librarians have known just about ever since the Internet was searchable. Just because there are full libraries of content it doesn’t mean that content has value or that the content of value is accessible to everyone with a smartphone. Farhad Manjoo gets it right in his essay “How the Internet is Loosening Our Grip on the Truth” where he observes “the Internet is distorting our collective grasp on the truth. Polls show that many of us have burrowed into our own echo chambers of information.” Despite efforts to fact check and point to objective news sources, much of what constitutes the “libraries” of Internet content is polluted by what Manjoo calls the institutionalization of lies. If the 2016 election has shown us anything, it is that falsehoods are increasingly accepted as fact. What Susteren gets wrong is overlooking the value libraries and librarians deliver to learners in helping them find the truth among the lies.

Helping Smooth the Road

The Primer Report makes it abundantly clear that for far too many college students, especially those at community colleges and public universities, having access to a smartphone will hardly guarantee academic success. What it does take is a community of motivated, committed educators and academic support to provide the environment that gives students a smoother journey to completion. It’s difficult to resist shaming Susteren for her caustic tweet, but I think our higher education colleagues need no convincing that’s she plain wrong. They know academic libraries and librarians are more crucial than ever to smoothing the student’s journey. The good in Susteren’s remark is that it reminds us that our detractors are out there, however ill-informed they may be, and that we need to be focused on doing what we do best to transform libraries and higher education for our students, faculty, and researchers. That’s what they will remember.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Johanna Bowen says:

    Sadly, I feel we are likely entering into a period of anti-intellectualism that will surprise us with its vehemence. One outlying reporter? Or, the tip of an iceberg representing many misinformed citizens now entitled and enabled to speak up.

  2. I’m surprised that this excellent column doesn’t mention sport subsidies. The Subsidy Scorecard at http://projects.huffingtonpost.com/ncaa/subsidy-scorecards indicate that “public universities poured more than $10 billion over the last five years into their athletics programs.” The subsidy at many institutions is over 75%. Only a few universities make money from sports and even this profit may depend upon accounting tricks. Students, directly or indirectly, pay for these activities that provide little to no educational benefit. I find it hard to believe that Greta Van Susteren picks on libraries when a much richer target is easy to find.

    • My goal in this column wasn’t to dive deeply into a rebuttal of Susteren. I wanted to focus on the financial pressures facing our students, their stress and how academic libraries provide support in ways that is about much more than content.

      No doubt you can certainly point to some other areas where student money is squandered. I’m also hesitant to point fingers at our colleagues in other areas of the institution (well, maybe not the football coach’s salary). Sure, lots of money goes into big sports and for many smaller institutions, what’s spent on sports teams doesn’t provide a good return.

      On the other hand, you can’t underestimate the power of college sports to attract students, especially males. If sports helps our institutions to be competitive and keep enrollment healthy (and my institution loses more than a few to Penn State University – which is a big time football program while we are not), then the whole institution benefits from it.

  3. “Why not just eliminate brick and mortar colleges and universities since you can take any course online? My inclination is to ignore it all and focus on what we do best—enabling students and faculty to achieve success”
    I disagree:
    Sincerely, Hang

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