on being shunned by libraries

On the MEA mailing list, there was a discussion about this article: Students shun search for information offline. Generally, the article takes the stance that students are lazy and assume everything online is true. I’m not going to deny those claims, but i want to offer an alternative story.

I was first kicked out of a library in the 2nd grade (for reading inappropriate material for my age… “Flowers in the Attic” was not an appropriate “chapter book”). By middle school, i despised the library, having been kicked out many more times for talking, chewing gum, more inappropriate reading and what-have-you. There were rigid hours, limitations on what you could read and access. The library to me was a controlled space with authoritarian dictators. I was shunned by the library and i shunned it in return.

I’m in graduate school in a former librarian school. My advisor was a head librarian. I’m still afraid of the library. I visited the Brown library twice – to give out donuts naked. I never visited an MIT library and i have never been inside a Berkeley one either. I’m still afraid of the library. I visit the NYC Public Library to sit on its beautiful steps. I believe in the value of libraries, support efforts to rejuvenate them and make them public space. I’m still afraid of the library.

Combined with my book fetish, my fear of libraries has resulted in both a severe half.com addiction and a very acute ability to navigate material online to determine its validity. I order articles when i need them and ping professors for digital copies of their papers. Doing research online away from the controlling eye of a librarian makes me feel far safer, far more willing to explore new areas. Being always online, i’ve learned to figure out what makes something valuable and how to trace it to a source (and i lurve lurve lurve things like Google Scholar and Amazon Book Search).

I have no doubt that students are not equipped to do research. Then again, i think that our schools are pretty fubared, but that’s a tangent. I am not convinced that it is as simple as getting folks to get offline though. For starters, this invalidates the security of information exploration that these folks know. Instead, how can students be taught to value lots of different perspectives that come in lots of different mediums and how can they be given the skills to understand the different mediums? How can the value of offline sources be coupled with online tools? In this way, i’m definitely of the ilk that believes in cultural studies, media students and a deep understanding of the relationship between information.

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18 thoughts on “on being shunned by libraries

  1. FdM

    On a tangent, your post reminded me of my own [irrational?] dislike of many public spaces that sometimes have very rarely trafficked areas, such as museums and libraries. I’ve often found value in perusing the stacks but find doing so online, e.g., melvyl [uc-wide] or amazon, less satisfying…perhaps because books are somewhat of an “experience” good. Particularly in the area of art/architecture/design/graphics & I’m sure other fields, as well. As I wrote my diss., I saw the social construction of information repositories, as I did my searches for books/articles across institutional systems. I found it interesting how localized disciplinary knowledge affected what was held where. Looking back, without online links to multiple catalogs/databases, my searches would be rather parochial. (In fact, it was on Amazon that I learned that the oversize first edition of learning from las vegas was quite different from the paperback assigned in wurster). The winnowing process involves (in my mind) a difficult set of skills to master and I think those concerned about students gaining quick and easy access to potentially “bad” or “faulty” information should probably think about ways to develop critical information assessment skills on and offline. The foucauldian (super)panopticon in the mode of information (as Mark Poster puts it) says something useful about how the institutional structure and function of libraries affect its users. The surveilling gaze of the librarian to the gatekeeper control over holdings are examples of intended and unintended influence over informational access, how knowledge is created/synthesized from raw information, and the academic scholarship enterprise itself.

  2. Dan

    It’s probably a mistake to think of a library by itself, without the surrounding infrastructure. Big university libraries tend to be uninviting warehouses full of books, lots of which will be hidden away in the stacks. Whenever I’ve gone in looking at a subject area I don’t already know, without a decent bibliography or a pile of footnotes to follow, I’ve ended up wasting hours searching out books which then turn out to have nothing to do with what I want, barring a misleading title.

    So one answer might be just to make sure students have better bibliographies. By that I mean not so much adding in good books (although that would be useful, as so many academics are decades out of date), but leaving out the books which are a waste of time for students. I know that most of the bibliographies I’ve been given have been next to useless, full of books which are devoted to some unimportant technicality, or are bad but written by somebody’s friend, or are on the ‘right’ side in an academic dogfight you barely understand, or are not in English, or have relevant information scattered across 600 barely-indexed pages.

