October 26, 2010

Prepping for the A-Level

The University should facilitate student understanding of library resources.

The University requires almost every first-year to pass the swim test or, if that doesn’t pan out, to take a swim class, presumably so they won’t sink the next time they find themselves hanging out in open water. Of course, drowning doesn’t seem a terrible threat in these climes, where bodies of water are mostly either freezing cold or frozen solid, but if you want a fair idea of what drowning feels like, just try to make sense of the Library’s collections, its website, or any of the numerous databases it subscribes to, without first having some training or orientation.

While rudimentary knowledge of the doggy paddle is a non-negotiable requirement for a Bachelor’s degree at the University, you can make it through O-Week, and in many cases your entire college career, without the first clue of how our libraries work, what they include, or where to find in them the materials you need. Surely no one would argue the Australian crawl is anything less than an indispensable component of the comprehensive liberal education, but still, doesn’t the short shrift given the Library seem a little bit incongruous?

In fact, permitting students to go without at least a basic understanding of what the Library offers makes less sense now than ever before. As the body of knowledge stored in electronic databases grows, so do the benefits student researchers stand to reap if they can sift through the Library’s numerous online resources. Unfortunately, a lifetime of Googling won’t make you a savvy searcher on complicated databases like ProQuest and Web of Science, and when you don’t know how to work the Library’s increasingly high-tech resources, they can be more a hindrance than a help.

Familiarity with the old-school physical collections is worthwhile, too. There are troves of raw data and primary sources to help you finish assignments, or blockbuster DVDs and bestselling novels to help you put off assignments, whichever is more your style. But even if you realize those things are somewhere within the Library’s collection, it’s not always obvious where to find them, and it’s easy to give up before you do.

There’s no reason for students to be floundering through the Library’s offerings, or avoiding them altogether. A few keystrokes in the O-Book could change Library orientation from “optional” to “required.” If the Library doesn’t have the staff to accommodate a mandatory program, or if the University is hesitant to impose an across-the-board requirement, then more professors ought to take advantage of the Library’s in-class information sessions. Librarians can prepare training programs tailored to a specific course’s research needs, and even if some students have heard a similar presentation before, it won’t hurt to have a refresher. If nothing else, the professors will enjoy a bit more breadth and creativity in their students’ source work when reading final papers.

The libraries on this campus aren’t just big buildings; they’re also big investments and big resources, and they should be treated accordingly. The University should no more assume students will intuitively know how to use the libraries than it assumes they know how to read Marx, or write delta-epsilon proofs, or swim two laps in the pool. The University and its faculty take those things seriously, and they ensure that each student grasps them in full. The very same should be true of library research.

The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and an Editorial Board member.