Dear Ms. Van Susteren,
So you posted a video clip on Instagram discussing the very real problem of student loan debt. Good for you; it is a serious problem, and needs our attention and action. You then linked that debt problem to “vanity” building projects at colleges and universities. And you placed your focus on building new, expanded, or upgraded libraries. Yes, you were careful to point out that libraries were just one example among other building projects; in fact, you praised libraries as being important. But you then justified your critique of new library buildings in particular by asserting that we all now have digital libraries downloadable on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones.
I am writing you today, in a collegial way, to explain why your viewpoint is skewed and wrong-headed. I’m not the first, of course. Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, and Irene M. H. Herold, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries, have already posted a response at INSIDE HIGHER ED. Todaro and Herold make good points, but I think there are important aspects to expand on. So in this open letter I want to enlarge a couple of their points, and then add some related perspectives you really need to consider.
Todaro and Herold state: “Academic librarians play a vital part in the education ecosystem, putting information into context for students by distinguishing information from knowledge…” (emphasis mine). Now at first glance, the phrase “…distinguishing information from knowledge…”might sound like so much abstract “eduspeak.” But no, it is a vital and critical distinction. And I’m now going to give you A) a current specific example of how and why that distinction is both real and important, and B) scientific evidence of why libraries play an essential role in helping students understand that difference, and meaningfully distinguish the two.
In the recent Presidential election, I, as an academic Library Director, was like nearly everyone else: frequently downloading information on my smartphone. This included baseline polling data, statistical analytics from sources like Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, and Sam Wang at Princeton, and the usual newsfeeds with horse-race commentary and punditry from all the usual suspects. The polling numbers were data, the statistical analytics from FiveThirtyEight were information, the punditry was usually a mixture of information and opinion (I treat opinion as a subset of information about what some pundit thinks or believes). So based on this first shallow part of my example, your argument looks pretty strong. I didn’t really need a library to click my way from FiveThirtyEight to Princeton or even to the New York Times. My smartphone kept me awash in information, the great majority of which pointed in one direction: a win for Hillary Clinton.
But, as we all know now, that tidal wave of digital information pointed in a very misleading direction. There was, however, a person warning of a different outcome: Dr. Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University in Washington, who is the co-creator of a historically-based model that has correctly predicted the winner in the last eight presidential contests. Dr. Lichtman went on record in September predicting a Trump victory. How did he do that?
To put it succinctly, any historically-based model with that level of predictive power over that many elections has moved entirely beyond the realm of information. Dr. Lichtman has instead co-created a coherent body of knowledge. You cannot absorb that knowledge with a scan of your smartphone screen. It simply won’t fit. It took Dr. Lichtman two multi-hundred page books to set forth and articulate that knowledge. And any student will need to read those books to fully comprehend Dr. Lichtman’s knowledge, and integrate it into their own personal knowledge-base. Empowering students to take that deep-dive into knowledge-intensive resources, I submit, is one of the most critical functions of a higher education.
So now, Ms. Van Susteren, I’ll try to guess what you’ll likely say next: “OK, there is a difference between information streamed to smartphones and knowledge in books, but why shouldn’t students simply buy Dr. Lichtman’s texts as ebooks and download them to their smartphones and other portable devices?” The answer comes, in part, by way of a summative article in Scientific American, titled “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” also republished under the title “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.” The author states:
“…evidence from laboratory experiments…indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that …prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
He goes on to point out that, in these studies, people appear to understand what they read on paper better than what they read on screens. Researchers offer various theories: perhaps the physicality of paper enables readers to recall a passage by mentally picturing it on a page with tactile corners and edges. Perhaps the ambient light reflected by paper and ink places less demand on tired eyes and waning concentration than the active light emitted by computers, tablets, and smartphones (not to mention the constant distractions of clickable ads and sidebars.) The thickness of read and unread pages helps readers form coherent mental maps of the text by providing a firmer sense of place than a progress bar, while also allowing the student to flip the pages to reread complex content, compare sections, or scan ahead. And finally: “When reading on screens, individuals seem less inclined to engage in what psychologists call metacognitive learning regulation — setting specific goals, rereading difficult sections and checking how much one has understood along the way.” The article summarizes a number of research studies that appear to indicate that even those readers who seem to remember roughly similar amounts of content read from screens and print, still fail to score as well on tests of knowing and understanding what they have read from their smartphones as do readers of print.