    Then there’s the usual suggestion of making libraries less intimidating. It’s good in theory, but most of those schemes end up being fairly superficial. And, from my own selfish perspective, the bizarre incomprehensibility of libraries is the most enjoyable bit.

    The university library here in Cambridge is a wonderfully baroque institution that you either love or studiously avoid. Not only do we have classmarks nobody understands, old men who’ve seemingly been sitting in the reading rooms for decades, bannisters hovering in mid-air, and miles of books that nobody has ever read. We even have secret passages and unmarked doors, and an incredible melange of books catalogued on card indexes, books catalogued on computer, books catalogued on scraps of paper pasted into big blue tomes, and books not catalogued at all. The place is so fantastically mystifying that there’s an annual game of hide and seek there.

    The result of that is that a small clique of students (myself included) fall in love with the place, get to know its quirks, and squeeze a lot of useful information out of it. But the majority turn up once, spend three hours failing to find the book they want, are too nervous to order something from the stacks, don’t realise there’s a reading room devoted to what they’re after, get lost on the way to the toilets, or have some equally predictable off-putting experience.

    hmmm…that makes the library sound less great than when I began writing. Perhaps it is time to aim for ‘boring but useable’

  3. Laura

    My problem with libraries was always having to return the books. I love books. So, I too have a huge and odd book collection. I’m hoping to do a seminar on the difference between searching library databases and searching via Google or other online searches. I’m not hoping for determining anything definitive, but my hunch is that a bunch of us who have shied away from libraries have developed strategies for searching that may or may not lead us back to a library, but which always results in interesting and fruitful reads.

  4. srl

    Whereas I had almost the opposite experience: completely unsupervisory librarians in a suburb of Atlanta letting me take out all the adult-reading-level books and queer-related books I wanted to, and minimal parental invasion of my reading privacy. Libraries have always felt safe and fascinating to me.

    I’m not really a theist in a traditional sense, but libraries to me feel like temples to Athena or some other personification of wisdom, with the accumulated knowledge of the elders all around me. Then again, this is why I’m a grad student.

  5. Irina

    heheh I used to spend so much time in the library I could get a residency there. The one at my current university seriously lacks though, both as a space for work and interaction and as a space to find a book (there aren’t too many, it’s not a very good one). I LOVE the Berkeley library though, the subterranean stacks on wheels… the spaces, the volume of it. You MUST visit it, if only to check out the architecture :). Alternatively, have you seen this yet? http://www.letitblog.com/epic/

    Oh yeah, and in my experience, students, even ones that are quite young (7-10 yrs old) are very aware of the unreliability of online content. They usually will gladly tell you their tactics for information verification. However undeveloped they are, they are usually pretty interesting and the most important thing is – they are there at the outset.

  6. Rayne

    Wow. So sorry, Danah, to hear that your early experiences in the library were so miserable for you. I wish this was different; it’s the earliest experiences that make the difference. I know I’ve always loved the library, loved being able to hide out their and read anything and everything unfettered.

    My kids love the library, too, but then I made sure we saw it as an event that must be respected, that we already knew it was a public venue where everyone must be able to share space and resources. The youngest gets twitchy when confined too long; we go in with clear expectations that he’ll look for something particular and that we’ll leave in a set time frame that doesn’t stretch his attention span. He’s also given time to explore and find something unexpected to take with him, too. After more than four years of this he still begs to go to the library, so we must be doing alright.

    Personally, I would rip the head off any librarian who tried to restrict my child’s reading. It’s my job as a parent to know what they’re reading and guide them — not the job a librarian’s. It’s exactly this kind of heavy-handedness that has a negative impact on children being open to offline media or to reading at large. This obviously did a number on you.

