About Us

Monday, 2 April 2012

Librarians' lament

by Margaret Bass

Why are Academics so resistant to integrating the library into their academic programmes? This is a question I ask everyday as I meet hordes of students who are given assignments and tasks and who do not have the faintest clue how to start with the information retrieval process.

I do not understand how lecturers cannot see that a few basic sessions explaining what journals and books are and how to find them can have a direct impact on the quality of the assignments returned to them.  This would also go a long way in alleviating the reliance on Google and Wikipedia that students are so invested in.

There is a continuous stream of students at my door who do not understand the most basic concepts of a library, let alone finding material in it. I wonder sometimes if academic staff have any notion of the reality of working with students with these limitations. Some examples of the most common questions I am asked are:
  •  I have the number – where do I find the book?
  •  The computer says that the book is ‘on loan’ but I can’t find it on the shelf.
  •  I can’t find the green book on Industrial Relations.
  •  Where can I find the textbook on Criminology?
  •  I have my book – now what?
  •  I am a 3rd year student, I have been told use journals and I don’t know what these are and how to find them - and I’ve never been in the library…..
Do you know that many students are unable to find a book even if they have the shelf number?  The logic of the numerical sequence defeats them totally.

I am supposed to be a ‘research librarian’, trained to help users find resource materials in the bewildering world of information available in the 21st century and help them hone their research methods and strategies - yet most of my time is spent doing stuff that students should already be familiar with.  The fact that they aren’t library/information literate, we librarians are very congnisant of and have taken remedial action to rectify, by offering all kinds of interventions at different levels to attract users. However, I question whether we have the support of the academic staff  who seem  not  to understand the link between academic success and information literacy.

Please don’t get me started on post graduates! Many are totally unaware of the subscription journal databases and are quite happy to be dependent on Google for their sources. I can only think that the quality of these dissertations must be seriously compromised…

After they have spent time with librarians who show  them what is available to them in the world of information and give them the skills to use bibliographic reference managers (which by the way they love and adore as it saves them fortunes of time…) – their most common lament is “why weren’t we shown this as undergraduates?”

From my side, it feels that I am banging on about the importance of information literacy and no-one is listening. I often feel like a gate crasher when attending any discipline related activities - the perennial outsider. This is so de-motivating!  We should be working together with academic staff as a team and should not always be the afterthoughts in the academic endeavour!


  1. A worthy and notable lament! As a support staff memeber and an ex-student, I understand your and the student's side. However, having worked with academics, I realise that their minds are in a different world. I would like to then ask the question....WHAT IS THE LIBRARY DOING ABOUT THIS SITAUTION! If we see a problem and know the solution, why not make ourselves part of the solution or the instruments of the solution. Why not "barge" into one or half of every module and teach students this. Make it compulaory for students to undertake a "library literacy" course and their attendance MUST contribute to their DP or course credits, etc. I am sure that with the right thinking, the right partners and a concerted, combined effort this "small" but very "important" problem can be overcome. We need to stop lamenting and start being proactive. Research other institutions in SA and how they handle this problem. If they also just lament, then let's be the first to be different. I found that if you come with possible solutions to a problem and make a loud enough noise with the right people (like the DVCs, Registrar, T&L and Research office), then we can be taken seriously. Your last statement about being an "afterthought" is significant. Sometimes, we need to be the ones taking the "bull by the horns" and forcing a good culture of learning and education before things begin to change.

    1. I agree with you Anonymous - the library is not making noise in the right places at the university. This reminds me of something Prof Makgoba said in his induction address for new staff this year. He said in the academic world there are times when one needs to roar (like a lion) and shut up and see the effects of one's roar. This issue needs library leadership and staff to ROAR, I mean a big, fierce ROAR!!

  2. You have raised a worrying issue for most librarians. I cannot understand how academics do not see the importance of the library in the teaching and learning context. The University's goal is to increase graduate throughput and research output. How is this going to happen if the library is not seen as a critical partner in the intellectual life of the institution? How is this going to happen if our postgraduate students cannot formulate a search strategy for online materials, do not know how to store and manage their references, do not know how to reference properly?

    There seems to be a general lack of understanding that the primary function of the library is to support the scholarly values and objectives of the university by meeting the information needs of the university's students and academics. When the university has to tighten its belt on the budget the library's budget becomes the first to be chopped. This situation has to change!


  3. Well said Margaret!! If lecturers invested just a small amount of time in library / information training for their undergraduates, it would have a huge impact.

  4. I cannot agree more. Yes, students need to take the initiative but in a research-led university can we really afford not to equip our students with basic library skills???

  5. I think what is needed is for the library to have awareness campaigns about the resources it offers for students. It must continue as it is currently doing to offer this training and in this manner it will become more relevant by realising new challenges and providing solutions to them. I personally do not see this as a problem for academic staff, their buy-in is not even necessary. For me this is a matter of personal responsibility. In most cases students do not want to take responsibility by firstly visiting the library, secondly they are not interested in knowing how to search for books, they want someone to do it for them. They are noisy in the library, they want a guard to police them in order to keep quite. Also, even if they have relevant books, they opt for quick solutions on the internet not because they cannot use the library but because of lack of commitment on their side. While the challenges you are raising are real I don't believe that your suggested approach is critical, advisable yes but not critical. I cannot think of any lecturer that has never referred me to the library and advised me to speak to a librarian. I therefore believe that this is an initiative that the library must do without self-pitying. Libraries must support learning and teaching. My issue with the article is that it has absolved students from all responsibilities. It has shown too much pitty to students; they (students) are victims of some stone-headed academic. I agree in principle with the basic idea of disseminating information contained in the article, but the notion of a stone-headed academic causing apocalyptical disaster is to me just a simplistic lamentation. Maybe I am old-school or narrow-minded, who knows.

  6. Libraries need to become user spaces and not just book spaces. A lovely book on this is Musings, Meanderings, and Monsters, Too: Essays on Academic Librarianship edited by Martin Raish and available in EGM.