Fearful of falling at the first hurdle

November 2, 2001

Libraries are treasure troves of information but some students do not have the key. Barbara Hull explains.

Most lecturers need no reminding that some students today start their undergraduate careers with weaker literacy and numeracy skills than students in the past. One practical consequence can be a severe limitation on their use of "traditional" paper-based libraries and the worldwide web.

The 1999 Moser report found that one in five adults in England was functionally illiterate. While undergraduates are certainly not illiterate, a number have literacy problems, particularly spelling and punctuation. This is particularly frustrating when online information systems demand perfection. For example, an online cataloguing system may demand "Shakespeare, W" and will not retrieve anything if the user types "W Shakespear". Website addresses fail to reach the desired site when there is a misspelling or slight error in punctuation.

The Moser report found numeracy difficulties equally widespread. The Dewey Decimal classification system, for example, is used in libraries to break broad general areas of large book collections into more specific areas. This can appear impenetrable to people with a poor grasp of decimals. The end result is that students cannot physically locate items on the shelves.

Previous experience of using libraries is also a factor. This is often linked to social class, with the middle classes dominating in the take-up of public library services. Lack of this library tradition in the home can lead to students from working-class backgrounds feeling alienated in a large library. Those who have enjoyed a long acquaintance with libraries may find it difficult to conceptualise the feeling of discomfort, even threat, experienced by the uninitiated in the face of using a large library - details that are not themselves difficult or complicated assume enormous proportions.

Lecturers are usually aware of the problems students may have in essay writing, use of language, time management and so on, but many unwittingly assume that students will be capable of finding, sifting and evaluating information sources. Research conducted on behalf of the Library and Information Commission, Barriers to Libraries as Agents of Lifelong Learning , indicates the extent of the problem at one new university and two colleges of further education. More than half the university students admitted that they had difficulty locating journal articles on specific topics. This can affect the quality of students' work because they are not taking advantage of the wealth of resources available to them.

Examiners' reports frequently call for greater reference to the up-to-date information available in journal articles, rather than exclusive reliance on books. A student who does not know how to track down relevant articles is seriously disadvantaged. The overarching problem is that students of more limited experience often do not know what they do not know. For example, students recruited on the New Deal report fewer problems than others in accessing information but they use all services significantly less.

A key finding from the research was that owning a PC is a great divider. The heaviest users of all library and information services, both paper and electronic, are PC owners. They are more confident in today's high-tech library atmosphere. If students are to be offered equality of opportunity, there is a need for compensatory action. This is best realised by an even closer partnership between lecturers and professional librarians. There are already many examples of good practice. The University of Teesside Partnership links senior library staff and access tutors at partnership colleges. Access tutors bring their students to the Learning Resource Centre, where they take part in an information retrieval skills session with a professional librarian and complete a practical exercise. Some are obviously ill at ease in this first session. As the barriers come down, however, they may admit something like: "I would never have made it through that door on my own. It's so big and everyone else seems to know what they are doing."

Barbara Hull is the subject information team leader (social sciences) at library and information services, University of Teesside, and author of the report Barriers to Libraries as Agents of Lifelong Learning .

Details: www.tees.ac.uk/lis/research.cfm

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