14 votes

The books of college libraries are turning into wallpaper

8 comments

  1. [6]
    dubteedub
    Link
    I thought this was an interesting read about how universities are seeing a large decrease over the last decade or so in students actually checking out books and using them. This bit stood out to...

    I thought this was an interesting read about how universities are seeing a large decrease over the last decade or so in students actually checking out books and using them.

    This bit stood out to me in reading:

    But there is a difference between preservation and access, and a significant difference, often unacknowledged, in the way we read books for research instead of pleasure. As the historian Michael O’Malley humorously summarized the nature of much scholarly reading and writing, “We learn to read books and articles quickly, under pressure, for the key points or for what we can use. But we write as if a learned gentleman of leisure sits in a paneled study, savoring every word.” Or as he more vividly described the research process, academics often approach books like “sous-chefs gutting a fish.”

    I know back when I was in college, while I would reference books or papers in my writing and research, I would do just this, read the introduction for a thesis, maybe track down a couple key phrases or a read a few pages for the section I really needed, and then put it back.

    Furthermore, if I could find an e-book copy of a source on google or elsewhere, I would CTRL+F the shit out of it just looking for the exact quote that I needed and would ignore much of the rest of the book. I imagine this method of "research" has only gotten more popular as more books are being put online in digital libraries and like myself, students today are going with the easiest option possible.

    6 votes
    1. [5]
      Loire
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      My thesis had over 200 citations, some of them other thesis work. Nobody has time to soak in 10-100 page works and gain complete understanding of the methodology section, while also performing...

      My thesis had over 200 citations, some of them other thesis work. Nobody has time to soak in 10-100 page works and gain complete understanding of the methodology section, while also performing their own lab work (mine were ten hour days), while also writing, holding meetings, fighting Word's image placement formatting, possible field work, and maintaining some vague social life.

      The soaking comes later (or before) for topics we happen to be interested in. Unfortunately most of us are not interested in "Magnetic Susceptibility of Paramagnetic Illite from the Nile Delta System" until it becomes relevant to the paper we are writing.

      To what you are saying, I'm not sure how much the CTRL-F effect is used today, but its rare that one needs to read more than the abstract, introduction, conclusion, and sometimes the discussion sections to get what they need out of another person's paper. Perhaps the digital document searching is iust to locate the paragraph in a paper that is most relevant to you without having to sift through a verbose description of why "The Mount Sopris KT-10 handheld magnetic susceptibility meter is the proper tool to be used for measuring the values underpinning his/her work".

      5 votes
      1. [4]
        45930
        Link Parent
        I think the bigger point, at least for me, is that no actual survey of literature is being done by college kids. You can just look for stuff with a title that seems to support what you’re saying...

        I think the bigger point, at least for me, is that no actual survey of literature is being done by college kids. You can just look for stuff with a title that seems to support what you’re saying and throw it in as a citation.

        I don’t know what the point is of citing 200 works for your thesis. If you “don’t have time” to read and understand another person’s work, then you shouldn’t use their work as a basis for your own.

        Now I understand that in the timeframe and level of baseline knowledge a college student has, it’s silly to expect any real research to be done, and I wouldn’t hold anyone to that kind of standard. But imo, maybe in addition to going through the motions of writing a paper with all these sources, another assignment could be to simply read and get very deep into something that interests you. Start with one paper and maybe a paper that it references and then the assignment could be a short summary of what you learned and how the more recent work built on the older work. Just as an example of an assignment that rewards reading comprehension rather than the copy paste game.

        1 vote
        1. [3]
          Loire
          Link Parent
          Every one of those 200 citations was sourced because it supported something in my thesis, each and every one was cited in text following the relevant sentence. For example, when you write a paper...

          Every one of those 200 citations was sourced because it supported something in my thesis, each and every one was cited in text following the relevant sentence.

          For example, when you write a paper as a geologist you have to devote a section to something along the lines of "Geological History". This is where you go into detail about all the geological, tectonic, environmental, etc effects that occurred in your study area over a period of 100's of millions to billions of years. Unless your thesis expressly involved traversing that (likely remote) area you have no idea what occurred there and have no data to make your own assertions usually. Now when you read other literature about the area none of it is all encompassing. One author asserts this, another asserts that, some work is 100 years old and only sparsely covers the topic but it was written by a giant in the field. Thats an easy 50 citations when you are dropping 2-3 every few sentences.