    What concerns me about online media versus text offline is the ability for those pushing media to manipulate context and content. It also concerns me that saturation of online exposure can act as a deterrent; if a kid spends all his time on the computer for games, doing homework, communication, what makes them see research online as something to be desired? It’s the specialness of going to the library — the event aspect — that encourages my kids’ appreciation. Online research does not have that specialness attached to it.

  7. David HM Spector

    What the heck does “inappropriate reading” mean?!?!? Yikes. I remember once, when I was about 7, being told by the librarian in my home town told me I wasn’t allowed to take books out of the adult part fo teh library. I went and told my parents and they went and had a few words with the chief librarian and the mayor of the town. problem solved, librarian “re-educated” on not discouraging kinds from reading. ever. under. any. curcumstances.

    God help anyone who pulls that crap with my kid…


  8. matt

    Ouch. ‘Round here, even if you don’t use the library, you realize it’s importance. They almost closed them due to budget problems, and there was a HUGE uproar (although there was more problems than just that). I really think it depends on the library. ’round here, we’re big on community libraries. small little spaces in neighborhoods.

    And being a high school senior, i am sooooo sick of being told about how i need to evaluate my source. We know this, duh! and what makes it true just b/c it’s printed, as opposed to being online? I do research online because it’s much much quicker- i can hone in on the exact piece of information i need, instead of searching forever for it inside the covers of a book (as i’m doing right now for my soc paper).

    BTW- they don’t call them libraries inside public high schools anymore, now they’re “Library/Media Centers” because the copmuters are so important. i find this utterly, utterly, inane.

  9. quinn

    My *favorite* bit of online research is the unreliability. I have this argument regularly with librarians; even once with some of the librarians of congress. You put a book in a library and it becomes even more authoritative than simply a printed book, but of course it’s not actually signifigantly more likely to be right than a web page. My fond hope is that online research encourages kids to think critically about the information, try to figure out if it makes sense, fits in its context. If they take that skill back to the library, that would be fantastic and unpresidented.

    When asked to describe the net, or more presisely the google end of the web, to a remote tribal people in zambia i explained that it was like you had a man sitting in the middle of your village, and you could ask him anything at all in the world. He would give you six answers to your question, and one or maybe two of them would be right. They saw a value in that, and i see one too. Even that wrong information, the stuff you’ll discard due to contradiction or source problems, gives a bigger picture than just getting what you hope is the authoritative answer everytime.

  10. Meg

    Danah…came across your blog after receiving endless links to Ani lyrics from a friend who came upon your site. I clicked around, and ended up here. I’m really glad I did…you have some brilliant perspective. And Rayne, whose blog I always read, and whose election debate chats I was in on, comments here, too! Insane how small the ‘net really is. Anyhow…I will read through your words here and glean what wisdom I can. Thanks for thinking.

  11. tonya

    I was kicked out of a library in kindergarten for reading chapter books that were determined to be “beyond my reading level.” I was afraid of libraries for many years and when forced to check out items from the school library, I rarely read the books I got. I now am a fan of the public library, for my reading pleasure at least. I do a lot of research online but not out of laziness. I feel that I am fairly skilled at determining whether or not a source is credible. Anyway, I stumbled across this blog after reading ani’s lyrics and wanted to share my parallel thoughts.

  12. BV

    So sorry to hear that you had such bad experiences with libraries when you were young. For me, libraries were a refuge and a wonderful resource since my parents, although they were happy that I was reading, did not have the the pocketbook for my book obsession. I don’t think I was ever censored for what I read by a librarian in school or out, and I wouldn’t want my librarian to censor what I read.

    The article that you point to certainly raises horror stories about students and young people who do not evaluate their sources. However, I do think it would be useful for students to be fully versed in both research online and offline. The least that a student can take away with them from high school or undergrad would be to know how to conduct research in the library and on the comptuer. I also echo Rayne’s concerns about how information online could be filtered without our knowing it. This probably also happens in publishing houses in terms of what books get printed and distributed, but there is more of a sense of direct access to the information, which search engines could certainly play with without our ever knowing it. Of course, maybe I’m turning too paranoid here, but I don’t tend to trust corporations.