So in this way, we come to the fundamental challenge confronting college and university libraries since the early 1990’s. That time period marked the boundary between the Age of Print and the Digital Age. Clearly, we need to help our students acquire the digital skillsets to find success in an information-driven and knowledge-based economy. But the recent Presidential election provides vivid evidence of something that the Scientific American article substantiates. It will simply not be enough for our colleges to crank out graduates described by one of my colleagues as “drones with smartphones.” We need our librarians to work alongside faculty in helping our students climb the ladder of digital literacy to information fluency, and from there, to equip them with the cognitive grounding in critical thinking so important for taking those deep dives into knowing and understanding. Unless further advances produce e-reading devices that can more fully engage the human brain’s perceptual and cognitive subsystems, solid research evidence compels the conclusion that we must provide our students with a substantial exposure to printed texts.
So my college library, like many, collects both ebooks, for their extraordinary search and discovery tools across vast swathes of multidisciplinary literature, and print books, tightly-coupled to those disciplines at the core of our college degree-granting programs. Because, I would argue, in those core degree programs, it is most crucial that our students graduate with both digital skillsets for information fluency along with the longitudinal understanding and retention gained through extended deep dives into the printed literature of their chosen field (s) of knowledge.
But even this is not sufficient to properly answer your critique, because libraries offer not only print and ebook literature collections, but also vitally important environments bringing students together with their peers as research collaborators in close proximity to both collections and appropriate technologies. As Todaro and Herold also comment: “…Student and researcher demands have driven the development…of engaging learning spaces where knowledge creation is the focus. That has compelled the vision of the learning laboratories, user-focused collaborative hubs and maker spaces…”
I have personally spent the last two decades of my career managing, researching, writing about, and consulting on the development of these new types of library environments, often called Learning Commons (LC’s). I can confirm what Todaro and Herold assert: student have already been voting with their feet. Libraries with Learning Commons have seen significant, and sometimes extraordinary, increases in student usage. These increases have in turn led to increases in retention: the critical measure of whether students return to the same campus after their freshman year, or leave to go somewhere else. As noted when I was interviewed last year by NET / NPR, the University of Nebraska study has shown that students using their Learning Commons exhibit a 20% higher retention rate than student non-users. (See: “The Learning Commons: A Growing Trend in Nebraska’s College Libraries” (11/27/15 )
The key point is not what whether we name this model a “Learning Commons,” or whether we simply mainstream and integrate its key features into the entire library’s design. In fact, many of the recent library building projects you critique have not emerged from vanity or vast new stretches of shelving for printed books, but have instead prioritized the need to expand on the proven successful features of the LC model and mainstream these features in multiple configurations throughout expanded and redesigned collaborative spaces, while at the same time, preserving those quiet spaces for solo reading and reflection needed for the still-vital traditions of print scholarship and bibliography. The key point is that field-tested and validated research studies have now produced evidence well beyond the raw numbers of students “voting with their feet” and percentages of freshman retention. This new evidence points to the library’s enriched and expanded role in the future of higher education. Those research studies, and the evidence they have generated, will be the focus of Part 2 of my letter.
—Donald Beagle, Director of Library Services
Tom is originally from Brooklyn N.Y but has spent his entire professional career in South Carolina, most recently as Head of Reference Services at the College of Charleston. As part of the Against the Grain and Charleston Conference team, he serves as the associate editor of the print ATG as well as the co-editor of the webpage. Tom’s conference duties include coordinating the Penthouse Suite interviews as well as the conference poster sessions.
He received his MLS from the University of Buffalo, SUNY and a second master’s in public administration from the College of Charleston and the Univ. of South Carolina. His wife Carol and he live in downtown Charleston and she is an artist and a tour guide offering historic walking tours of the city.