          I don't need to understand those papers. That's not what I'm writing about. Often it only tangentially has anything to do with what I am studying in particular. Regardless its still expected in most geological thesis' to give a background of the geological history of the area. So I don't need to read the methodology, I dont need to go through their dataset. I don't have time. What I do need is to know what they figured out so I can correlate it across a number of authors as confirmation and present it.

          My thesis also used a specific formula theorized my Marie Curie. Now as far as I know Marie Curie has never done any geological research in her life. The formula was also fairly easy to understand for my purposes. I didn't need to know her works inside and out for my purposes. I didn't even need to prove it strictly speaking. I still had to cite her whenever it was mentioned in the methodology.

          There are perfectly legitimate reasons to not fully read a research paper you are pulling from.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            45930
            Link Parent
            Im not trying to take away from your work personally, or put down anyone for their own hard work. I’m taking a critical view on the process though. If you cite 50 papers to build a geological...

            Im not trying to take away from your work personally, or put down anyone for their own hard work.

            I’m taking a critical view on the process though. If you cite 50 papers to build a geological history, but you say yourself that many if not all of those 50 are unrelated to your own study then whats the point?

            I think one valid reason is to make students go through the process of citing things and discovering relevant papers.

            But there are other skills that aren’t getting trained by this exercise, namely critical reading and reading comprehension. Any given student can take it upon themself to read and understand some of the research they are citing, and even be critical of certain methods, but that’s not required to succeed at the research paper. The most important things, at least in my experience, is adherence to form (e.g. geological history) and proper methodology for your own experimentation.

            So the only point I’m trying to make, building on top of the comment about searching digital documents for good one-liners, is that potentially there are other skills that we should be developing in our students/future researchers in addition to those that are currently being developed.

            1. Loire
              Link Parent
              Don't worry about that, I understand where you are coming from. Part of it is tradition, and you are right tradition can be silly and pointless. But there is a point, in that it offers context. Im...

              Im not trying to take away from your work personally, or put down anyone for their own hard work.

              Don't worry about that, I understand where you are coming from.

              I'm taking a critical view on the process though. If you cite 50 papers to build a geological history, but you say yourself that many if not all of those 50 are unrelated to your own study then whats the point?

              Part of it is tradition, and you are right tradition can be silly and pointless. But there is a point, in that it offers context. Im more of a petrophysicist than a geologist, I enjoy measuring rock properties. All I was doing was developing a method to accurately quantify the amount of a certain type of clay in a rock sample using an once fairly unrelated mathematical formula from Curie. For me it was math, graphs, lab work. But to a geologist reading my work, the geological history gives them context. Where does this type of clay occur? What causes is? Why might this be important? Where else. Could we possibly consider using this? It paints a larger picture beyond the numbers. It lets them make other connections.

              So the only point I’m trying to make, building on top of the comment about searching digital documents for good one-liners, is that potentially there are other skills that we should be developing in our students/future researchers in addition to those that are currently being developed

              That is an undeniable truth. I just don't think fretting over drive-by research is the constructive. We should be developing students minds so that while finding those one-liners when they snag on something that interests them, they go back and read through the rest of the literature. You're right that post secondary is no longer doing a good enough job engaging students minds.

              1 vote
  2. [2]
    j3n
    Link
    I'm not entirely sure that number of books checked out is a good metric for a university library. I wrote a great many papers for my undergraduate degree that had me spending many, many hours in...

    I'm not entirely sure that number of books checked out is a good metric for a university library. I wrote a great many papers for my undergraduate degree that had me spending many, many hours in the library doing research, hunting down books, skimming through them, reading the relevant bits in depth, all without checking anything out. I consider that part of my university experience to be near, if not at, the very top of the useful experiences during my time there.

    4 votes
    1. dubteedub
      Link Parent
      They do address that in the article as well:

      They do address that in the article as well:

      Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017—before we decided to do our own book relocation—and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.

      3 votes