    Also, aren’t libraries heading towards more online media anyway? Book storage is expensive compared to what could be stored electronically, and I think I read an article about a librarian wondering about the future of libraries in Chronicles of Higher Education….

  13. Jay Fienberg

    Part of my librarian job used to be going to the Berkeley (and other) libraries to grab info on books that the library I worked for might want to acquire (fyi, Berkeley has, perhaps, the best collection in the US of books from India).

    I always found wandering the stacks at Berkeley to be at least as solitary and serendipitous as I now experience sitting in front of my computer and doing web searches, if not more so. I don’t remember ever running into a librarian anywhere in the stacks–and I usually would have entire isles of books to myself.

    At one time, I had about 100 books checked out from UCB, for about 18 months–once they allowed you to renew online (via telnet!), such a feat was quite convenient. (Though before, carrying boxes across campus to the library, just to have them renewed, was an awful experience.)

    Anyway, I mention this just to contrast your own experience.

    In terms of validity, the best thing about a library is when, within a couple shelve, one can see lots of points of view on the same subject. And, honestly, one can only do that in the very best libraries that specialize in particular subjects.

    I would say, only in those special cases, are libraries better than online. And, I’ve hardly met anyone who has traveled around the world just to visit these special libraries.

  14. NotoriousRRZ

    Being allergic to dust, I really do not enjoy libraries, and I also loving being able to write in margins and keep books for as long as I want. However, I can attest to Berkeley’s collection on Indian books (very useful for papers on Rushdie and Roy) and do enjoy the phenomenon of finding a useful book in a search on a library catalogue, then finding a bunch of useful ones right next to it.

  15. Rayne

    Came back after a perfect example of context/content manipulation in research. A friend sent me links to quotes by Plato and Burke. One of the sites would have delivered Gator had not my anti-spyware caught it; the other site looked legit, but the format of the content left me wondering if I was reading everything that was intended for me. Hope my kids will be as skeptical about this kind of content — and that they’d appreciate books for not spamming their research bandwidth. Wonder, too, what Google will do to the concept of library, in spite of their stated intent not to be evil; I don’t think we’ve really thought it all out, what exactly it is that libraries should be besides text in some format. It shouldn’t be something we dread. It should be something we can trust, yes?

  16. Caveat Lector

    On library love—and hate

    My pal Kevin pointed me to this post from danah boyd in which she explains why she doesn’t patronize the library buildings in her vicinity.
    I use the word “buildings” advisedly, of course, because as any academic must, danah uses library services…

  17. todd x

    i am not that far removed from school that the pain and anxiety of finding the books and other hard copy text materials checked out, lost, or worse defaced still haunts me. Finding such non plusses on visits to various libraries to be the standard instead of the exception breeds apathy. Getting students to understand the importance of good research is a daunting task in the face of such a problem. Still it is not out of the realm of possibility.

    One way is to connect with students on a subject they like. Sure the class they might be taking may only be for fullfilling some college requirement, but a good educator will find a way to divine the interconnectedness of all things to inspire a student to learn.

    This will likely take something that is not very popular, time and extra work.

    The most difficult class i have ever taken was Quantitative Research Methodologies. A required class that forced me to assign a number to the most absract subjects. It also forced me to reaccess my views on these abstract subjects. In the end the class made me a better researcher even though i fought it up until the research started to show results that i would not have arrived at were it not for the attempted quantification of the seemingly unquantifiable.

    Learning how to use research materials be they found in the stacks or out in cyberspace needs one element, the ability to discern the rough from the smooch. Students need to be first taught how to identify crap research — building blocks.

    and just a comment on the difference between research online and inthe library. writing a paper in a pinch students are better able to find the quotes that fit into their papers, (and in some cases plagerize), than they are in a book. The world does seem to move faster with the emergence of technologies that put information at your finger tips. Thus the subtle nuances of a book should also be brought to a students attention. One great way to accomplish this is write a script for a documentary based on one short book.

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