Musings on First-Year Students in the Library

September and October are First Year Seminar season at Van Wylen. During these months the reference and instruction librarians hold sessions for all forty plus FYS sections, essentially bringing every new Hope student into the library. We design these sessions to provide students an introduction to the library’s resources and services, and to introduce them to certain key skills and concepts that inform college-level research.

Though these sessions are designed to educate the students, they give librarian-teachers a chance to learn as well. At the beginning of my FYS library sessions last semester, I gave each student a piece of paper with the words “Library = ___” and “Research = ___” and said, “Write down the first thing that comes to your mind.” While I primarily intended to use this as an ice breaker and a means of challenging stereotypes, it had the added benefit of being a data collecting tool. By the end of the semester, I had 120 of these responses. Wordle, a tag-cloud producing website, created a visual representation of these First Years’ impressions to the library (the more frequent the word, the larger the font). The resulting tag clouds are linked to the images below.

What can we learn from these “pictures” of this generations’ take on what libraries are about? To the “Library=” question, it is clear that, despite technological and other developments, students’ primary association with the library is Books. This emphasizes the need to highlight the broad range of resources in today’s library. Though books continue to be a significant physical presence in the library, a large portion of library resources are electronic and can be accessed almost anywhere.

What this poll does not tell us is the significance of this association of Library=Books to the students themselves. In an era when 18-24 year olds read books for leisure at a lower rate than older adults (NEA, 2009, 7), does Library=Books then mean Library=Antiquated or Library=Irrelevant to their worldview? Or perhaps it is a more neutral Library=Traditional; “Checking out books? Can’t I just read it online?”

The “Research=” responses were more diverse. First, aside from the predictable “Research=Papers,” the next two most frequent answers were Computers and Internet. This confirms the tendency of students of this generation to rely heavily on digital research tools, whether they are subscription databases or Google. The second-most- notable category came in various wordings—“stress,” “boring,” “headache,” “hard work”—which, overall, imply negative associations with research and libraries. Here is where all of us, librarians and classroom faculty alike, are challenged to introduce and draw students into the research process in original, compelling ways. What are the best strategies for improving students’ attitudes toward research? Are there tactics that both teaching faculty and librarians currently use that are contributing to the research anxiety rather than alleviating it?

One answer the reference and instruction team at Van Wylen seeks to provide through the FYS sessions as well as upper level library instruction is to give library research a human face as much as a skill set. While we ultimately hope to provide students a foundation in navigating the world of information, if they remember nothing else from their first hour in the library during FYS, we hope that they come away with the sense that librarians and classroom faculty work as a team and that a librarian is always eager to help them over their research hurdles, alleviate some of the research anxiety, and find the breathing space and fun in playing with ideas. Perhaps then the “time” spent in research (another top response) will become a valued and enjoyed part of their education instead of just “time consuming.”

— Jessica Hronchek, Reference Librarian

Wordle: Library Equals

Wordle: Research Equals

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